T-Shirt Manifesto

Threadless tells the story of how an idealistic vision became a design revoluion

Threadless is not just a t-shirt company that produces inspired graphic work, and it’s not just an internet upstart that championed “crowdsourcing” and social networking. In the words of co-founder Jake Nickell, Threadless “is a living breathing community of people that can’t be told what to do.” In Threadless: Ten Years of T-Shirts from the World’s Most Inspiring Online Design Community, Nickell chronicles the scrappy start-up’s rise over the past 10 years and makes a pretty good case that the company is something of a (t-shirt) revolution.

Nickell is joined by a cast of new media experts, designers, and fans who collectively recount the company’s deal: users are encouraged to upload designs and visitors vote on which t-shirt will go into production. Guest essayist Seth Godin writes that Threadless is, “a company that hires the unhireable, codes the uncodable [and] markets the unmarketable,” and Jeff Howe notes, “The genius of Threadless is that they put the community on a pedestal and then stepped into the background.” The mini-essays illustrate a company that democratizes art, and are the highlight of the book’s written content.

Text is dwarfed by the technicolour t-shirt designs and I found myself recognizing a lot of the prints as I pored over the pages, like this graphic of a badass Scooby-doo fanfic drawing of Velma with a shotgun and a bloodthirsty Scooby. Threadless’s designs have become pervasive over the past decade, and my sentiments on ubiquity were shared by those interviewed. Barnaby Bocock from New Zealand, speaking of his design “Nuts” said, “I think the ultimate compliment is seeing how much it has been ripped off. It was especially surreal when I found fakes being sold in Bangkok.”

Nickell’s strength as a businessman is sharing the spotlight. And although he’s writing about the company he started, the charismatic and critical engagement of other thinkers and artists are what put his success into a broader context and make it shine. As Nickell says: “Threadless is a community of people first, a t-shirt store second.” He gets away with wide-eyed utopian statements because the book is just as much an inspiring testament to sticking to your principles as proving that innovation can be more than empty business jargon. Threadless isn’t so much a coffee-table book as it is a colourful manifesto.

further reading // Threadless: Ten Years of T-Shirts from the World’s Most Inspiring Online Design Community by Jake Nickell and Jeffrey Kalmikoff // Henry N. Abrams // 2010

book report // Cayley James
images // Brianne Burnell