Obinsun Interview: Cute Skulls, Cats, Rainbows – Oh My!by Michael Essek · Updated: July 20, 2020
Joel Robinson (aka. Obinsun) is an artist I’ve admired for a while.
You’ll regularly see his work being promoted and featured on the homepages of Redbubble, Teepublic or Threadless – and his simple but attractive style is highly recognisable.
Joel was kind enough to answer some questions from me about how he got started, what his creative process looks like, and what advice he would give to up and coming T-Shirt artists.
Let’s get into it!
Q: Can you tell us a little about yourself and how you got into selling your art online?
Hi, I’m Joel Robinson. I go by Obinsun for all my online art shenanigans. I’m rather shy, so being a professional POD person fits my personality. I get to spend most of my time doing what I love, art.
Back in 2013 I dropped out of college I and moved back in with my parents. Along with all the confusion and anxiety that encompassed that chapter of my life, I was at least able to focus all my free time on art for the first time. I adopted an artist hermit lifestyle. I worked part time inputing numbers into a computer and the rest of the time I spent making pixel art on my laptop track pad.
I stumbled upon Zazzle and spent a lot of time uploading my pixel art there. Although I did make sales, they were few and far between.
I was gifted a Wacom Intuos Pro drawing tablet (which I still use to this day) for my birthday in 2014. I immediately dropped pixel art and began immersing myself into the t-shirt illustration world.
Q: Do you remember your first t-shirt related success? A submission that got accepted or something like that?
My first big success came when Disgruntled was printed on Threadless. It was a pretty surreal moment for me. I felt like all the time and effort I put into designing and absorbing t-shirt knowledge from the community finally paid off. Getting a print on Threadless at the time was my one and only goal in life.
Q: Are t-shirts your full-time thing or do you also work a day job, do freelance, or have other royalty income?
All my income is from my t-shirt designs. I have done the odd commission here and there, but it’s not something I agree to do very often.
Q: Can you tell us about your creative process? How do you come up with ideas, and then how do go about turning them into designs?
Golden ideas are not easy to come by. The nice thing is every design doesn’t need to have an amazing pun or cleaver visual joke. Something as simple as a cute cat or funky skull can go just as far.
I do keep a list of potential t-shirt ideas on my phone. Most of the stuff I write down will just pop into my head during everyday activities like reading, watching tv or having a conversation. I’ll write down anything I think might possibly have an ounce of t-shirt potential, no matter how dumb. Here’s some examples of dumb stuff I have in my notes right now: Colorado Avocado, Goatst (goat ghost), Shoe Soul. I will make the shoe soul one happen, mark my words.
I’ll let an idea sit for a while until I feel confident enough to tackle it. Sometime it just needs to bounce around my head a few days, and sometimes I‘ll sit on an idea for years before I figure out how I want to execute it. You will also notice looking at my portfolio that I will revisit certain ideas every once an a while. I’ll do this if I think I didn’t do an idea justice the first time or I feel it has more potential.
My favorite way to generate Ideas is by simply sitting down and drawing. Nine times out of ten this will naturally lead to a good design. Puns and clever visual jokes are great, but don’t discount the impact of a simple rad illustration.
Turning ideas in to designs looks like this: I will sketch the idea out on paper or in Procreate, then enlarge it and trace the sketch in Procreate with a large monoline pen. All in black and white at this point. After that I send the traced version into Inkscape where I trace the bitmap and make a vector. Once I edit out all the imperfections I decide on a color palette and it’s ready to upload.
Q: How many designs you do produce a month or a week? do you set targets or just go with whatever?
I’m all over the place when it comes to actual number of designs I produce on a regular basis. Back when I started I was making a design a day. Eventually I hit the pace of about four designs a month which seems to be the right balance for me. I returned to school a couple of years ago so that has lowered my production mostly because I am a poor multitasker. I just graduated this June however. T-shirts will be my #1 priority once again moving forward. I’m already ramping up the pace.
Q: You have a very recognizable illustration style. Can you talk a bit about how that developed and to what extent is was a conscious decision?
I always loved comic strips growing up. The simple cartoony style is something I was heavily influenced by. I would spend a lot of time reading Garfield, The Far Side, Mutts, and Calvin and Hobbes. I was a doodler, and looking back at certain characters I used to draw back in elementary school, there is plenty of similarities between them and the characters I draw now. After High school I got hooked on Adventure Time and was inspired by the consistent line work and quirky humor. All this laid the groundwork for when I started deigning t-shirts.
With t-shirts I mostly just drew in a style that appealed to me and the more I created the more refined my style became.
Something I always keep in mind is personality. More than anything I want people to connect with my characters and I this means paying close attention to facial expressions, especially in the eyes. It is common for me to try many many combos of facial features on a single character before I’m happy. It’s something I never get right the first time.
Q: Your work gets promoted pretty regularly on Redbubble, Teepublic and others. What do you think it is about your designs that pushes them to the front page of these sites?
I think my designs cast a wide net. I certainly use a lot of themes that are universally popular and I think that plays a big role. My work is also very straightforward. I use limited color palettes and simple line work. I focus on one strong idea without over illustrating it. It’s important for the viewer to comprehend what’s going on in an instant.
All this combined together creates a bold and easy to understand design appealing to a wide audience. It’s eye catching and engaging. My designs might not be the most beautiful or exciting, but they are relatable, and I think that’s an important factor for when POD sites are choosing what gets promoted.
