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Success Stories with Marshal Atkinson brought to you by S&S Activewear

Episode 4: "Creating Impactful Apparel Designs for Clients"

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Episode 4: "Creating Impactful Apparel Designs for Clients"
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A Transcript For The Readers:

Marshall Atkinson:

Welcome to Success Stories brought to you by S&S Activewear. I’m your host Marshall Atkinson, and this is the podcast that focuses on what’s working so you can have success too.

How do you tie creative art development into more sales? On this edition of the Success Stories podcast, we’ll dig into that by discussing how Jeremy Picker and his team of creative professionals have found success by going the extra mile with developing ideas for their clients. We’ll break it down by examining their process and unique ability to translate someone’s idea into a fully developed apparel merchandise campaign.

AMB3R is a Colorado-based apparel design firm that brings fashion to people by creating products that people love. They serve nonprofits, churches, restaurants, corporations, and other businesses with their team of talented designers and project managers that take a kernel of an idea from start to finish.

We’ll learn how they use t-shirts for everything from an entire clothing line to a merchandising campaign for promotional products.

So Jeremy, welcome to the podcast.

Jeremy Picker:

Thanks, Marshall. Appreciate you having me.

Marshall Atkinson:

Hey Jeremy, you ready to answer some questions?

Jeremy Picker:

Yeah, man. I hope to give some good answers to the listeners and it’s awesome that S&S put this on and big fans of them.

So I’m excited to share with the community.

Marshall Atkinson:

What’s the one thing that separates your company and crew from the other firms that create and sell t-shirts, let’s dive into that first, because I think everybody can create a shirt, but what really makes you different?

Jeremy Picker:

Wow. That’s a good question, Marshall, you know, without sounding conceited or stuck up. You know, everyone feels that their approach is the best way, but for us, we’ve kind of boiled it down into three things that make us unique and this stemmed from a sales meeting with a potential new client and the first thing they asked me when we sat down, they’re like, why are you different?

And it really threw me off, you know, I never had that before, and it just caught me off guard, but you just have to make it work. And so I gave him a pretty decent answer.

I probably chopped it up a bit, but afterward, I came and sat down and really tried to think through that.

Like, why should they use us?

Yeah, I’m sure they’re getting pitched all the time. So what makes us unique?

We kind of boiled it down to three things:

Our unique approach

Our personal touch and

Our creative focus.

So the first one being our unique approach, you know, we try to approach any type of project, whether it’s a full merchandise line or have one shirt for an event, we want to approach it from the fashion and retail perspective, versus just the manufacturing and supply.

Most people want to lead with that, but people are coming to you because you print shirts or because you produce products, you don’t necessarily need to sell them on that so much as, “Hey, how is this going to be perceived in the market, your audience, what is going to get them to wear it more often?”

You know, in that comes everything seems to be influenced from the fashion world, whether companies are fashion-forward or not.

A lot of the colors that you’re seeing are inspired by high-end fashion.

So we want to see if this shirt was sold at the mall or in retail, where, where would it be? Would it fit in with the quality of design colors, you know, decoration amongst the other brands?

And so, we like to just kind of put that lens on things at the beginning, just to make sure that we’re helping them create the best garment that is going to have a long shelf life.

It does no one any good if you make a cool shirt, but it disconnects with the audience and no one ends up wearing it. So that is kind of our focus on a unique approach.

Number two, being our personal touch. Now I’m sure, there’s a lot of companies out there that give that personal touch. Yeah, but we like to say we are boutique and we offer special attention to their project.

A lot of companies that automate the process. That’s great. For ease, but that doesn’t necessarily create value. So we want our project managers to hold their hand along the way, you know, not only during the project but post and pre next project.

And again, I don’t need just a client. I want a relationship.

And then number three, I would say our creative focus we offer. Very intentional and curated design, whether it’s streetwear or action sports or vintage collegiate, we want to be very specific with the vibe of the design that we’re creating, but we’ve chosen to streamline it and offer a flat rate for the end product.

It’s not the customer’s responsibility to figure out how you design. They could be paying for your coffee breaks. If you’re charging per hour. We say, “Hey, it’s up to us to be able to communicate in a visual way, what you want, and the least amount of revisions possible.”  So we say we have everything from $150 to $450, depending on the intricacy of the design.

And then from there where we take that into the creative development, you know, we’re focusing on specialty inks, add-ons of retail finishing while everyone doesn’t need that. It lets those customers that just want a good partner. You know, they build that trust. But then for those that want to elevate their merchandise and sell more, then they can get into all the cool stuff.

