So You Want My Job: T-Shirt Designer

by Brett & Kate McKay on April 7, 2010 · 29 comments

in So You Want My Job

Once again we return to our So You Want My Job series, in which we interview men who are employed in desirable jobs and ask them about the reality of their work and for advice on how men can live their dream.

I’m really happy to present today’s interview, because it’s with a great friend of the Art of Manliness: Mike Anderson of Tankfarm Clothing. Awhile back, Mike reached out as a fan of the site and offered to design some Art of Manliness t-shirts for us. The result was a collection of tees that were cooler than anything we could have come up with ourselves or hoped for. Tankfarm has been a great supporter of AoM and is staffed by uber-nice guys who have an amazing blue collar work ethic. Today Mike gives us a look behind a business I know interests a lot of guys-designing and printing t-shirts. Thanks for the interview and all your help, Mike!

1. Tell us a little about yourself (Where are you from? How old are you? Describe your job and how long you’ve been at it, ect).

My name is Mike Anderson, I am 32 years old, and I am from Cypress, California. I’ve been a graphic designer and t-shirt designer for 12 years, and I have a BFA in Graphic Design from Cal State Fullerton.

Since 2003, I’ve been the co-founder and art director of Tankfarm Clothing alongside my brother John. We specialize in men’s graphic t-shirts as well as button down shirts, knit shirts, and jackets. I spend the majority of my job creating unique men’s t-shirt graphics. Tankfarm can be found at department stores such as Nordstrom and Macy’s as well as Urban Outfitters and many specialty stores.

2. Why did you want to become a t-shirt designer? When did you know it was what you wanted to do?

I’ve grown up my whole life around my family’s printing and screen printing businesses. I’ve also been drawing ever since I can remember. I knew I wanted to be a t-shirt designer and work with my family since my second year of college. My grandfather started Cypress Printing back in 1970 and my Dad went to work for him after the army about that same time. The “print shop,” as my family calls it, had many customers asking about custom silkscreened t-shirts, and so my Dad started Cypress Silkscreen in 1980. Throughout high school my two brothers and I worked for my dad in all the areas of printing t-shirts (set-ups, screen making, mixing inks, printing, boxing and shipping). After high school I started working for the print shop as their in-house type setter (old school term for graphic designer). I designed t-shirts, business cards, flyers, wedding invites, and more for local Orange County businesses.

In 2001 I was playing drums in a local rock band with my brothers and we started Tankfarm Records to represent us and a few of our favorite local bands. I designed a few different Tankfarm Record t-shirts and they sold better than the cd’s! In 2003 we had our first all store buy from Urban Outfitters, and we knew this was now our full-time gig.

3. What does it take to be a good designer? Do you recommend going to school to learn art and graphic design?

I would say the key to being a good designer is having a bit of natural artistic talent and a lot of practice. The two main software programs one needs to master are Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator. I’ve seen designers try getting away with only using Photoshop and that is a big mistake – Illustrator is much faster and is vector based (non pixel images). Every design company will require these two programs, and it’s also a plus to know Adobe Indesign for page layout (t-shirt catalogs and order forms).

School is important but the designer’s portfolio is the ultimate seller. To really nail down a good portfolio I would recommend offering free design services to everyone you know for the practice (and it feels good to give back). Portfolios aren’t that impressive if they’re only filled with school projects. Local restaurants, sports teams, and start-up business are great things to go after.

4. What does a man need to set up his own printing and designing business? What are the start-up costs involved?

Starting a screen printing business is not cheap. It would cost between 25 – 50k to get all the computers and machinery necessary to start. It’s much more cost effective to find a local reliable screen printer that will print your designs for you. That way you have low overhead and you can design in your house or local coffee shop.

5. A lot of guys are interested in designing t-shirts. They feel like they’ve got some good ideas, maybe they’re even printing a few up in their basement. But how do you go from making a few tees for your friends to getting your tees out there to a wider audience?

The best way to get your t-shirt designs to a larger audience is to start small and work your way up. Online stores and local boutiques are usually willing to take a risk with a start-up brand. Eventually the larger store buyers will take notice and will either want samples shipped to them or appointments made to see them at the large clothing tradeshows (project Vegas, magic show, ASR).

6. The t-shirt business is really competitive. How do you differentiate yourself from others and move away from the pack?

The best way to differentiate from the pack would be to stick to your own style and don’t jump on trends. We have a motto, “If we wouldn’t wear it, we won’t make it.” We mix current modern themes with timeless nostalgic Americana. Icons like McQueen and Dylan will never go out of style.

7. What is the best part of your job?

The best part of my job is when a t-shirt sells out. That way you know everything worked – I designed a good t-shirt, the retail buyer bought a good t-shirt, and the customer loved it. And the cycle continues…

8. What is the worst part of your job?

The worst part of my job is finding out a shirt didn’t sell well. We’ll always try to please our customers and swap out new tees for the ones that aren’t working.

