In my family, you're pretty much either a successful lawyer or a successful small business owner, so no one was surprised when I tried my hand at freelance design. Ultimately I discovered that I value the collaborative nature of agency work too much to be on my own long term, but I appreciated the experience and the unique projects that came with it.
Designing a line of Alaska-oriented screen-printed shirts and infant clothes for a local gift shop was far and away my favorite freelance project. Disclaimer: remember the family small business owners? My mother is one of them, and this project started as a product line for one of her stores. I have been contacted about licensing them – while I'd love to, she has an exclusive contract!
Challenges and Strategies: Infant
Our conversation began in connection to the resurgence of interest in organic, locally sourced products for infants and young children. For some customers, one of the barriers to purchasing infant and children's clothing was the cheap, non-plant based fabrics and dyes used by national infant wear companies. Before we invested any time in the designs, we researched wholesale companies that produced organic infant wear, and found a local printing company who could print with water-based inks. It was important to ensure that our end goal was feasible to produce locally while still hitting the right price point.
We wanted to invest most of the production cost in a high quality garment, so created exclusively one color designs to keep screen printing costs low. I eventually settled on a line drawing style that struck a balance between realism and whimsy, by keeping the proportions of the animal similar to real life while taking a few liberties with the details (or lack thereof).
We chose our animals based on what else in the store was most popular across a few other product categories, including stuffed animals and existing clothing, with an eye towards trying to keep them as gender balanced or neutral as possible. We personally don't think "bears are for boys" but based on experience, we knew some customers would. During a brainstorming session, the Angler In Training concept came up – though it didn't fit the rest of the line, it was too cute to pass up and we knew there would be a niche for it. I originally envisioned it as a full length onesie with the legs as "hip waders", but it would've increased costs too much.
After a few hitches with the local screen printing company, we got these in to the store over the winter for a limited run trial. The best sellers (the polar bear, moose, musk ox, and otter) have been reprinted in a variety of color options over several seasons!
Challenges and Strategies: Adults
When we started talking about the adult line, it was partially in connection to a local screen-printed clothing line featured across the street. It was doing incredibly well, but definitely had it's own feminine, flowy style. Their products were beautiful and popular, but not for everyone. Customers frequently came in looking for something similar: locally designed and produced, affordable, cool... but different.
She already carried another local screen-printer who had a more heavy handed masculine style, but he tended to focus on scenes that appealed to local shoppers who don't like being "branded" as Alaskans in overt ways, à la Deadliest Catch. She wanted to diversify into a very specific niche: a unified collection of gender neutral Alaskan animals that could appeal to locals (low "Alaska-ness"), but still had enough Alaskan oomph to attract the discerning tourist.
Again, we needed to print with only one screen to keep costs affordable. We settled on six animals that met our criteria – the bear and moose are very stereotypically Alaskan, while the lynx and snowy owl come are more interesting and much less visible Alaskan animals. One of the design puzzles often encountered with single screen printing is that you lose complexity and depth. After quite a bit of experimenting, I created a system for creating unique vector textures that took advantage of the interplay between the color of the shirts and the color of the ink, encouraging the viewer to process it as a two color image. With a more subtle, grown up take on the Wild Alaska logomark, we were off to the races!
After some bumps in production, we got four designs (wolf, bear, moose, lynx) on the floor and available for the public in the summer of 2014, just in time for tourist season. We learned some valuable lessons:
- unique is the way to go: the lynx design blew the others out of the water!
- quality has a huge impact on sales: the local printer did a sub par job on a few units, and we could barely give them away
Three season later these continue to be a popular line, and we're currently discussing whether it would be more productive to print the same designs in different colors, or roll out the other two designs!
To purchase the designs you see above, visit Cabin Fever in Anchorage, Alaska!