‘Cause all because you offer puff doesn’t mean it’s perfect for every project. So we promote the specialty inks, but we want to make sure it’s a holistic view of the garment. Not just, let’s just use puff because we can, and that’s, what’s trending. Um, doesn’t fit your vibe.

So, a unique approach, personal touch, and create a focus is what I like to think that separates us from others.

Marshall Atkinson:

Yeah. So that means we’re not just making the logo bigger. We’re doing some more things with that,

Jeremy Picker:

Right. Yeah. Yeah. Again, all because you can doesn’t mean you should, when there’s like a print that is right on the gut area, you know, I don’t care how nice your abs are. No one necessarily once the focal point being your stomach.

So, um, that’s part of our…I always tell a client when we start working together. It’s not just my opinion. It’s what’s right. The industry doing what the marketplace is doing. And at the end of the day, it’s your money. It’s your brand. If you don’t want to take the ideas, you know, go ahead. Yeah, I might be wrong, but I could be right. So, you know, we really like to have that opinion, you know, just to make sure that the customer’s getting more than just a t-shirt.

Marshall Atkinson:

Yeah. It’s funny. You know, it reminded me of a, I’m sure you’ve gotten it where a client sends in some artwork and it’s just absolutely horrible. And so my response has always been, “Hey, uh, Can I tell you how good our art team is?”

Jeremy Picker:

Yeah. How do you, yeah. How do you tactfully approach that? Cause you don’t know if their niece or their son or daughter designed it. So I always like to, so this is what I’m seeing in the marketplace that I think, you know, we could take your design and actually bring in some of these elements, you know, but hopefully we as an industry, you know, we’re, we are being experts, you know, not necessarily just calling ourselves that, but actually showcasing what we’re seeing,

Marshall Atkinson:

What other things I really love about AMB3R is your use of storyboards to get a conceptual feeling and an emotional link out and into your customer and designers’ minds. It really sets the direction.

So where did that come from and tell us all about how you use it?

Jeremy Picker:

Yeah, so I think it’s evolved over time. So back in 2008, just to give you a little history, my former business partner and I, when we started and AMB3R, we wanted to focus on the design and the creative.

He was a graphic designer by trade. He worked for a band merch company that, you know, they managed some pretty big bands.

And so he was a creative director in his past life. Um, and his approach was we would just go to PacSun or Zumiez. There was another retailer that’s dead now called Metro Park. And we would just go to their website. We’d grab three to five images, um, based upon, you know, the type of customer and what kit is, what I call it is going to be.

And so we would say, “Hey. We feel like your audience would fit with this style and this vibe.”

And so we started off really simple. I would pull off images, throw it on a numbers document and we would do a little bit sketch and then screenshot it to them. Um, you know, I think. Going forward, we then turned it into some proprietary software.

So back in 2010, we outsourced a group in India that knew how to code in PHP, and we had them build us a site. I would say it’s a prototype that never, never went to the next step, but it works. It’s functional and it’s a visual survey. So instead of the customer, trying to explain the style they want or the look.  They tell us what they want to be paired with images that they like, you know, a lot of people are, “Oh, I’ll know what I like when I see it”, which is such a bad way to approach design because you’re never going to get to that perfect design in my opinion, but it helps us and yeah, our designers to know that, “Hey. this is, you know, the event, the camp, the merch line”, but then they want this style.

And cause what I think is cool, what you think is cool Marshall and what my designers think is cool is going to be completely different. So instead of just our tastes, we pair it with the marketplace.

From that, I think we’ve refined our design process.  Two, two to three revisions, max, we start with a concept sketch and then go in once. That is kind of, yeah, we’ve worked through and it’s just more for basement elements, main, main components. And then if they liked that, we take it to the digital phase and really make it. Really nice. And so by doing that, it really minimizes that back and forth, instead of saying, what do you want when they cancel our sketch or design, we then slow down and we just start asking them if-then questions. Yes. Or no questions. So, you know, it gives them the creative control, quote, unquote, I’m doing air quotes right now. But it puts them in a funnel that we want them to go in.

We’ll screenshot onto font, six different font types. Which font do you like since you don’t like the ones we do? And obviously it’s more PC than that, but they pick one.

Well, we’re giving them the choices. We’re creating the ring. They’re having this kind of a ring of what we want them to do.

Marshall Atkinson:

The idea here is beginning with the end in mind.

What are we going to do?

So if I can narrow down the choices. These colors, these fonts, this type of icon…I can get to where I need to go faster. Okay.

Then if it’s because most decision-makers in business, they hire designers because they can’t design themselves. And the reason we’ve heard, you know, “I’ll know it when I see it.” is because people kind of have a really good idea of what they like, but it’s really hard to articulate.

