Startup Lessons Learned From Designing And Selling T-Shirts In Uganda

A few weeks ago — after 5 years of grinding — I created my 200th t-shirt design.

Men lie. Women lie. But surely numbers don’t lie.

If I was to ever earn a dollar for every minute I’ve spent designing t-shirts, I would be a millionaire. On many occasions, and even on several commutes along the streets, I pass by hordes of people donning Avarc t-shirts. They don’t have the slightest of ideas that the works of my hands and imagination birthed their garments. Humbling cannot describe the feeling enough. It’s eerily deep.

I’m no Sheppard Fairey or Johnny cupcakes, (two of the biggest t-shirt designers) I’m just a simple hardworking guy who has been practicing art for long as I can remember. Here are some of the key takeaways from my journey so far.

Avarc Designs 200 t-shirts

Learn A Lot Before You Begin To Work

This is the one lesson I find uncomfortable sharing. In fact when I share this with some friends, they look at me like some greedy guy who wants to keep all the money to himself. Nonetheless I’ve come to learn it’s the most important lesson one can ever follow.

Before you start taking on design work for a fee, take time to learn the software packages involved (in this case Adobe illustrator and Photoshop are enough), look at other peoples designs for inspiration, study books on design. There’s a lot of information on the internet about t-shirt designing. Check it out. Whereas this lesson looks like the easiest, it’s the hardest for anyone to do.

first 3 t-shirts avarc designs
The first three t-shirts I designed

Most of us enroll into design as a solution to our financial problems. Don’t get me wrong, there’s absolutely no problem with making some bucks. Only issue is when you chase after the money and not mastery of the art. So just after a week of learning, we launch off into handling people’s projects. Once you start taking on commercial work, you’ll never get time to learn. You’ll always be under the pressure to deliver and work will all be about hitting deadlines. And that’s when mediocrity starts. You’ll find someone dropping gradients and drop shadows on every design even where it’s not required just because they learnt about Photoshop filters. Worse still is when you have to rip other people’s work because you can’t handle the work pressure.­

For instance, a design I can do in one hour maybe 10 times what a beginner can do in a week. Simply not because I’m that talented but rather because I’ve done lots of work that I know and understand all the ways I can get a design solution in a flash. That’s a skill you get with experience. (Disclaimer: I’m not boasting here. I also have times too when I hustle to get a design for even a month. I just wanted to explain the point more clearly)
I know you’ll say you can learn on job. No doubt about that, though you’ll learn much less than if you had first secluded yourself to improve your skills. You need that freedom to do awful work and not be scared that someone’s business is going to trip.

Because believe me, people will always judge you based on the work you put out there. It’s really unfair since you’re just a rookie putting your first step in the sea. Unfortunately the world never gives a damn. They’ll expect excellence and nothing else.

Personally, the bulk of the work I’ve done all revolves around a foundation of practice and study for 2 years without any commercial work. Mostly pro bono. You need to put yourself out there and do as much work as possible. And this is made easier when you don’t have to work under pressure to deliver.

And this goes for any skill. Train yourself in that skill before you go commercial. Learn before you work.

Study Typography Religiously

Whereas you maybe a kickass illustrator, over 90% of T-shirt jobs you ever get will require you to include words in the design. (Maybe in other countries it’s different)

typography
A diversity of typography

You therefore need to study to clearly understand the different font styles, alignment, kerning, spacing, ligature and use of specific typefaces to represent different messages. This is a never ending activity. Everyday different blogs are published on such information. Keep up with the trends. I would highly recommend you learn hand lettering because you’ll find computer fonts sometimes limiting.

Get Inspiration From The Oddest Of Places

The biggest lie a designer can tell themselves is that they want to produce original work. There’s nothing new under the sun. It’s all a mash up and a remix of ideas from several different sources. This isn’t the kind of work you do on some remote island. Design is a community. You need to get inspiration from as many sources as possible and use those ideas to create your master piece. That’s as long as you don’t rip off someone else’s work.

"The artist is a collector, your job is to collect good ideas. The more good ideas you collect, the more you can choose from to be influenced by. " Austin Kleon

Personally I get my inspiration from a tonne of movies, books, blogs, pinterest, instagram, dribble, behance, deviant art, music, photographs, architecture, paintings, packaging, posters, billboards and anything interesting my eyes can see. With the advent of the internet, you don’t need to buy all this stuff. Its just a click away.

inspiratiin
This design was inspired by lyrics from Pompi’s song

“Make the internet your best friend”, my friend Mwesigwa Daniel told me that 3 years ago. Undoubtedly one of the best advices I’ve ever been told. (I doubt he recalls that. Lol)

Time Is Never Enough

Clients will always want their work as soon as possible. The crazy part about T-shirt designs or any other kind of design is that sometimes ideas hit you up in a flash and sometimes it’s a Thomas Edison kind of thing. Iterations after iterations before you come up with something satisfactory. So the lesson here is to have a never give up attitude. If it gets frustrating to come up with a design, watch a movie. Take a walk. Look at the artwork from a different angle. Sleep on it. You’ll have an idea come sunrise.

