Why I Design Merchandise or How To Suck At Guitar and Work In Rock and Roll

When I was younger I played in several bands. I was never really very good at guitar, but I always thought I would end up a musician in a semi-successful group. Obviously, that never really worked out, but somewhere along the way I learned that bands need merchandise. I decided I would be one of the guys who designs it.

I’ve always been fascinated with album covers. There was a time in my life when I would buy an album based solely on the cover art. And how many of us can’t resist getting the t-shirt of a band we’re seeing? We want everyone to know that we not only like **insert cool band here** but we just saw **insert cool band here** live in concert. We want to wear that shirt to school or the bar with our friends. We want to keep that shirt forever, because they were ah-may-zing that night. We want to hang on to those memories, locked in that shirt. I know these things because I got that blue Boredoms t-shirt with the weird set of eyes on the front at Lollapalooza in 1994, which I sadly do not own anymore, and the maroon Umphrey’s McGee Wonka logo shirt I got at my first show in 2003. I’m happy to report that I proudly still wear that one.

Let’s go back in time for a minute. I was in a band in the ‘90s – in fact, it was my first band. We were definitely the coolest junior high band ever, Palmistry. We had all the good gigs: basements, the school cafeteria, school assemblies, my parents’ back yard. Not bad for a Metallica cover band comprised of 13-year-old kids. I remember painting shirts at a friend’s house for the band. I don’t think this counts as the first thing I ever really designed, but I do think the seed was planted that day.

My first album cover, 1998. Yes, that’s me in a half shirt and tiny shorts as a child.

My first album cover, 1998. Yes, that’s me in a half shirt and tiny shorts as a child.

The first band I really got to design for was also a band I was in, oddfellow. I made vinyl stickers and screenprinted shirts in school, and laid out my first album cover on a computer. I put together all of the fliers for our shows and photocopied hundreds of them in my mother’s office at work. That first album cover? That was for a cassette. I still have this cover tucked away in my archive. The shirts, the stickers, the cover… all of these things were pretty terrible. Especially that cassette design. Yeah, that’s Comic Sans as my font of choice.

Several years and several bands later, my desire to perform left, but I still wanted to be involved in the rock business. It was probably right around this time I started taking design a bit more seriously. By the way, I never went to college. I spent several years in a college town which I refer to as “my college years,” but I never went to a class. Wasn’t even enrolled. I actually moved there to be in a band. Design was just a hobby. A couple years after I moved to town and the band had called it quits I met a dude, Steve, and we became friends. We bonded over our love for a band called Umphrey’s McGee. Steve introduced to me to another guy, Louie, who also loved the same band. We followed the band together, all over the Midwest. Umphrey’s is proud to be from the Midwest, and so were we. Steve, Louie and I took that very basic idea and formed a company, MIDWESTpeeps. We sold shirts. We gave away thousands of stickers. We booked bands. MIDWEST helped expose my art to thousands of people, and without them I wouldn’t be the designer I am today. In the beginning, I sat in front of my computer every day, grinding away, making the best work I could. I still wasn’t that great. I don’t think any of that early MIDWESTpeeps work used Comic Sans, but I don’t know it was really all that much better.

The original MIDWESTpeeps logo, 2006

The original MIDWESTpeeps logo, 2006

MIDWESTpeeps helped me hone my craft. Not only was I spending hour upon hour working on our internal projects like shirts, stickers, show fliers and posters, but I was also doing the same for several lower-level bands. With every shirt, every sticker, every poster, I started to feel more confident in my talent and abilities. Again, credit to Steve and Louie for their constant enthusiasm in my work and persistence in driving me to be better. Slowly I submitted some of my work, shirts designs and such, to Umphrey’s McGee, the inspiration for our company, the king of the hill in our books. And guess what? They liked it.

The second vinyl album I designed for Umphrey's McGee, 2012.

The second vinyl album I designed for Umphrey's McGee, 2012.

Fast forward to the present. I’ve been lucky enough to work on some amazing projects for Umphrey’s McGee, and with Steve and Louie on the road working for the band I’ve stepped out on my own withCREATE. CREATE. RELAX. I just finished my third vinyl album cover, a 14 variant limited edition pin set that’s selling out every night on tour, several t-shirts and hooded sweatshirts, and a 52 page, 15-year anniversary tour program. I’m doing the best work I’ve done yet. The bonus? I get to see Umphrey’s McGee live quite a bit. Being literally surrounded at a concert by shirts you designed for the band you’re seeing is an amazingly overwhelming experience. I’m connected to this crowd in a very unique way. I have also had the amazing pleasure of seeing the inner bowels of some pretty cool venues. I’ve seen the basement of the Riverside Theater in Milwaukee, WI; the very easy to navigate, multi-level backstage of the Tabernacle in Atlanta, GA; and backstage at the State Theatre in Detroit, MI, a place I’ve been countless times since I was 14. And I didn’t even have to pick up a guitar to see those places.

Designing merchandise has its own set of rules and challenges. When it’s an album cover, it has to be timeless. It is going to sit in someone’s collection for years and be available online forever. When it’s a t-shirt, you want it to be the coolest fucking shirt in someone’s closet. You want them to wear it to the bar or their next show – and when they do wear it to the show, you get to see that shirt, out in the wild, on a kid having the time of his life. Merchandise matters to me. It matters to fans. It holds a special place in someone’s heart, and in my heart. It’s their favorite shirt, their favorite album, their favorite moment. It represents the band in parts of the world I’ve never seen, on people I will never meet. That, my friends, is pretty fucking cool. That is why I design merchandise. That feeling, that knowledge. Knowing that somewhere, someone can’t wait to go to the bar on Friday in their favorite shirt. I don’t know what it is that really drew me to design, but I do know that design has allowed me, in some small way, to live my childhood dream.

I might suck at guitar, but I work in rock and roll.

This article would be incomplete without mentioning the love of my life, Monica. She’s my muse, my inspiration, and she’s been a wonderful supporter of me as I try to make this a career. Thank you, Monica, and I love you.

P.S. — I’m happy to report I haven’t used Comic Sans in many years.


This post originally appeared on Medium.com

John EngelmanComment