Jeremy Picker:

Yup. Cause most we’re dealing with aren’t necessarily creatives that can explain that. So I think. You know the evolution of this back in 2013, I got sick and I had a lot of downtime. I spent hours and hours and hours on Pinterest, and I really started building my own internal mood board, not for anything specific, just categories, you know, specialty inks, tie, dyes, belt buckles, enamel pins, just really. Just being lost in Pinterest. I think by doing that for five-plus years, it really helped me start to pick things out. And when someone would say, Hey, I’m motorsport or, you know, motor company, or, you know, I’m a nonprofit for dogs.

My mind, all always goes to my Pinterest boards of like, Oh, I remember seeing this.  I think we can bring this in. And then fast forward to the present, I think an integral part of the creative journey, whether we’re designing or working with customer-submitted artwork is how do we help them elevate it if they don’t hire us for any of the design? That doesn’t mean we still can’t help them elevate that design.

So we try to get involved with the creative direction, shirt, colors, ink colors, you know, decoration techniques. And so I think that that really, that mood board is that foundation at that point blueprint moving forward, whether it’s for this season, whether it’s for this event or whether it’s for the customer for the whole year, we can always go back to there and say, Hey, this is what we agreed upon.

So let’s keep it in that vein unless you want to start, you know, a different style, a different look, but it helps. Everyone that can’t be in person, the designer, us, you know, the the remote client. We’re not all in the same room. So the more visuals, the more references that we can go back to keeps everyone on the same page.

Marshall Atkinson:

Yeah. I really love that. And the, one of the things I’ve used throughout my career is the idea of the pertinent negative.

And so the pertinent negative is all about what don’t you want, so let’s say we’re doing a rodeo design.

You know what? I don’t want it as a cow skull. I don’t want boots and spurs

Jeremy Picker:

or native rope.

Marshall Atkinson:

Okay. Don’t show me anything with that stuff. So if we asked that question of our client, Ahead of time then our designers, and guess what they could skip right over that.

And I think having a visual mood board or using Pinterest, I have a secret. A Pinterest board that that thing must have 4,000 things. And I’m always pinning and looking, looking at stuff.

I like to be inspired, but I don’t copy people.

Jeremy Picker:


Marshall Atkinson:

I know you don’t either, but I just want to throw it out there.

What we’re not doing is plagiarizing ideas. We’re being inspired by the fact that they use type that was transparent or they put a little. Will be Jim in the corner, or they did a triple outline around the fonts or something like that, that can kickstart a great idea that you can use for your client.

And I think Pinterest or your own, you know if you’re going to have somebody develop. You know what a semi-functional website like you did, right? It’s going to be able to gather this information and we can use that later to our best it’s a benefit,

Jeremy Picker:

A hack that I’ve used, do it all manual. I would take images off of the internet and throw them into different folders will again, it’s speed.  It’s curating. Pinterest is just the best place for that.

I mean, I know there’s other ones that designers use that you can, you know, create your own mood boards, but Pinterest, it works on all your different devices. It’s easy to access private, non-private. You can share it with clients, your designer, other people, but then I hire a virtual assistant on Fiverr that goes maybe twice a year.  I, they go to my Pinterest boards and I have them pull off every image from every board into a folder system. So while I used to do that manually, I liked doing that, but I realized that my time is better spent doing those other things. So I, you hire them to do that kind of dirty work for me. And then from there, that’s how we populate our proprietary.

So it used to be such a huge chore. Well, I’m like, well, I’m already getting an image, market research images all day, every day. How can I easily take it from Pinterest to our platform? And so that has been the best way. Again, hire people that are better, faster, and well cheaper than you. Sometimes it depends on the task, but yeah, that’s been a great help too, to now have an internal library of images that you can easily grow.

Marshall Atkinson:

When you’re working with a customer on a project, how is it that better? Art sells more shirts. Right. Cause I know this absolutely to be true.

And what’s your starting point on that would say we’re having a discussion with a new client. How do you deal with that concept and getting them to understand that this is an investment to help you sell more?

Jeremy Picker:

Yeah, so, you know, I think graphic tee shirts being that focus, you know, obviously there are brands that they’re their basics and they have a little, little tiny logo hit. Most people aren’t going to be able to pull that off. You know, how many, how many basics do you need when you go into graphic tee shirts?

Art is the first thing people see when purchasing a garment, my band merch world, I was a retail store in every city, in the state, are in the country. And I got to see that real-time, real-time data of people.

Which shirt do they want there? The shirts, or let’s say for the band specifically, they’re up behind you.

