OfferZen Updates: How We Make OfferZen T-shirts

How We Make OfferZen T-shirts

By Summer Smith

While OfferZen is a tech marketplace at its core, the tech community also knows us for the t-shirts we give out. People often ask us why we do this, where we get our ideas from and what goes into creating the designs, so here’s the low-down.

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Why we make t-shirts

OfferZen’s core mission is to help people build better software by matching top software makers with great opportunities. Ever since we started in 2015, many people in the community have helped – and continue to help – us get better at what we do, whether it’s through product feedback, advice or cheering from the sidelines for the things we get right. Especially at the beginning, our platform was very buggy so there was a lot of feedback to give.

In addition to taking this input super seriously, we also wanted to say thanks to the people that gave us this time. That’s why we decided early on to send everyone who helped us gifts. At the start, these were mainly the books we read and found super useful in building a tech startup.

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Around the same time, everybody started wearing tech product related t-shirts from services like New Relic. We know plenty of people who signed up to the data visualisation tool, just to get a ‘data nerd’ t-shirt. 😏 Tech t-shirts quickly became sort of a ‘uniform’ for the developer community. The niche, ‘insider’ quality of the often quite simple designs helped create a sense of tribe: If you saw someone with a t-shirt referencing a framework, tech commands or game, you knew they were also a developer.

Understanding this, we saw a fun opportunity, where, on one hand we could level up the quality of existing tech t-shirts and create crazier designs, and, on the other, we could make grown humans wear t-shirts with pink bunnies and hardcore unicorns. Only the tech community would get why that’s amazing. 😉

Step 1: Where we get our t-shirt ideas from

To make this happen, it was again important to get input from people in the community: While Google is useful to search for ‘bad developer jokes’ to spark our imagination, we wanted to produce tech t-shirts that visualised tech humour and niche references over 9000.

We wanted people in the tech community to want to wear our t-shirts, so the creation process itself had to engage software makers and get their feedback.

That’s why we’ve always kicked off designing a t-shirt by turning to the community and asking them what graphic tee they would like to get next. We approach this in a lot of different ways because we like to get as many ideas as possible.

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  • ZATech is a great place to interact with members of the community who are very engaged and already know about OfferZen.
  • Social media has also become a useful tool for reaching more makers who aren’t on our Slack channel, and we’ve run a couple of competitions to make coming up with ideas more fun.
  • Where possible, we also check in with developers in real life: Our own product team, for example, is a great source of guidance and feedback on how we visualise ideas once the design work starts.

Once we’ve settled on an idea, we spend time unpacking the concept to spark ideas on how we can design it. Sometimes this doesn’t take too long. Git Stash, for example, was born from a cool idea we got from someone in our community who wanted a ‘plump dragon curled up on a pile of gold’ on a shirt. When an idea is more technical or a ‘joke’ that needs to be visualised, such as ‘All Your Base’, this can take a bit longer.

Step 2: How our designers buddy up

While one designer owns the process end-to-end, they never go through it alone: At OfferZen, we believe that no matter what team you’re on, or what work you do, checking your thinking with someone else is the key to getting something right. Our design team is very closely knit, and we work with a ‘buddy’ on everything we do.

When it comes to designing a t-shirt, it looks like this:

  • The ‘lead’ designer is responsible for the conceptualisation, drawing and execution of the design
  • The ‘buddy’, is responsible for sense-checking everything from the conceptualisation, through to the design details, colour choice, including fabric colour
  • The rest of the design team cast their eyes over the final design one last time before it goes to print

Step 3: Drawing the first outline

Once we have settled on the concept, it’s time to turn it into a physical thing: Every design we do starts with pen and paper. We’ve found working on paper first is much easier because you have a lot more freedom working with a pencil than you do with a stylus or a mouse. There’s something about a digital line that feels a lot more permanent, so working freehand with a pencil takes a lot of pressure off getting perspectives and shapes right the first time round.

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We call this stage ‘scamping’ and try to limit it to about five or ten minutes.

While it’s pretty fun to do, it’s also really easy to get sucked into. It’s not about perfection – what we want from the scamp is a rough sketch that we can use as a base.

When the sketch is done, we run it by our community. It’s really important to us that we’ve understood the concept and that people are excited about it, so before we go any further, we get our future t-shirt ‘ambassadors’ to check it.

Once we’re happy with the drawing, we upload it to Illustrator and start designing it digitally.

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Step 4: Where the colour comes in

Adding colour to a design is exciting because it really starts to bring it to life, but it’s also arguably the hardest part.

We use screen printing for all our t-shirts now because previous versions of digital printing ended up fading quicker when washed.

This however means that our printing service, Farbe, limits us to a maximum of nine colours per t-shirt design. This really isn’t a lot when you consider having a few base colours and then adding highlights and shadows.

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We also obviously need to decide on the colour of the fabric. There are a number of factors that go into this:

  • The shirt colours that have been popular with the community
  • The colours we’ve used in the graphic, and
  • How long it’ll take the printer to produce shirts in that colour, as each shirt is dyed before the design is printed on it

Once the ‘lead’ designer and their buddy have finalised all of the above, the rest of the design team gives the final design another once-over. As with anything, it can be really hard to spot mistakes when you have been staring at something for so long.

Step 5: Sending the file to print

Once we have checked every detail, chosen the pantone colours and are 100% sure we’re happy, we send the file to our printer, Farbe.

One of our designers, Ciara, specifically owns all things swag so she handles everything from here. We do it like this because it makes for much smoother communications with the printers, and better streamlines the process on our side.

Step 6: Checking the sample

Once the printer has received the file, they print a sample and bring it into our offices to check.

The ‘lead’ designer and their buddy will now check the quality of the fabric and the colours.

We follow this process to iron out any errors or miscommunications as quickly and clearly as possible, so that when 2000+ t-shirts start rolling off the production line, they are 100% ready to go to the community.

Step 7: The t-shirts are ready!

Generally it takes about four to six weeks until we get a notification from the printers that the t-shirts are ready. We give everyone on the OfferZen team a shirt from the latest batch to say thanks for the great work that they do, and to remind them that they’re also part of the community!

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We deliver the rest of the shirts to our gifting service, Oxford, who handle the packing and sending of our gifts. We also start sharing the new design through social media and ZATech Slack to get people excited.

This process repeats a few times a year.

How many different designs have we made?

Short answer: A lot.

Here are the numbers since OfferZen started in 2015:

  • 8 designers working on shirts over the years
  • 29 designs
  • 35 542 t-shirts printed and counting

You can check out our swag hall of fame here.

Who’s behind the awesome designs?

These lovely ladies!

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What’s coming next?

We are always keen to hear from people in our community about ideas they’d love to see on our shirts, so if you have something in mind, feel free to add it to the comments below, tweet us, DM us, or even send us a carrier pigeon!


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