Interview: Seventh.Ink – The Rise Of A T-Shirt Empire

Everyone that knows me knows that I am a t-shirt fanatic in every sense. I literally have a whole closet full of them. It’s just the way I roll I guess. I simply enjoy the multitude of choices they give you as far as motifs and cuts. You can make a statement or you can be incognito. You can use a lot of accessories or just go with the tee. It’s just the perfect way to dress in my humble opinion. I guess I am not alone either. A lot of people are looking for new and cool t-shirts each and every day to further pimp out their already royal collection. I happen to one of them.

I pushed myself out on the internet wave and started looking for some new designs that I might be interested in. I found what i consider a mecca for cool and wearable designs (I’m not such a huge fan of those pure text t-shirts). I looked around and I found three or four tees that I wanted to buy immediately when I saw them. I just had to know how this company came up with their designs, so I decided to have a chat with them.

Matthew Johnson, the founder and owner of the company he named “Seventh.Ink,” immediately replied. I quickly understood that I had to ask him a lot of questions since this opportunity was too good to just let it slip away. We agreed on making an extensive interview instead, an interview that would cover every aspect of the past, present and future. Mr. Johnson’s answers are inspiring and also packed with useful information about how the whole trip from idea to tee guru played out. It’s with excitement that I here reveal the holy grail of t-shirt manufacturing and management.

1. Being a t-shirt maniac myself I know how addicting they can be. What lead you to start Seventh.Ink and what was the initial goal of your venture? Also, describe the process of setting it up and what you had to go through before the online store was a reality.

I started up Seventh.Ink for exactly the same reason—I’m a t-shirt maniac! It came to a point where I decided that I wanted to start designing my own shirts to wear so I started putting together some designs and had them printed up. I began to sell them at local art shows and they were so popular that I decided to put together a website to sell them online. That started to take off as well so as time goes on I began putting more and more time into publishing new designs. When I released Night of the Living Bread last October, everything started to explode and the design sold out in no time. That was when I started incorporating more humor into my designs, and it’s really been a building block for where I want to take my brand because people love funny and ironic shirts.

2. The motifs on your shirts are off the hook, and I can sense a slight resemblance to the art we’re used to seeing in Tim Burton’s movies. You are using the same vibrant pallets and storytelling as he usually does. Are you influenced by him or is it just a coincidence?

Thanks, I really appreciate that! Tim Burton has definitely made an impact on my work and art interests over the years. I really dig the way all of his work is super stylized. When you watch a Tim Burton movie you really get drawn into the world he’s created and that’s what I’m trying to do with my designs, bring out a certain feeling or aesthetic for fans of the brand. With each new release I think it’s becoming more and more apparent that I’m developing a certain style, so hopefully there will come a point in time when people will recognize Seventh.Ink shirts on folks they pass by on the street.

3. Can you describe (and possibly show through a series of images) how you start a design and what the process is to finish it?

The process for me really varies, but no matter what, I always start with a concept. Having a title like “Tyrannosaurus Rockstar” in my head before I even start the design really helps me push the design to the full extent of what it can be.

I have two main directions that I take while working on designs, the illustration is either hand drawn or done digitally using a Wacom tablet. Once the line work is done, I bring it in to Photoshop or Illustrator and proceed to bring the design to life with color and graphics. Most of my recent designs have been colored in Illustrator because I really like having a solid control over creating sharp lines and I also like how clean vector art is to work with. I always print out a full size preview for myself before sending the artwork off to the printer because I need to test out the size and make sure it’s got the right vibe for the piece. I’ll cut out the design and hold it up in front of myself in the mirror to see if the proportions are feeling right. I’m sure it looks pretty funny, but it works! Once that’s done, I send out the artwork and wait for the newest batch of Seventh.Ink tees to arrive.

4. One of the hardest things when designing for apparel is to find a good and quality oriented manufacturer of t-shirts that helps press them. Who are you using and what do you think one should look for in a good manufacturer before starting to use them?

It’s definitely hard to find the right people for the job, and I’ve gone through countless printers over the years trying to narrow down the exact company I want for the job. Lately I’ve been rotating between a few printers depending on the shirt design because certain printers can do certain things.

The best thing to do with a new potential printer is to get them on the phone and ask them questions about their process and what you can expect from them as a customer. How long is their turnaround time? When your shirts arrive will they be neatly folded or just thrown in the box? If there’s a printing error what will they do to fix it?

A lot of it is trial and error, but the main thing to look for in a printer is good communication.

5. The thing that strikes me the most is how low your prices are. Designing a new t-shirt is hard work and can probably take a couple of days to finish up. How can you sustain such low prices and most importantly why when your quality and style is so high?