They’re on a board. You can’t touch them. You can’t try I’m on, you don’t know, you know, soft. It is you’re, you’re instantly either attracted or not attracted to that design. So I think. That is what’s going to pull them in and then they can see the cool, you know, the great decoration or the soft printer, the really nice cut of the garment.

You know, I think that a lot of our industry focuses is on just getting that product made, not in the design becomes, you know, an afterthought or it’s just part of what we do to print shirts when. It should be the very first focus. Again, people, if they’re passing it on the rack, if they see it online, it has to engage with them visually, if it’s not pro or, you know, again, it’s all different tastes, but that is why people are going to click on that to see, okay, what style, what colors, if they don’t even like the design, they’re going to go over it.

And so, what I’m seeing in retail, I’m, I’m wanting, I’m looking at what is selling, you know, you can search, let’s say Zumiez, PacSun, H & M. You can search by top sellers.

Perfect go there. They’ve spent millions of dollars on trying to get that data and you can access it for free because most of the people we’re creating for aren’t necessarily the trendsetters.

They are kind of following up on the trends and supporting them. So you take what is live in retail now?

See what’s selling well. And then how can I bring that into my customer’s design, engaging with their audience?

And so that’s where I tell them, I’m like, wow. And your customer sees your shirt and a Hurley shirt in the closet.

Why are they going to pick yours over theirs?

You know, a lot of times people don’t necessarily have these big brands. They just, I like the style, the look, it might be popular, but let’s say, you know, you’re a nonprofit or. You know, you’re a food and beverage venue. They have that not only visual that they like about your shirt, they also have this emotional connection and involvement beyond that.

So I see what’s selling to retail and I think people can actually take advantage more so than some of the big brands because they have that direct connection with the support of the consumer. And again, design gets you there.

In a lot of people, I think, overthink it too much. You can over-design as well.

You know, I don’t, I don’t think I even talked about that enough, but people want to get out so much onto a design or communicate this like the serial idea. And it’s like, you don’t have time for that. People are going to have two seconds to look at that shirt and they either like it, or they don’t, you’re not going to be able to completely communicate your mission statement and what you want them to get from a tee shirt.

That’s a great place for the hangtag. Put your story on the hangtag, let them read it once and then be done with it.

What is going to get them to wear that shirt over it?

Marshall Atkinson:

Yeah. And what we’re searching for here is that when we do laundry, it’s the first shirt that comes out of the dryer.

I’m putting it on, cause this is my favorite shirt. Now it’s clean.

Jeremy Picker:

There you go. Yup. Back in rotation. Yeah, that goes again to the sustainability. Not necessarily eco, but how can we have a longer shelf life to when we’ve all seen the videos of how much goes into making a tee shirt and the impact on the environment?

Well, let’s counterbalance some of that by creating a shirt, that’s going to have a longer shelf life, not go directly to the graveyard of t-shirts being the thrift store.

Marshall Atkinson:

Okay. What is the decoration technique that always sells, but really isn’t quite as known, you know, so what’s working best. I mean, it’s just, there’s just a normal screen print, but what else do you do with that shirt to really just kick it up?

And it’s just a simple thing that somebody can take right now and they can sell more by doing one or two new things?

Jeremy Picker:

Good question. I mean, I think this would be into the graphic t-shirt decorated apparel space, but for me, and I can maybe give two of these just, you know, depending on what you think. So my opinion would be applique.

You know, that’s how I started my career. That is what got me to really enjoy the creation and the creativity that can go into it. You know, it’s very tactile. You can choose a wide, wide variety of fabrics depending. On the look you’re going for, if you’re in motorsports or auto, you can do, you know, carbon fiber faux diamond plate.

If you, you know, are sports, you can do, you know, like so football or basketball material. And then if you want this more preppy collegiate look, you can do felt or cotton twill. Like there’s so many layers. Within that as a creative, I love it because it is just layers, you know, it’s not just, here’s my design printed on a shirt.

It’s what type of fabric, what type of stitching do I want on it? And also you can go multimedia with it.

You can screen print something and then do a little bit of, you know, let’s just say initials of an applique letter over the chest. So now you have this depth to a shirt and. Not only that I think it has a higher perceived value because, you know, even if you don’t have the best taste or you’re not shopping at the highest end places, when you see something that’s embroidered and are applique on versus just printing you, the consumer can already tell that.

That has a higher perceived value. But now there are so many people that have lasers that even if they don’t do the application in house, you can find someone that can cut fabric. You know, even if you have to send it to them, you can cut letters or, you know, I know there are other companies out there that.

