Monday, May 18, 2015

How I got into the licensing market/ - what is licensing?


Hi everybody, some of you may know me but for those who don’t I am a nerd and illustrator from Austria and I design a lot of shirts while also drawing comics and traveling back in time to fight Lovecraftian monsters from time to time.I have decided to start a series of tutorials/articles about my experience in the illustration business, in particular the shirt stuff I make. 

The topics I’ll cover will be:

1.      How I got into the licensing market/ what is licensing?
2.      Shirt pages out there
3.      What I’ve learned designing shirts
4.      Copyright
5.      Other ways to make money: Society 6, print pages, etc.
6.      How to stay inspired

And more!


In 2009, when I was 26 years old (I think), I moved from Austria to New York City to start studying Illustration at FIT (Fashion Institute ofTechnology) after I received a Fulbright scholarship which provides financial aid for people who want to do their post-graduate/PhD in the USA.  Ever since I visited New York City three years before during an internship at Bill Plympton’s animation studio, I made it my goal to return this amazing city. 

Below, me in a chicken costume with animator Bill Plympton at the premier of his movie "Hair High" in 2006. I was sweating like a pig in that costume!

When my classes started in 2009 I quickly realized that the scholarship money wouldn’t last forever; By coincidence I stumbled upon a design community/shirt shop called Threadless.
Threadless was my “gateway drug” into the licensing market. Back then it worked like this: The artist submitted a design to the community and in the following week the community voted and commented on the design; some of the community members would even go so far as to give feedback. After a week of scoring, the artist could see his/her final score and if it was really good, the chances of getting printed were higher – however, the final decision was made by the art directors not from the score alone. If the artist was chosen for print, he/she would be paid 2000 USD plus 500 USD store credit (the payment system has changed various times since then). 


During this time I also had a class at FIT called “Licensing” – a completely new word to me. Back then, I didn’t know yet that this subfield of illustration would become a new branch of income for me. Little did I know that years later, this branch became a tree – my main source of income! The teacher of the class, Cheryl Phelps, was great and gave us a fantastic definition of what “licensing” is: To be part of the licensing market meant to design for products – greeting cards, notebook covers, pattern designs for gift paper, shirt designs and more; if a designer got a good deal it might also mean monthly royalties for the rest of his/her life. Over the following years I would find out that my art style and the way I worked would be a perfect fit for this type of market. 


Anyway, back to Threadless. I looked at their printed designs and told myself: I can do that! I can make 2K, I’ll just draw a funny monster or whatever, no problem, they’re gonna dig what I do, right? So I made my very first design, “Godzilla Loves Mayhem– and it scored ok. Actually, it was a pretty good score for a first timer, but of course, it wasn’t enough to get printed. So I tried again. And again. 

I started to ask for feedback, I started to analyze the shirts that GOT printed, I tried to improve my concepts, my art – I started to research printing techniques and realized that I had to work differently in Photoshop so that the shirts would be print-ready in case they got selected.
It took almost a year and about 50 tries to get selected for print (by now, I have submitted more than 127 designs). During this year, I went through an amazing variety of emotions – disbelief that they didn’t select me, amazing bursts of creativity as well as artist’s blocks, lots of insecurity (they’ll never choose me, they hate me), but the most important feeling was determination. I just (sometimes half-jokingly) told myself: “One day, I’ll pay my bills with shirts.” I didn’t know it back then, but I was right. 

About one year after I designed my first shirt, two designs were picked up by Teefury and Shirt.Woot (more about them in another blog post). It was amazing, because up to a certain point I didn’t even realize that there were a couple of other shirt pages out there. I realized that it was important to spread my designs around and to stop focusing on just one company. At the same point, it was important to keep up the client work too – the shirt stuff was just an attempt to make a bit extra on top of my regular illustration work. 

Below left: "I eat pirates for breakfast", my first ever screen-printed shirt. Right: "The Hills are alive", my second ever screen printed shirt at woot.

Finally, one beautiful day, I finally received the big e-mail by Threadless: “Congratulations – your design got selected!” The e-mail went on to say: “Go ahead: Run around screaming in excitement! You deserve it!” This was exactly what I did. I felt such a rush of pride, accomplishment and joy! This is the design that was chosen, "A Day in the Life".

Onwards from Threadless
Starting from this point, stuff started to happen on a regular basis. Just a few weeks later, Threadless chose two more designs and other pages started to print my designs, too. It took months and months – maybe even years until I stopped believing it was all just a big coincidence and I actually was good at what I was doing. 
To summarize the most important points from this article:
-        Be ready to try out new things (like I did with licensing)
-        Listen to feedback and try to learn – if your new branch isn’t working right away, keep trying, you might be doing something wrong/haven’t found your audience yet
-        Be determined as shit. If you give up after the first failed attempt, you may as well crawl into a corner and curl up forever ;)
-         Never completely rely on one branch – always try to have a few different branches so financial problems don’t steal your sleep (as mentioned in my article, I kept on doing client based work next to the shirt stuff)
-        Finally: Be a great artist to work with (don’t be a dick;))

NEXT TIME: I'll tell you a bit more about the shirt pages that are out there.


Klee said...

Schöner und interessanter Artikel! Ich wusste gar nicht, dass das A day in the life shirt dein erstes, gedrucktes Shirt war. Es hing auch bei mir jahrelang im Schrank und wurde gerne und oft getragen :)

queenmob said...

Danke Klee, A Day in the Life war das dritte shirt (nach denen auf Teefury und woot) aber immerhin das ERSTE auf Threadless.... cool dass du es hast :D