It’s amazing as to how ideas hit you up when you least expect them. The trick though is to never stop keep learning and to do as much work as possible. The more work you do, the more acquainted you get with what stirs your creative juices and the faster your brain can synthesize design ideas.

Expect the unexpected

My design principle has always been to study the project thoroughly, come up with different concepts and choose one I feel satisfies the problem at hand and then work out that concept till I get a final design. I never make more than one design so that the client can pick the best because I really don’t see the reason to present designs I already know are not good enough. (Remember I’m a perfectionist yo! Or I’m just plain stubborn)

designs
Two designs to the same wording

However some clients insist on at least two designs. Luckily every time I’m asked for more than one design, the client ends up taking both designs.

So learn how to be flexible and take on the challenges as they come. No matter what, always expect the unexpected.

Be A Team Player

No one does it alone in this life and particularly in design.
Even though you are the most talented designer alive, my friend you’ll always need someone else to look at your work before submission. Art is subjective. You have to look at it with a different pair of eyes. Get all the criticism and advice you can before putting your work out there with your name on it — especially online, because it never goes away. Criticism can be harsh so get your thick skin on before you go there.

Luckily I have worked with the Avarc creative director (Daniel) from my first design to the projects that are still a work in progress. His role is to work out the modalities and nitty gritties. He also double checks to see if the design is communicative or serving the intended purpose. And at times where I get stuck, he chips in a concept. (Bro, I’ll forever be grateful). Occasionally on some projects I involve other people so as to have a general view from a whole bunch of diversity.

So shake off that lone ranger attitude, this game is about teamwork.

Get A Mentor

This is one advice many give though few really follow after. And I happen to be among the few. I can go on and state like a hundred reasons why you need a mentor because believe me everyone does.

I’m certain if I had a mentor from the very start I would have kicked off earlier. The challenge many face is the question of how to get a mentor. Who do I choose and how do I get them to notice me and guide me? It’s a gargantuan task am telling you. Not doing anything about it is worse than at least trying.

Surprisingly though some beginners are just proud to allow someone teach and guide them or just impatient with the learning process, whereas others are ashamed of someone seeing their terrible designs and pitch in advice here and there (funny thing is they post those awful designs on social media and get pumped up when their non-designer friends tell them… Wow, that looks beautiful!)

I was once there too.

However whereas I didn’t have mentor(s) from the beginning, I did pick up some ‘virtual’ mentors on the internet. I did some research and picked out a few people who have garnered a mountain of experience and are doing work I find inspiring and in line with what I do.

I studied and still study their work to understand the rationale behind their design concepts. I read their books, blogs, follow them on instagram and other social networks.

This approach works, though doesn’t create room for dialogue which is a very necessary ingredient for the mentorship process because you can never genuinely judge your own work.

Either you’ll feel like you’ve created crap yet you just made a masterpiece or you’ll think you have it all together when rather yo just increasing the footprint of crappy designs on the web.
Nevertheless, it’s better to have a ‘virtual mentor’ than none.

Client Management

Whereas as I may not want to agree with the phrase “Clients from hell”, there are clients though who will make your work a living hell.

And these come in different versions. Clients who are clueless about what they want and more so what they need. After submission of the work, they ask you to come up with other design iterations and that continues in a loop.

clients
Designs to this event over the last three years. Managing clients well leads to customer loyalty.

Then there are clients who think design ideas are in some locker and you’ll open up and pick one. They’ll put you on pressure to deliver in a flash and take you for an impostor when you fail to come up with an impressive idea in the given time. Personally, I prefer to let go of such projects and concentrate on those projects that give me some time to draw from my creativity. Whereas it’s not financially right to say no to a client, remember it’s your name going out there and not just the work. The more trash you put out, the more people will know you for producing trash and thus few people will want to work with you.
The best thing is to talk to your client and help them understand what they need and what it takes to come up with it. It’s really about dialogue. So generally you’ve got to be silver-tongued.

Seek Divine Inspiration

Whereas I can allude my success to hardwork, my biggest inspiration is God. He’s taken me far more than I expected.

Only God knows how many times I seek his wisdom when working on my design projects. Personally I believe He’s the one that blessed me with this talent, so most definitely there’s no other source of inspiration mightier than Him. So get down on your knees and be thankful, you’ll see miracles.

Work Extremely Hard

Not just very hard, but extremely hard. Remember your work is competing with that of designers who have been working for the last 5+ years. You need to catch up.
Talent only goes far. Remember hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard.

"The general idea is to create something worth talking about. You want a person to see your work and think, ‘Man! I need to tell somebody about this!’ People love finding cool stuff and telling their friends about it. A solid identity is more valuable than any advertising you can buy.” Kiernan, Cure Apparel

Paul Arden put it like this, “It’s not how good you are, it’s how good you want to be.”

Put in the extra hours. Work yourself off like your life depended on it. Because it does. You can thank me later. The longer you work hard at it, the better you become. That I am as sure of as the back of my hand.