You can buy premade, appliques, you know, there are limits to that, but if you don’t have the supply chain, then you know, they’re a great source. You can heat, press them on. I’m always a fan of stitching them on, but, um, really you can use so many different elements when it comes to applique and to the fall and winter months, uh, a one-color felt applique with just their name and arts letters is going to be one of their most popular items. I know it is for them, many of my customers, again, if you’re reselling these, that is great. Especially if you have a brick and mortar because as people are going by, they see that they can touch it. And it really creates this uniqueness to it.

I know Abercrombie and Hollister used to. Do some crazy market research and all they did is take what has been made from the past, washed torn up tattered. And how do we replicate that?

Marshall Atkinson:

And I think what we’re going for here is just the patina of my favorite “it looks like I’ve had this thing for years”, even though I just bought it two weeks ago

Jeremy Picker:

Yeah. And that’s, that’s great for on the vintage kind of worn inside, but then you have your athletic sporty…all the football, basketball, jerseys, baseball, they’re all done without applique with tackle twill, zigzag stitches. So it really there’s. You can have a great applique look with any style that you’re going for.

Streetwear, action sports. That’s the nice thing about utilizing specialty stitches. Yeah. Great. Great.

Marshall Atkinson:

Well, thanks, Jeremy. I really appreciate this fun look at designing for apparel and how it translates into sales. So for anyone that wants to get in touch with you, or learn more about how AMB3R can help them with their next creative campaign, what’s the best way that they can get in touch with you?

Jeremy Picker:

Yeah. So I’m most active on LinkedIn.

I try to, I try to post on most channels, but LinkedIn is just a great spot to, you know, to share my philosophy on our industry. You know, I focus on design, creative development, merchandise curation, and, and also I bring in marketing stuff in there and social media.

How can you utilize those platforms to expand your brand?

Uh, second would be Twitter. I’m at JW picker. Twitter has been my fun engaging place for people in our industry. You know, we were involved in a couple of communities together, uh, Marshall, and I think just if you need some fresh ideas, if you feel stuck, you have to get out of your box and talks amongst your peers. You know, I used to be very, you know, this is my information. I don’t want to share it. You know, I don’t, it was all competitor, competitor, and yeah, with maturity, I’ve discovered that I can only do so much. I can only have so many calls. My philosophy is I want to help people make the best possible…and if I help my peers/competitors, whatever they are, make a better shirt for their customer, then have this fulfillment because you know, we’re saving bad shirts from the graveyard of, uh, the trash can.

Marshall Atkinson:

I love it. And I know personally that the more that you share online, the more opportunities open up.

And the more you give away, the more it comes back. And so if you’re the “close to the vest and I’m white-knuckling-got-a-death-grip on stuff, and I’m not going to give you that information, you don’t have any opportunities coming your way.

Jeremy Picker:

Yup. Yup. You have to open up to receive. Right. So yeah, I mean, you do that.

Greater than anyone in our industry, you are everywhere. You know, you, you can tell you’re a craftsman-like that. You put tons of tons of time just to help people again, a lot of the times, yes, you’ll get business from it.

And I asked Kirby Hasseman, you know, why do you do this? And it’s like, You have other better things to do with your time than just giving out free content, but that’s who you are.

And I think that’s why you’re here today. You know, people want you because you are there helping, not only just in the apparel world, but for the promo world. And so thank you for setting the bar high.

Cause like sometimes I’ll be like I haven’t posted for two days and here’s Marshall posting twice a day, you know, and it keeps me on my toes.

So thank you for that.

Marshall Atkinson:

Well, Hey, you’re welcome. And uh, I use apps. That’s not really me posting,

Jeremy Picker:


Marshall Atkinson:

Uh, I have a rule… it’s about 80-20, so I create 20% of the content and the other 80% is the stuff that I like. And, uh, because if you’re always me, me, me, me, me…you’re that guy at the party, that’s always talking about themselves. And nobody wants to hear that, man,

Jeremy Picker:

Unless you’re on a podcast where you are coming on to talk about yourself, right?

Marshall Atkinson:

Yeah, exactly. Oh, you know, this is my platform here. Right. But guess what? I’m highlighting you.

I’m asking questions to you. Thank you so much. All right, Jeremy. Thank you so much. I appreciate your time.

Jeremy Picker:

Yeah. If anyone ever wants to ask me any questions, hit me up, DME. I love talking. T-shirts. Awesome.

Marshall Atkinson:


Well, that’s our show today. Thanks for listening. And don’t forget to subscribe so you can stay up to date on the latest Success Stories episodes.

If you have any suggestions for future guests or topics, send them my way at marshall@marshallatkinson.com.

And we’ll see you next time.

Sep 9, 2020