I’ve always strived to keep my prices low because I want Seventh.Ink to appeal to all age groups. I want that high school or college student to be able to afford my shirts, and to do that I try to keep things as low as possible. Doing the artwork is such a breath of fresh air for me, so a lot of times I end up doing it in my spare time as an extra hobby, and because of that I approach the pricing mostly from a standpoint of the cost of printing.

I want to get Seventh.Ink shirts out there and make them fairly available to everyone, that’s one of the things that I’m proud my brand can offer to its fans.

6. I say you, and that’s because I am blown away by the fact that you are doing this all by yourself. It must be a truly heavy schedule you’re running each week in order to pull all this off. How do you manage to optimize time so well that you are able to pull the weight of a business like this?

I’ll be honest, life has been crazier than ever since Seventh.Ink came around! It’s also been much better because as I said above, this is something that I love to do. Finding time to work on new designs while at the same time shipping out orders and maintaining the site is sometimes a challenge, but luckily I have a loving wife who doesn’t mind me staying up late most nights to get things done. Being a night owl definitely has its advantages.

I also run Seventhfury Studios, my graphic design business, so because of that I have two completely different companies that I run in tandem. I’ve managed to find a good balance for now, and as both brands grow I’ll just need that many more cups of coffee each day!

7. I know that you have a background in art and graphics but what tools are you using when you go from thought to finished design prior to the pressing of the t-shirt?

My main tools are my Wacom tablet, Photoshop and Illustrator running on my Mac, pencils, inking pens, and a pad of paper. With all of the digital products nowadays there are a lot of illustrators moving to full on digital work with the use of a pen tablet, but I find a sense of freedom in a pencil and a pad of paper. There’s something that I love about physically illustrating a piece, and you can never have enough thumbnail illustrations.

8. Through the lifetime of your company, what seems to be the best working designs and why do you think that is? Did you know right off the top of your head that a particular design was going to be a successful one?

The top designs right now are Night of the Living Bread, Tyrannosaurus Rockstar, and Greedy Shark. I think all of these are so popular because they incorporate things that people love. Everyone loves sharks, dinosaurs, and especially zombies! After the success of Night of the Living Bread, I almost contemplated a full line of zombie clothing, but I think that could get a bit repetitive for me.

As I was working on the concepts and designs for all of these I had a strong gut feeling that each one would be a hit, so I definitely try and follow that instinct more and more as I put together new designs. When people can relate to something, they’ll be that much more attracted to it.

9. Your site is a bundle of pure inspiration. Are you a secret designer/developer as well or did you hire someone to setup your brand online? In either case, what do you think one should think about when setting it up to be successful?

Thanks for that comment! I designed and built the whole layout from scratch and am using LemonStand as my shopping cart engine. As I said, I run Seventhfury Studios, where I design and develop web sites, corporate identities, and all sorts of print related products. Having that background really comes in handy when it comes to working on the Seventh.Ink site!

No matter what, when you have a website, it needs to communicate your brand to people. I think the Seventh.Ink site does a good job of showing off the shirt designs while at the same time having a sharp look about it. If you were going to buy your own product, what would you look for in a website?

10. When you started Seventh.Ink what goals did you set and how many of those have been realized? Also, where do you see Seventh.Ink heading next? Have any secret ideas you might want to announce or share with the readers of Bit Rebels?

My goals for Seventh.Ink have been simple: Design fun and exciting shirts and get them out there on people around the world. I’ve begun to really start to reach that goal, and I’m excited with each new release because I get more and more orders from new people who live all around the world.

I’ve put together a special coupon code for the readers at Bit Rebels to use on their next order:

Enter the coupon code “bitrebels” in the checkout and you’ll save 15% off of your order!

This coupon will be good until the end of June and can even be used on sale items.

We’re also having a Photo Contest with an awesome Grand Prize — $100 worth of Seventh.Ink gear and a $50 iTunes gift card! Anyone can enter; all you need is a Seventh.Ink shirt and a camera.

Very soon Seventh.Ink will be branching out into more apparel than just t-shirts, so I’m really looking forward to that. There will be lots of good things to come, so follow us on Facebook, Twitter, or via our newsletter, and stay tuned!

Odd Facts

1. 2 cups of coffee minimum to get the gears going! 4 cups usually entails a genius design idea.

2. The number 7 – our logo and printed on the sleeves of our shirts.

3. 3am – Closing time for some of the best days at Seventh.Ink.

4. 5 – the average number of stickers, buttons, candy, and goodies found in every Seventh.Ink order.

5. 24/7 – the availability of our online store for your round-the-clock shopping needs!


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