Remember the work you are doing is not just to put a design on a t-shirt, it’s a business’ lifeline. When you create amazing work, someone’s business flourishes and thus the higher the chance of being referenced and in the end building a solid reputation.

All in all strive to make something someone would gladly hand over money for.

Believe In Your Work And Don’t Stop

If you don’t believe in what you are doing, how can you expect anyone else to? Use your desire as fuel. Let it push you to make your work the very best possible. Be passionate about what you are doing more than anything else. You have to love it. Infact be obsessed about it.

It has to be more than money that motivates you. This is not for the chicken-hearted. Once you choose to go this road, stick with it all the way.

Be not deceived. No one is going to cheer you for choosing to become a t-shirt designer. In fact you’ll be taken for a joker. Because believe me most people despise this and will by all means say or do anything to make you think along those lines. So expect really discouraging lines your way.

Bottom line, you have to come to a place where you believe in the work you are doing more than anything else. Because no one else will.

“If you have negative thoughts or a poor outlook, start by changing the way you think. Feed your own ego. See yourself where you want to be, not where you are now. If you want to be doing metallica t-shirts picture yourself getting those jobs. You have to believe it.”Kelly Kiernan, Cure Apparel

Dream Your Wildest Dreams And Never Stop

When I had just started learning graphics design I dreamed of designing the CEDAT Open Day, Makerere University t-shirts. I recall seeing the 2nd Annual Open Day t-shirts and I couldn’t stop thinking about ever doing that project. It wasn’t for the money. Rather the exposure. Imagine 400 people walking around with an idea you put to reality emblazoned on their chest. It’s euphoric. I remember one day I got my sketchbook and created some designs while saying to myself, “if I ever get this deal, this is how I’ll do it”. Two years later I got that deal and I didn’t even think twice which design to make because I had done it before. The organizers were surprised as to how I came up with a design in just hours.

2 years later I was in the same scenario. This one in fact came earlier than I expected. 104.1 Power FM’s Phat Fest t-shirts. I recalled two years ago when I was at Phat Fest and telling my friends, I’ll one day design those t-shirts. Similar to the Open Day, even though hundreds of people wore that t-shirt, I can count the number of people that know I designed it. I remember telling a friend, I think I’m now done designing t-shirts because I’ve designed for all the events and companies I ever dreamed of.

Maybe, maybe not. Who knows one day I’ll design the Uganda Cranes jersey or even a monumental political t-shirt.

Bottom-line, never stop dreaming. Imagine it, Create it. This life has a way of surprising us.

Final Words

You have to love doing this.
I love what I do. I adore what I do. When I am not designing stuff, I want to be designing stuff. I fall asleep thinking about what I’m working on the next day, and I wake up excited to create it.
From day one, all I ever wanted was to make awesome t-shirts, which is still my goal to date. You have to live it, breathe it and dream it till the point where it’s all that matters. Such passion breeds patience. It’s not a one night success. It’s takes time to get there. The only way to get there, is to get started. Just do it. Go out there and try. Fail and learn from your mistakes. Succeed and figure out what made it succeed. You’ll never have all the answers.

Never stop learning. Never stop practicing. You can say with my wealth of experience, that I have it all.. No.. I still believe there’s a lot to learn and am not resting because I want to be better than I was the previous day.

Don’t drown in the worry zone because you can’t make it faster than you wanted. It takes time. Be grateful for every single lesson learnt. One day at a time.

Thanks to all the people who entrusted me with their work when I was just starting out and have still stood by my side and trusted in my ability. (Essien, Bright, Lillian, Paul, Florence, Julius, J.B, Simon, Martha and Juliana). I’ve tested your patience not more than once but you’ve still trusted me, believed in me and pushed me on to become better everyday.
Grateful for all the friends who always lend a pair of eyes and insight into some of the projects I’ve worked on. Special thanks to Laureen, Ametto, Shalom, Allan, and Agatha. You’ve always filled the gap whenever Mwesigwa Daniel is MIA. Some of my best designs I account on your input.

Not forgetting SHOUT! Movement. You taught me the basics of Adobe Illustrator in particular Wavah, who was my teacher then. SHOUT! You believed in me and gave me the biggest opportunity of my life; designing the SHOUT! t-shirt which was my first ever t-shirt to design and print. You basically laid the foundation for this journey.

My heartfelt thanks to the Avarc team, (Joze, Nashi, Pamela, Marc, Ivan and Daniel). This achievement is yours. You’ve been more than resourceful and supportive on this journey. And most importantly you believed in me when I had just fractions of the Avarc vision.
Thanks to God who took a simple man and blessed him with the opportunity to make extraordinary work out of something pretty much ordinary.

I have been extremely blessed to do, not only what I love for a living, but also what I am best at.

And this is just the beginning.

Let the future begin. Stay Hungry, Stay Thirsty.

Cover Image Credit: A montage of some of the 200 tshirt designs | Avarc Designs

This article was published by AVARC Designs.

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