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Some artists go to the Threadless website for the competition, to craft T-shirt designs that will win a given week's online contest.
Some go for the constructive criticism, the feedback -- good, bad and brutal -- they get from fellow artists about their work.
A few even go for the compensation, the payout that winning designs garner.
But they stay for the community, a coterie of creative sorts, thousands strong, who bond online on a daily basis.
"What makes this a success is getting immersed, all the interactivity," said Minneapolis graphic designer Phil Jones.
Eight of Jones' designs have become Threadless T-shirts, and one of them appeared in the recently published "Threadless" -- a book by Jake Nickell that chronicles, as its subtitle says, "10 Years of T-shirts From the World's Most Inspiring Online Community."
Nickell, who was born in Rochester, Minn., was a 20-year-old art-school dropout when he co-founded the website, then called Dreamless, a decade ago.
"It really started as a hobby," he said, "something fun to do with a lot of artists I know online."
Since then, annual revenues have grown from $20,000 to tens of millions, a company official said. Most revenue comes from annual sales of millions of T-shirts.
Every week, the website (www.threadless.com) posts hundreds of design submissions for potential T-shirts. Registered users then rate them from zero to five points.
Six of those designs actually become T-shirts -- their creators get $2,000, a $500 gift certificate and a shot at more money -- but it's not always the six highest scorers.
"Sometimes a design can score off the charts, and they don't print it for business reasons," said Jones, 28.
More than 80,000 artists, two-thirds of them from overseas, have submitted designs. Nickell said Threadless has filled orders from 180 countries.
The designs are all over the map figuratively, too, from simple block lettering ("Procrastinators: leaders of tomorrow") to Jones' Mr. T made of folded-up T-shirts.
While T-shirts make up the inventory online and at three Chicago stores, Threadless is looking into designs for other types of products.
"But we will keep it where the artists are designing for themselves rather than for a company," Nickell said.
He added that Threadless is meant to be more an avocation than a job for designers, geared "for people who go home and still have creative energy."
The site certainly works that way for Brock Davis, 37, creative director at the Minneapolis ad agency Carmichael Lynch Spong. He has four winning designs in the book -- including "Boynado," in which a little tornado with a cow swirling in its vortex asks a bigger tornado, "Can I keep it?"
"In my regular job, the creative work needs to be approved, and needs to be more than for my own personal satisfaction," Davis said. "At Threadless, it's like your brain going on vacation and having fun. You can do something you want, and if doesn't work out, you just do another one."
But while the site can be, in Davis' words, "very warm, very welcoming," sensitive sorts need not apply.
"Oh, you get really thick skin quickly," said David Schwen, 27, who works at the Minneapolis branding agency Mono. "But hard criticism makes you better."
"If you have a really good idea and the execution isn't right, they'll say, 'Wow, great idea, but you should do this and this.'"
"At a certain level of success, everybody becomes your mother," he said, "and goes, 'That's nice,' and puts [your work] up on the refrigerator.
"Everybody needs criticism. I get consumer feedback from my wife. But artists can tell me why something is not working. The immediate feedback is irreplaceable."
The collaboration and communication extend beyond the electronic realm, to regular meet-ups worldwide.
"Yes, designers will put the computer down and go meet each other in person," said a chuckling Davis, who went to a meet-up this year in Chicago. "You get to know these people and learn that they're even cooler in person than online."
It helps, Davis added, that the company is not like a typical corporation.
"It's small, it's nimble, and it's like a family," he said. "And in turn, their community online is the same way."
Nickell is determined to keep it that way. So don't look for Threadless T-shirts at your nearby department store. He said he was approached by Target and Urban Outfitters about carrying the shirts, but "we've just always shied away from that because we felt the stories of where the design comes from couldn't be told there."
Bill Ward • 612-673-7643
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