T-shirts at the root of innovation

T-shirts overlaid with designs side by side


One of the things I do as a side gig is to print t-shirts, the old way. Not perfectly Photoshopped, computer-created heat transfers, as most mass-produced (cheap) ones are today. This is a process that involves a craft knife, paper and ink. It creates a unique design on a single shirt and it’ll never be financially viable.

But that’s OK. It’s a pastime. It requires creativity and skill. One thing I know before I start is that there will never be another design exactly like the original. Single product runs, unique output, scarcity built in.

The freedom to change direction, create a new theme every time I do something, and not have to worry about uniformity, offers all kinds of possibilities. And t-shirts are the perfect medium. A recent exhibition at London’s Fashion and Textile Museum showed off the t-shirt’s ability to support protest, anarchy, fashion, campaigning and promotion: t-shirts as items that help align individuals to a tribe or a cause; t-shirts to connote wealth and the exact opposite. Whatever your story is, you can use this single piece of design as your tool of choice.

Now it’s a bit of a tough ask to pull this theme back to innovation and innovation strategy, but let’s see where it goes.

Back in the 1920s, around the time the word ‘t-shirt’ first appeared in print (thanks to F. Scott Fitzgerald), technology was pretty rudimentary. Television was yet to be invented, colour photography was in its infancy and only for the wealthy. Movies were silent and actors’ faces needed to fill a screen to reveal any subtlety of emotion.

TV pictures today are in high definition. You can sit across a room watching a whole studio of people and see every audience member’s expression. Camera techniques haven’t kept up with the evolution that well. Using close-ups now can be downright troubling. I used to think actors had perfect complexions – not anymore. Now we can see every detail of their make-up and close-up can be too close. We can see the whole picture, pay attention to what we need or want to see, and exclude the rest, all in the time it takes to focus on a screen.

Consumer behaviour in almost every product category mirrors this. It wasn’t so long ago that every Sunday saw car owners doing their own mini-service: checking points, cleaning plugs – and still we weren’t certain that we’d get to work and school on Monday. Today, we get in and drive.

When we used wood-fired stoves to cook on, even children would know what kind of fuel to use to get enough heat to cook at higher temperatures, or what to burn for longer, slower cooking times. Today, we microwave. How that works, nobody knows.

Once upon a time, being a photographer meant also having a darkroom. Phones and cloud storage do that now.

And so it goes. As technology evolves, we get used to not having to understand how it works, just how to use it. Most of what we need is intuitive through the product design.

Innovators looking to enhance consumer experience are called upon to visualise a new condition and take us there through their execution of an idea. Designers develop the proposition by knowing what will improve our interaction, and the new product becomes gradually better and easier to use.

Today, you can design a t-shirt with a fingernail on your phone, get it back in a week and wear it until the heat transfer cracks. It may take a month and half a dozen washes, but the product isn’t designed to last. It’s designed to be functionally produced and not valued as a possession.

On the other hand, t-shirts that were given to athletes at the 1968 Olympics, or sold at Live-Aid, or used to promote bands like the Grateful Dead or the Sex Pistols, are now prized collectables. It’s not what they were designed to be, but the creativity and purpose that created them is now a sought-after commodity.

As Bradley Jacobs, CEO of XPO Logistics, puts it, “Music is really business…You have to be using all of your senses at the same time, and you have to be dancing with the circumstances and evolving.”

That’s innovation, right there.

Seeing it differently and future-proofing. It’s what we do.