Mike and his brother John

9. What’s the work/family/life balance like?

I’m very fortunate to work alongside my two brothers and father. My grandpa stops by about once a week (a photo of him in 1950 is on our t-shirt hangtag) and my Uncle Larry is the main paper printer. I only live 3 miles away so it’s very important I’m with my wonderful wife and two young boys for breakfast and dinner. I can always work from home when needed and prefer not to be at the office late at night.

10. What is the biggest misconception people have about your job?

The biggest misconception would be that anything fashion related is just fluff and games. In actuality it is a lot of hard work, determination and hustle.

11. Any other advice, tips, or anecdotes you’d like to share?

I really feel that I’m living the American dream and would encourage all AoM readers to take a risk in life. If you don’t, someone else will.

Many thanks to Brett McKay for giving me the opportunity to share.

{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Liam April 8, 2010 at 6:33 am

Great interview, thanks!

2 Antonio April 8, 2010 at 9:36 am

My favorite quote -

“I encourage all AoM readers to take a risk in life”

Completely agree – and when you fail, pick yourself back-up and try again. We regret the things we never try to do, not the things we strive for and fall short on.

3 jjc April 8, 2010 at 11:13 am

not entirely related, but honest question: AOM folk, is it ever appropriate to wear a t-shirt in outside the privacy of your home when you are neither exercising nor working in the yard?

4 Paul April 8, 2010 at 11:38 am

Great interview. I own a Tankfarm AoM tee and can testify to how cool they are! I get compliments on it all the time.

There always seems to be some anti-t-shirt people around here, but I really think they’re fine-it’s all about dressing appropriately for the occasion. T-shirt at a wedding or fancy restaurant? No. T-shirt working out, at a BBQ, running errands, hanging with your buddies? Fine. You don’t have to wear a three piece suit everywhere to be a man.

5 Brian S April 8, 2010 at 1:18 pm

Am I the only one who wants to know how to get his T-shirt? That thing is awesome! On his website, he has a white-T version, but what he is wearing looks much better.

6 Mike Anderson April 8, 2010 at 2:06 pm

At Brian…We’ll have the Black “TF Flag” tee available online next week. Thanks!

7 Thornproof April 8, 2010 at 4:21 pm

Seriously! A t-shirt designer … really, an article about someone who does nothing more than design wearable billboards? Maybe if you had focused on the skills and experience that it takes to be a successful screenprinter, or you had focused on a real fashion skill, such as a milliner, tailor, or cobbler.

Make a statement with your clothes, not on them.

8 Angel April 8, 2010 at 6:29 pm

@Thornproof

I don’t follow. Are you saying that design is less than assembly?

It takes all kinds of jobs to make the world go round, mate. They’re all important somehow.

9 Brian S April 9, 2010 at 9:02 am

@Thornproof

I don’t fully follow either, but there are a ton of people out there who would love to design T-shirts for a living, I among them.

10 Thornproof April 9, 2010 at 11:25 am

@ Angel & Brian S -

Sorry if I was not clear enough, maybe if I provide a couple of examples of what I meant, then you will understand.

First, about the “wearable billboard” comment. I have a family member who is a designer for a large billboard company. He is quite successful at his job and has also been quite successful at designing t-shirts recently. From talking to him, the common denominator is that, in many ways, the two are equivalent – essentially, he designs for a blank sheet of paper that will be transferred to a roadside board or to someone’s chest. Yes, there are some differences in the details but the approach is the same: he wants the design to be noticed from a distance and to keep people’s attention as they approach. For example, look at the AoM t-shirts advertised by this article – big statements with words & images that incorporate smaller printed quotes.

Second, about the “real fashion skills” … actually that was a poor way to say that I wanted the focus to be on a person that had physical skills beyond the designer’s table. In clothing, many of these skills are about realizing how an article will look on the individual. Whereas, the t-shirts are purchased “ready-to-print” and are similar, if not identical, to the same ones that you can buy at Wal-Mart/Target/your local mall. Here are a couple of links to individuals doing what I am talking about:

~ Weaver & Designer of Tartans (watch the video)
~ Hat Designer
~ Savile Row Tailors: here and here
~ The Personal Tailor

Cheers!

11 Joe Roy April 9, 2010 at 11:52 am

I’ve been a long time reader, but never bothered to look at the shirts… I just did, and although I might have to go without food to do this, will soon order at least one of them.

12 Jason April 9, 2010 at 12:43 pm

Thornproof “explanations” amount to little more than the pretentious twaddle of a snooty hipster.

Yes, we understand there is a difference between the design of something and the actual making of something, but you have not explained why one line of work is superior to another. Does the construction worker do superior work to the architect? Design is an infinitely valuable and worthy skill. Our world would be ugly without it. Just because cobblers and Savile row tailors have mystical craftsman street cred doesn’t mean their work is somehow superior to the designer. You look down on “billboard designers” as low-class work, but why? Why is designing a billboard unworthy work? Why must something be physical in nature or have a long history to win your respect?

Furthermore, you seemingly missed the fact that this guy has learned every aspect of this business including screenprinting.

