In our industry, quality work still matters – for now.
In our previous issue, we told the story of artist Dave Gardner, who pioneered simulated process printing 35 years ago. The innovative, photorealistic look he achieved with his unconventional techniques didn’t explode until the early ‘90s, after he had partnered with Jon Weiss at New Buffalo Shirt Factory and the pair cracked the licensed sports market.
The story mentioned that Gardner and Weiss had an unusual financial arrangement but didn’t give the specifics. They should surprise you: Gardner was paid $3000 for each set of art and separations he produced, as well as a 50-cent royalty per piece for jobs exceeding 6000 units. Remember, this was a quarter century ago when the dollar was worth a little less than half of today’s value and the going rate for the production work was about $1 per piece. The royalty amounted to almost a third of the sale for orders that took off. And in the company’s heyday, a lot of orders did.
It was a business built on design as a core strategic strength, during the pre-Internet age when desktop publishing was still wearing training pants. The landscape changed rapidly. Gardner remembers spending $180,000 on his first flatbed scanner and $22,000 on his first Mac as he transitioned away from the darkroom. “Every artist I hired was right out of college and I would spend two years developing them before I expected to earn a return,” he remembers. “Five years later, my studio was competing with a freelance designer sitting in his basement, working on a Mac that was 10 times more powerful than mine and cost a tenth as much.”
But digital prepress was just the beginning. Fast forward another 20 years to the emergence of the online apparel platforms that are now disrupting this industry’s entire channel of distribution. Customers with little to no design skill are encouraged to create their own artwork using generic templates that prioritize production friendliness, not innovation. The users aren’t sufficiently discouraged from taking artwork that rightfully belongs to others, a situation that Shop Talk columnist Andy MacDougall has admirably chronicled over the past year.
So we shouldn’t be surprised that what appears to lie on the horizon is the era of the “McShirt,” a time of little differentiation in the decorated apparel we wear. As Gardner says, “The market decided it wanted it cheaper, not better. Good became good enough.”
As depressing as these developments may be, it’s important to note that there are still great designers and craftsmen whose businesses leverage their unique skills. One of them shares a wealth of knowledge about his superlative special-effect printing techniques in this issue. But it will take a fundamental rethink across the entire value chain – from the brand owners and merchandisers down to the decorators and especially the consumers – for design to regain the intrinsic value that made companies like New Buffalo Shirt Factory possible.
Weiss recalls that when they entered into their partnership, Gardner asked for a $10,000 signing bonus. Though New Buffalo was only a $200,000 company then, Weiss agreed without hesitation. “I went down to my local credit union and borrowed the money. I saw the value.” Do you? Perhaps the “killer app” for your business won’t be a piece of software, but someone sitting in your art department right now.
Did you enjoy this article? Click here to subscribe to the magazine.