Q: Could you tell us a bit about the breakdown of your royalty income? ie. is redbubble your biggest earner, or do you make more from threadless, or others?
Right now Redbubble probably accounts for about 60% of my income. Threadless comes in second and sales from Teepublic, Design By Humans, Qwertee and Othertees fill out the rest.
The distribution of attention on Redbubble is spread throughout many more of my designs, so it’s not just the super popular ones that sell well. Threadless was my top earner for a while thanks to multiple successful prints, but as the power of a print on Threadless diminished over time, there was not enough steam coming from my Artist Shops to keep sales as consistent as Redbubble.
These days I make more on Threadless through their wholesale program than their exclusive catalog and Artist Shops combined. They connected me with Hot Topic where some of my grim reaper and cat designs have really taken off. It’s surreal to walk into my local Hot Topic to have my shirts up on the walls and see designs made into car air fresheners.
Q: How do you deal with copycats or people stealing your work?
I deal with them as little as possible. The rips and copycats never end. I don’t go looking for copycats, but people regularly send me examples of my work being ripped, which I’m very appreciative of. I have sent notices before, mostly on amazon and had some success taking care of rips. The whole process of emailing sellers back and fourth before it is completely resolved is such an awful way to spend my time and energy that now I will only go after a case that seems to be taking serious business away from me. It’s frustrating, and I have become increasingly apathetic.
Q: Almost all your designs seem to be ‘original’ – you don’t play off others IP which is a common theme on Print on Demand sites. Is that a conscious decision, or did things just develop that way?
I’ve made a practice of not using other’s IP in my designs since day one. I love a good pop culture design as much as the next person, but making them myself just doesn’t interest me. I know I’m missing out on a big portion of the POD market, but I personally feel uncomfortable representing IP that’s not mine whether I have permission or not. Maybe part of it is I have never been someone who draws much pop culture stuff anyways. I have always enjoyed creating my own characters. It also makes my life easier because I don’t have to worry about any of my designs being taken down due to copyright infringement.
The nice thing is no one owns the IP to stuff like cats, skulls, rainbows, wizards or unicorns. I haven’t been tempted to rely on other’s IP for content because there’s an endless supply of things we all already love.
Q: Can you share your all-time bestselling design and any you’re especially proud of – and tell us why?
Dogtor is my all time best seller. It caught fire as soon as it was printed on Threadless and has been consistently a great seller on most other sites I use as well. Puns are super powerful, however the tricky thing is coming up with puns that lend themselves to imagery that people will fall in love with, like a dog doctor.
My personal #1 favorite design is Cats Are Nice. It has found some decent success, but not anything near my top sellers. For me the shirt perfectly captures the catharsis of just sitting with a cat and staring vacantly off into space. It’s the only one of my shirts that I wear on a regular basis.
Q: Do you do any marketing for your designs – or do you just pick up sales from the organic traffic of the sites you sell on?
I don’t do any marketing myself. It honestly isn’t something I’ve put much thought into. As it stands enough traffic is sent my way from the sites I sell on so I haven’t felt any urgency to invest in marketing. Not to mention I’m already horrible at self promotion. I’m sure there is a ratio of money spent to attention received that would benefit me more than not buying ads, but I haven’t done the research and am therefore rather ignorant on the topic. I would love to reach out to other artists and see what works for them.
Q: What advice would you give to someone who wants to follow in your footsteps, and successfully make money from creating original designs? What are the most important things they should focus on?
For someone interested in POD, this is what worked for me;
- A consistent grind creating new designs – Make one, learn from mistakes, immediately move on to the next design. Repeat indefinitely. As important as quality is, finding success in POD takes a lot of trail and error. This is where quantity shines.
- It is important to remember you are not creating in a vacuum. You don’t have to guess what will sell well, just look at the popular section on all the various POD sites. Use this information to set expectations for your own work.
- If your work doesn’t fit the mold of one POD site, find the one where it does. If your work doesn’t fit in any of them, you either have to come to terms with the fact that you have a huge uphill battle ahead of you or just drop POD and invest your energy elsewhere – Remember POD isn’t for everybody. Find whatever platform is conducive to your art. Success takes as much time and energy as any other job. There is no shortcut.
- Learn some art fundamentals if you haven’t already. Even basic color theory, perspective and anatomy will be invaluable.
- Get feedback. It’s always helpful, even if you don’t choose to apply all of it.
- Make the art you want to make. People are always looking for genuine human connection, and if something is funny or interesting to you, chances are someone somewhere will think so too.
Thank you Joel!
Couple of thoughts from me…
- Joel’s is a great example of how a simple idea – well executed – makes an ideal T-Shirt design. Removing all distractions and communicating a message succinctly is often much more effective than hours of intricate illustration work. As Joel said, “It’s important for the viewer to comprehend what’s going on in an instant.”
- Joel has been able to enter into offline licensing via Threadless – which is a channel few people even know about. But if your designs resonate well with Threadless (and their brick & mortar partners such as Hot Topic) – then this potentially lucrative channel can open up to you.
- Joel has found success by being truly original, paying attention to trends in his target marketplaces and consistently creating new designs. It’s perhaps not new advice, but it’s still true. Constantly improving as an artist whilst always thinking about the customers you want to serve is the recipe for long-term growth.
My thanks to Joel for taking the time to answer my questions.
Be sure to follow Joel on Instagram for regular cute funny puns – and if you got anything from this interview consider picking up a Shirt from one of his stores below.
Thanks again Joel!