Share and Share Alike: Adapting Someone Else’s Art Into a T-Shirt Design

If you're considering using an artist's original work in your apparel design, here are some tips to keep in mind.

So, you’ve found some artwork that’ll make an awesome shirt. Time to get to printing, right? Not so fast: there are a few things to consider, first.

Picture this: you’re browsing the Internet, looking for inspiration for a new T-shirt design. You come across the blogs of artists you’ve never heard of, and are immediately enchanted with everything you see. Their art is great! It’s beautiful, creative and — perhaps most important — highly marketable. Brimming with ideas, you get to work.

And when you look at the end product, you have a realization that makes your stomach sink. You meant to draw inspiration from the artists ... but instead you’ve totally aped their designs. At this point, you can do one of two things:

  • Forge ahead, and start printing the shirt anyway. Not like the artist can stop you, right?

  • Step back, and reconsider what you’re doing. This is someone else’s work here.

My recommendation is to go with option two. Otherwise, you’ll join names like Hot Topic and Zara, both of which have become notorious for ripping off hapless artists in the name of corporate greed. Oh, and you’ll probably get sued, as well.

Of course, you don’t necessarily need to scrap your design, either. Instead, why not try contacting the artists? Check through their blogs to see if they have a FAQ or a commission guide. After doing a bit of research, reach out to them through whichever medium they prefer.

There are a few things you’ll need to consider before you do that, however:

  • Do you want to purchase an existing design, or commission the artist to create new ones?

  • Is the artist currently accepting commissions?

  • What’s the most you’re willing to pay for commissioned designs?

  • What is the artist’s going rate for commissions?

  • Where is the artist located?

  • What sort of reputation does the artist have? Do they regularly finish work on time, or are they known to shirk on contracts after receiving their pay?

After you’ve answered all the questions above, it’s time to make contact.

Tell them you came across their blog, and really liked what you saw — enough so that you’d like to turn some of their designs into a T-shirt. You might be surprised at the response you get. Once you’ve made initial contact, see if they’re amenable through an in-person or online meeting for further discussion.

Going in, make sure you’ve had a contract drafted up that establishes the following:

  • The personal and professional information of all involved parties.

  • The date and length of your partnership.

  • What you’re hiring the artist to do, or what you’re purchasing from the artist

  • Deadlines for submissions.

  • Final deadline of the project.

  • A complete breakdown of associated costs.

  • How and where payment should be rendered.

Even if the artist is a small-timer on Deviantart, this is a professional contract. Treat it as such. Be clear about what you want from these artists, and hold them to the same standards as any business partner.

Follow the guidelines established above, and you just might forge some lasting partnerships that keep you supplied with awesome t-shirt designs for years to come.


Brad Wayland is an entrepreneur, Kansas City Chiefs fan and the vice president of business development at BlueCotton, an on-demand t-shirt printing company.


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