Ten years ago two students posted a thread on a forum asking for people to submit t-shirt designs, the best of which would be printed and sold. This was the beginning of Threadless, and a decade of online community based t-shirt design.
Today, Threadless is an international business that has a following of over a million members who design, critique, vote for and buy their products. The Threadless business model – now known as crowd-sourcing – is taught in business schools and the community has often acted as a springboard, launching the careers of several designers.
Threadless: ten years of t-shirts from the world’s most inspiring online design community celebrates the past decade of the company’s life. It relives the steps taken from the early days when the two founders invested $500 each to get their hobby off the ground, through to the Threadless of today, which has recently penned deals with the likes of Dell Inc., Havaianas and Disney – for whom they will be sourcing designs to be applied to laptop cases, flip-flops and t-shirts to promote the release of the film Tron.
The Threadless business model is based on being able to engage and involve the design community. This approach is reflected in the cover design of the book, which brings together the story of Threadless in a “colossal collaboration” of weird and wonderful characters submitted by previous Threadless t-shirt designers.
The book has been designed by A-Side Studio and takes the reader through a chronological journey of the company’s history, showcasing 300 t-shirt designs. Founder Jake Nickell’s account of Threadless’ growth sits alongside interviews with contributors successful in getting their designs onto fabric. There are image montages showing some of the most successful t-shirts being worn, and short insights into the story behind each design. This is interspersed with mini essays, both on Threadless and other topics, from guest authors including Seth Godin and John Maeda.
Working through the 224 pages, it is interesting to see the successful styles and trends evolve as the book progresses. Early Threadless designs use largely one or two colour vector graphics applied to a standard area on the chest of the shirt. Later we see more complex designs that lean towards a hand crafted aesthetic. To a degree, this reflects the past decade of design in general, but it also shows how Threadless has refined its printing and production techniques over the years. As Threadless has grown, so the company’s core market has changed; once strictly a designers’ playground, it now appeals to a wider creative audience.
All in all this is an enjoyable book. It might not be one of the design classics that you return to time and time again, but it is much more than just a catalogue of t-shirt design (although if you’re interested in trends of t-shirt design over the last decade it provides a useful reference). It’s a story of the conceptual development of a creative business, an insight into designers’ personalities, and a demonstration of the success of interactive techniques to involve customers in decision making, creating a community of users and designers. It contains a good mix of image and text and is accessible and visually appealing. The tone at times is rather self congratulating, but perhaps this can be excused given the success of Threadless over the last ten years. As the sleeve text says, Threadless “is a t-shirt store, but that isn’t really the point”. This celebration of a “global t-shirt phenomenon” will appeal to anyone interested in what happens when you combine popular design, a community approach and a constantly evolving repertoire of products.
You can buy the book here for only £8.00.
UPDATE: Like always, because Malcolm has done such a good job of shooting this lovely book we’ve put up the hi-quality original shots of the Threadless book online on our FFF Flickr Pool.