13 Luka April 9, 2010 at 9:12 pm

@Thornproof

Ah, I understand where you are coming from sir but I must disagree. As always, correct me if I am wrong. While I can see why one would say that there is more prestige in making ones own shirts and pants and what have you, I would argue that designing the patterns that appear on them is just as honorable.

Let us look at the painter for example, they are a person who, in the scheme of things, is comparable to the t-shirt designer. They buy their canvas pre-woven, they buy their wood pre-cut, and they buy their paints pre-manufactured. Yet, their prestige is not reduced because of this fact.

Both the shirt designer and the shirt printer are equally skilled. One with needle and thread and the other with pencil and pen. After all, fashion is merely art that is worn upon the body, its purpose to be beautiful and noticed. The tailor creates a masterpiece with the shape of the article as it drapes over the body, the t-shirt designer with the scene created.

As to a shirt being a billboard, or a philosophical statement, yes sometimes they are. Yet, if the shirt is beautiful, what does it mater? Kind sir, I look forward to your thoughts.

Blessings,
Luka

14 k3tto April 10, 2010 at 5:40 am

Actually Luka, painters used to make their own paints, and would wouldn’t get a pre-made canvas, they’d have to find a hand made one. Because believe it or not everything was once hand made.

And T-shirt design, only on the design aspect, is pretty simple. Create an ironic image, send it to Threadless Tees, get $2000.

15 Richard | RichardShelmerdine.com April 10, 2010 at 2:34 pm

What a great and unique job. It’s amazing how many little niches their are around the world like “T-shirt designer”. So many possibilities.

16 Bruce April 12, 2010 at 7:31 am

Excellent interview, from beginning to end. Thanks!

17 Don Wilson April 12, 2010 at 5:25 pm

This might sound a little geeky, but the Teddy Roosevelt/Bull Moose references don’t fly.

At least not with conservative men who understand what he was all about. Might be a personal hero of yours, but he’s just another primogenitor of the progressive movement that’s been the primary social/politcal force behind throwing masculinity down the shitter in this country over the past century.

18 Reglan Side Effects Lawsuit April 14, 2010 at 2:56 pm

Interesting look into another profession. This series is becoming more and more of a staple on the site and has been interesting each time.

19 Reglan Side Effects Law April 14, 2010 at 2:58 pm

The “So You Want My Job” series is a very interesting one that let’s us readers look into the lives of jobs that we think might be fun to have and explore the lives of the people that have the occupation. Thanks for the great addition to already fantastic series.

20 Jason April 16, 2010 at 2:34 pm

Thanks Mike! Always nice to see the hard work that goes into a small business like that. And very reassuring to know the underlying message is to take risks to do what you love. I can never hear that enough.

21 Chris Partida May 3, 2010 at 12:39 pm

Great job on the shirts, glad to see that someone local to my area is doing great work for AoM. I too do graphic design, and have always wanted to get my stuff printed on shirts, for my friends to wear. It’s great to see your stuff out and about. Hope to run into you someday, we are just about neighbors afterall.

-CP

22 Dubl D May 11, 2010 at 12:03 pm

Say what you want about T-shirts, this guy is living his dream while so many others march in the bland and soulless rank and file of corporate America. Its interesting to see the contrast between those who recognize this and applaud it and those who can only talk down on it despite offering no comparable accomplishment of their own. What real man would choose his own self righteous and jealous opinions over being the owner and president of a successful and fulfilling enterprise? It’s funny how well some of the posts here drive home the message of the site, often in direct proportion to how vehemently they agrue against it.

Keep ‘em coming haters! And keep up the good work Tankfarm…

23 Jim May 27, 2010 at 1:24 pm

great post!

24 pritish parijat June 22, 2010 at 2:40 am

I am a t-shirt designer,and i need job in t-shirt desigining industry.

25 raiha September 21, 2012 at 11:48 am

SOooo helpful !! thank you…:D

26 Jonathan April 14, 2013 at 5:44 pm

Great INSPIRATIONAL story any t-shirt designer can relate with! Im hooked on ARTOFMANILESS now!

27 Faizal November 23, 2013 at 12:29 pm

Actually, I am a dancer! I use to design costumes for my team. I’m quite comfortable with Adobe Photoshop but I haven’t heard about Illustrator. Now I got an idea of getting into a business after mastering Illustrator. Its really a great advice. I would like to thank Mr. Mike Anderson. Thank you sir!

28 Christian Mena January 7, 2014 at 11:27 am

I can honestly say that this post not only helped me get a better direction of what I need to do, but it has also inspired me. You are definitely living the American Dream Mr. Anderson and I am pushing to follow in your footsteps. AoM, thank you.

29 Scott April 8, 2014 at 12:17 pm

25-50K for a screen printing business. Ha…depends how big you are going… My friend owns a tshirt business and has done from home screen printing while hiring graphic designers. Produces about 500 shirts a week working 4 hours a day at ~$5 per shirt…sells them for 15. He’s not going to become wealthy but he’s netting 48k a year..but over head wise it cost him around 1k to start his business. As they said…TAKE RISKS.

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