If you’ve never heard of Threadless, chances are you wouldn’t be reading this. If you haven’t, head on over to http://threadless.com to get a quick idea.
For years the t-shirt designs submitted on Threadless have been a source of inspiration and aspiration for me. It’s even a place where a few designers and illustrators like Olly Moss have gotten initial recognition. Threadless’ brand has a youthful fun spirit and it seems only appropriate that Mig Reyes is their designer.
It was funny to see him in person because I immediately remembered his face on a t-shirt model I had mocked up a Threadless design on. A man truly involved with his work, and a dude full of great advice. Read on; it’s a long one but it’s worth it.
Here’s What Happened:
After hearing Ken Hejduks’ talk I was put in a very serious mindset about design and how it affects others. This immediately shifted when Mig Reyes took the stage and put up his beginning slide reading “Please enjoy the dance party while we wait.” and played pumping club music. As we all waited I knew I was in for a fun talk—but it was better than I expected.
Mig showed his funny side immediately by leading the audience into false ideas about him talking about Threadless’ business model.
“So I know why a lot of people like to hear people from Threadless talk, right? You wanna know how to do the whole crowd sourcing thing. So that’s fine, that’s what I’ll talk to you guys about.”
He proceeded to show a couple fake graphs, and ramble with jargon with such speed that he briefly had me fooled. He then ended his rouse with: “I’m just fucking with you guys.” And proceeded with a personable message that would show off the bones of his talk.
He then gave a fun anecdote about Jeff Finley asking for the title of his talk.
“I said Stay Scrappy and Make Cool Stuff. I feel like that’s what we do at Threadless, I feel like that’s what I do myself. But, then I thought to myself, “Well, in the spirit of Weapons of Mass Creation I’d rather [the title] be ‘Fuck The Police. Make What You Wanna.’”
Once again, he was making us laugh. But in tandem, we all thought, “He’s got a point there”. I feel this was my perpetual reaction to his talk.
Mig continued on saying that this is true because of the fact that the whole reason people like Mikey Burton and Aaron Draplin were at WMC Fest was because they make things they want to work on. That’s why so many designers like Burton and the women from Quite Strong quitting their jobs and going freelance.
Mig then began to talk about his time at art school — which I took interest in immediately. Mig said that all of his teachers hated him because he didn’t do a lot of the work but loved him because he would still show up with his projects completed.
“This is what I realized. Everything I was working on had nothing to do with school.”
Mig proceeded to give an anecdote about a college experience in which he ignored his finals to learn After Effects just so he could enter a film in the very exclusive film festival at his school. Just because he wanted to show up the film students, Mig, in a few days, motivated himself to learn a new skill.
This was just a project he had done for fun and he accomplished his goal of getting it into the film festival. Little did Mig know that when he put the video up on YouTube to show his friends and family, other people would see it too. This ended up being a great method of exposure for Mig, and got him a job offer. Because of this Mig has become a strong believer in side projects. He continued doing them for a monthly design contest called Word It. He kept the amount of time he spent on them relatively short so that he could just try new things and keep it loose. He would use each short project as an opportunity to practice new techniques, programs, or skills like drawing. As he showed the various pieces from this project, Mig’s passion for learning became even more impressive and inspiring.
“It’s just about playing around, and having fun. And not taking yourself seriously because you pigeon hole yourself if you sweat everything you work on.”
These exercises he did, in turn lead to his invitation to participate in Layer Tennis, a ‘for fun’ contest where two designers exchange a file back and forth, adding on and embellishing to the previous designers work. Because each designer only gets 15 minutes at a time Mig was already perfect for the game. And even though he went up against great designers such as Jessica Hische and Mark Weaver he ended up winning by popular vote.
“What I learned from it was that all the really rapid paced work I was doing in Layer Tennis and side projects lead to me performing at my best at Threadless. At Threadless we do ‘Loves’ competitions where we collaborate with really cool companies. I have less than a day to make one of these. So again — that rapid ‘try new shit’ approach really came into play. I didn’t have any set visual aesthetic I just said, “How do I make something?” If it works it works, if it doesn’t it doesn’t; you can fuck up and try again next time.”
Mig went on to say that this kind of motivation and personal work is not only important to freelance designers but it’s important to companies. Not only does Threadless look for it, but Facebook does too when they are looking to hire someone. “Portfolio includes self-started personal projects”. It is important that people understand you are passionate about what it is that you do.
Mig then proceeded to show off another side project of his, a website called Humble Pied. His old college wanted him to come and give a talk to inspire the students with of all his success and great work he had been doing. Mig then showed his own humility and said to himself:
“Me being really young and fresh out of school I said, who am I? To go to a conference and speak and to inspire people. Who am I to do that? I’m not in that kind of position.”
