I became grumpy the other day when my five-year-old suggested I trade in her artisan-crafted, owl themed backpack for one that donned a popular TV character, the network’s brand name prominently displayed. I figured out her motivation the next day when I took notice of what classmates’ packs looked like: a menagerie of princesses and heroes from top-rating television shows and movies.
In a place as supposedly progressive as the Bay Area, I’m struck by how stores such as Target and WalMart still rule registers with predictably profitable big-brand-names. Some of the same parents who wouldn’t be caught dead themselves in a t-shirt from The Gap, bow to school peer pressure — and perhaps the lower prices of the chain stores — when it comes to their kids. Home comes Dora, Diego and SpongeBob on lunchboxes, socks, water cups, toothbrushes, everything.
For parents such as Aaron, a San Francisco software engineer, the ideal shopping experience does not include an outing to a big box brand store. “We’ll go to a little street music fair and encounter an Etsy vendor armed with Square and a folding table, selling octopus-themed unisex organic kids tees.”
It’s hard to blame those parents who give up, however — they just haven’t had access to enough options at comparable prices. That could be changing.
Make Room for the Crowd
eCommerce phenomena like crowdsourcing, where the task of design is outsourced to designers and artists from around the world, are making it much easier for kids (and their parents) to express themselves on a t-shirt, sticker, backpack or variety of other products, while at the same time catering to a wide array of independent artists — from amateur to professional level.
What’s more, print-on-demand technology continues to expand the number of surfaces that independent ink might adorn — newer entries include canvasses such as sneakers and dinnerware. Redbubble.com offers some sixty different products, including framed and canvass prints, kids clothing and iPhone and iPad cases. Its “crowd” consists of more than 250,000 artists who have uploaded more than 10 million original designs — with 5 to 10 thousand new designs uploaded every week. Meanwhile, sites that are less art and design oriented, such as Café Press and Zazzle, make it easy for non-designers to put their slogan on a t-shirt or their dog’s picture on a mug.
Clothes to Match Your Kid
In addition to a wider range of design choices, there are also an increasing number of site options that enable parents to further tailor purchases to kids’ tastes.
FabKids (launched by Christina Applegate), gives parents a short personality quiz, then ships a personalized outfit to the door each month.
Other sites are building a market by taking an anti-brand approach to their products and curating unique items — even making them themselves (what a concept). “We are the anti-orthodoxy of big brands, shiny leather bags and all things flashy.” Says the proprietor of Little Odd Forest, “Everything is produced in limited numbers, with many one-of-a-kind creations.”
And speaking of Etsy, the grandma of crafty online flea markets now has more than 20 million members and 42 million monthly visitors, and is approaching $1 billion in sales. Not bad for a website determined to be an alternative to the big brands and an alternate distribution stream for designers and smaller sites.
When Cool Goes Mainstream
Crowdsourcing has in some cases become so commonplace that what was once considered indie has become rather mainstream.
Threadless, once known for its independent, crowdsourced art tees may soon become more well known for being the design behind mass market t-shirts and home wares. One can now buy Threadless tees at the gap and Threadless trash cans at Bed Bath and Beyond. Which begs a question that a parent living in, say San Francisco or Portland, might ask himself — is indie design still indie when anyone can buy it at strip mall?
About the Author
Peter Tomassi is the chief community officer and evangelist at Redbubble, a marketplace featuring the designs of more than 250,000 artists, available print on demand on some sixty cool surfaces and products. He lives in San Francisco and has two young, design-independent daughters.