Wait.....why Cotton Bureau?

over 5 years ago from , Digital Media Specialist

I don't have a blog so I don't know where else to share this long rant. Also I wrote this 2 weeks ago

Back in the day, if a young designer like me wanted to design and sell shirts, I would have had to shell out my own hard earned money, get shirts printed in various sizes, then work my butt off to get some of them sold just to break even. But then Cotton Bureau comes along and offers to (maybe) sell my designs and give me the chance to make a few bucks.

Not only do I (maybe) get the chance to maybe make a few bucks without having to pay anything out of pocket, but, because the designs sold on Cotton Bureau are curated, I get the prestige of having my designs featured next to the work of some of the best designers in the world. Neat!

After scoring a Dribbble invite, getting a shirt on Cotton Bureau was THE thing I wanted as a way to confirm that I was a “real” designer.

I've been designing for almost 15 years now. I received a Dribbble invite about 4 years ago. As of yesterday at 9:00am, I have a design that’s live on Cotton Bureau. But, 1 day into my 14-day quest to sell at least 12 shirts so that it goes to print, I’m wondering if the charm of Cotton Bureau has overstayed its welcome for designers like me and, in a way, become the monster it originally set out to slay.

Really there’s 3 main reasons why I think I’m disappointed in Cotton Bureau.

First, there’s no guarantee that my design will even be sold. I understand the process of screen printing and the associated costs and labor. But, for reasons I’ll give soon, this is more annoying than it is appealing.

Second, the shirts are pricey. Again, I realize there is much higher level of quality than just about any shirt you’ll pick up at a big box retailer or even from a local print shop. But, combine this with the 1st reason and it leads me to my 3rd reason (1+2=3….how bout that).

Third, it’s a lot of work for really little payoff - for the designer. Cotton Bureau’s model of short, limited runs of a few curated t-shirts is unique to be sure, but I think it’s working against them - it’s certainly working against the designer. Only offering the designs for a limited time means that the consumer, the people who actually buy the shirt, have to discover the design, decide it’s something they want, be convinced it’s worth upwards of $30, then actually pull the trigger and order it.

The bulk of all that promoting, convincing, and selling is the responsibility of the designer - Cotton Bureau doesn’t hide this fact. But, especially for designers with a small following, convincing at least 12 of your friends to shell out $30 for a “look what I made” shirt, isn’t an easy sell, let alone when they’re given an ultimatum of “12 of you buy this within 2 weeks or NO ONE GETS A SHIRT!”

Oh, and 12 is the minimum number of shirts that need to be sold in order for the shirt to even be printed - 25 is the magic number if you, the designer, would like to see any profits. Speaking of profits, there aren’t many. The base prices of the products that go to print are more like typical retail prices. Profits for designers are suggested at about $2-5 per product depending on how many colors are printed (though you can jack the price up to earn more per product). That’s not too shabby if you’re selling boatloads of shirts. But most designs on CB aren’t even selling…er…kayak loads….?

So the way I’m seeing it, if I’m a smalltime designer (which I am) and I want a shirt on Cotton Bureau, I create a cool design, submit it, bust my hump for 2 weeks promoting and sharing and posting and tagging and mentioning and blogging and if I convince only(!) 24 people to spend ~$30 (don't forget shipping) on the shirt, I make exactly $0. Neat.

It’s really a brilliant business model on Cotton Bureau’s part. “We’ll have other people design, promote and sell our products and, sometimes, we don’t even have to pay them!”

I feel like this model is the design community’s equivalent of agencies asking young designers to work for free under the guise of getting experience and exposure while working for a hip company. And when I say “equivalent” I mean it’s exactly that.

It’s not even just a raw deal for designers. It’s kinda crappy for the customer too. I already mentioned the steep price point for a novelty shirt. But, there’s also shipping time. Shirts are shipped 2-3 weeks AFTER the campaign ends. So the person who buys a shirt on day 1 of the campaign potentially won’t get his/her shirt for over a month, if they even get one at all. Neat.

I’m 1 day into my campaign and I just don’t know if it’s worth it. I have a few designs on a few different drop ship service like Tee Public, Threadless Artist Shops, and Redbubble. I don’t sell a lot, but I do sell some. These sites don’t have the same quality of shirts that Cotton Bureau has, I’m sure of it. But what they do have is a guarantee that people can actually buy the product they want regardless of if 11 other people also want it, a better price point, quick and cheap (or free) shipping, dozens of products to choose from in a variety of colors/configurations, higher profit margins for designers, flexible pricing, the ability to run promotions, and it’s still at no cost to the designer which was the main appeal of Cotton Bureau in the first place. The responsibility placed on the designer to sell remains the same. But, in my opinion, the benefits to the designer are very different.

With services like these available, it makes me wonder why Cotton Bureau is still so popular.

UPDATE: My design didn't go to print.


  • Daniel De LaneyDaniel De Laney, over 5 years ago

    Have you looked into doing your own screen prints? I made my own company shirt when I was working at argodesign using their tools. The work of creating a new single-color screen printed shirt is minimal once you have the tools set up. Not sure how hard/expensive it is to get to that point.

    1 point
    • BAKA .kidBAKA .kid, over 5 years ago

      Or even going with a digital/ondemand printer yourself? there are many services out there. I'm not going to plug any where, but if you are doing multiple colours digital sometimes works out cheaper, and there are places you can get away with getting a full colour digital print done for a decent price. just something to think about.

      a note on screen printing - the setup is the prohibitive cost sometimes. again going to talk dollars or plug any company, but you can get these done locally and learn how to do the printing part yourself, which is a bit of fun work away from the computer and you end up with a pretty good outcome.

      0 points
      • Ethan Unzicker, over 5 years ago

        I actually do use a few on demand print services, as I mentioned. I don't sell a ton but I do sell a few shirts/stickers a month which is always nice to have some extra pocket change. I also don't really market these designs. It's just sort of passive income.

        0 points
    • Ethan Unzicker, over 5 years ago

      I've looked into actually! It looks like it would be a really cool craft to master and a fun DIY project. Things add up and get a little more complex when printing in multiple colors.

      0 points
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    0 points