Instead he got everyone that has inspired him in his life to record pieces of advice. He wanted to make something to share all the advice he had received with everyone. Ambitiously, Mig then started making a site in WordPress—however he didn’t know how to develop for WordPress. So Mig spent a hungover afternoon in a café; once again teaching himself another skill. I found this ambition highly admirable and have been striving every day to get closer to that level.
“I have the power to make things. I’m going to fucking do this!”
After getting his friends and mentors on board, Mig began doing theses videos as iChat sessions where he asks for one piece of advice. His After Effects skills came back into play as he made the videos into a nice presentation. The result is a simple site full of short clips of advice from incredibly talented and influential creatives.
Mig continued on saying that the more you do personal projects the more you are attached to them. In turn others become more attached to them as well. With that Mig says there are ego checks you must perform on yourself. Every project you get can be potentially great and you should not think about whether or not it’s award winning work.
“First off, who cares about design awards, it’s not helping anybody but your own ego. Second, this is our chance to show people what we’re good at, no matter how cheap or little you think the opportunity is.”
He then related an anecdote about a DJ friend asking him for a new flyer for his disco night. Though a pretty small project for Mig to be working on, he took the opportunity and used it as a way to make another fun project. It made his friend ecstatic and it branded his disco night which became really popular in Chicago. It’s these instances, where you make something for someone close to you that you can have personal proof of the influence your design has. Because Mig’s friend enjoyed it so much he asked if he could do more. Mig agreed to do a whole series, and it not only gave his friend posters, it buffered Mig’s portfolio. Because all of these small projects can lead to more work for you it proves it’s best to not be “above anything”. Accept work that will not only help others, but that you can have fun doing. Whether you try something new, or are just practicing a certain skill set, these small personal projects are unexpectedly valuable.
One of the best quotes I would hear all day would be “perspiration over inspiration”. The only problem Mig has with going to any conference like WMC Fest, is that inspiration, at least to him, is temporary. We listen to speakers, see awesome work, and get overwhelmingly inspired. Then we go home unpack and kind of forget all about it. We go back to our lives without doing anything about the inspiration. Mig encouraged everyone to put in the time and effort to make awesome stuff, because inspiration is a fleeting thing.
“Great work is the byproduct of heart, soul, and sweat. So we can talk about making design, we can read about design, we can listen to speakers. But that’s not making cool shit. You’re just listening to people talk about making cool shit. All of you in here, you all have no excuses because you’ve all seen great speakers today, and more tomorrow. Do something with it, because otherwise why are you here?”
Mig ended his talk on a fun note; showing not only the new designs for the Threadless website he is working on, but hilarious work he did in college. Saying that whenever he sees someone speak he’d always like to know how they started.
Mig: “No I don’t sleep and it’s hard, it’s a struggle. And I think one thing you always hear about in magazines and blogs is how you balance life and work. But I think if you do it in a certain way life and work can live happily. This is important to me, this is important to us; obviously because we’re all in Cleveland listening to designers talk about design. So I don’t know…I don’t sleep and I’ll regret it when I die 10 years earlier than I should.”
Audience Member: “How do you find the time?”
Mig: “I also spend a lot of time drinking IPA’s and dancing. It’s not like I’m constantly staring at my laptop, when I go to get drinks sometimes I get to talk shop with people. That’s why I like going to Quite Strong’s place. We get to talk about design, and drink beer, and eat tacos, and eat Cheeze-Its, all the time. That’s inspiration to me, I don’t have to flip through old design annuals to be inspired. That’s just visual reference, that’s just visual literacy, that’s not inspiration. Inspiration to me is going to a play, watching a movie, and sharing stories with your friends. That’s a part of the process to me, it’s not how do you work, and how do you live life. I try to do it at the same time.”
Me: “What do you recommend to students of design or young designers.”
Mig: “That question sucks because I ask that to everyone else, and I never have my own answer. I really believe in just doing your own side work and your own passion projects, and actually making things. Stop talking about making things and make things. The personal projects like The Lions Roar video, Humble Pied, that’s the stuff that’s helped me get work, that’s the stuff that’s got me jobs. Everything that I did in school was like “Okay you went to this school, I can tell because here’s an infographics piece about the rainforest you and 30 other kids did that. But this Lion’s Roar thing, kid ya got something here.” So do side work and shit that means something to you. Do your own work, work that makes you happy.”
Listen to the Talk
As I watched every talk, I kept Garage Band open on my MacBook and recorded everything I could. The quality of the mp3 below may not be the best, but you can get an idea of what it was like from my perspective in the front row. Bootleg version!