“Let’s Summon Steven” – An Interview With Retro T-Shirt Illustrator Steven Rhodesby Michael Essek · Updated: May 27, 2020
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you will already be familiar with the work of Steven Rhodes. (heck, you probably own a shirt or two).
Steven has had an incredible couple of years, due to his hilariously dark and perfectly illustrated takes on 70s and 80s style children’s books.
He’s dominated all the major print-on-demand sites, and has broken out beyond the internet to see his work sold in Hot Topic and Spencers stores across America.
I’ve admired Steven’s work and watched his growth from afar, and he was recently kind enough to answer some questions from nosy old me.
So without further ado – and with lights off and candles flickering ominously – I hereby summon Steven:
Q: Can you tell us a bit about who you are and your background and career path before you ended up doing T-Shirts?
Sure. My name is Steven Rhodes and I’m an illustrator based in Brisbane, Australia.
I’m primarily focused on T-shirt design and I’m obsessed by all things retro and vintage.
I was always that kid who was good at art but I wasn’t confident I could make a career out of it so I studied Landscape Architecture at university.
I worked in that field for a while before accepting that it wasn’t my true calling. I was always doing art on the side and it was clear that I wouldn’t be truly happy unless I followed that path.
I studied graphic design and worked as an in-house designer for a youth-orientated apparel company for a few years where I was designing T-shirts, headwear, skateboards, wallets, belts, shoes, accessories – basically anything and everything.
Q: You’ve been doing the T-Shirt thing online for a while now. When did you start, and when were you able to go go ‘full time’ on t-shirts?
Yeah, the whole time I was working full-time I was always making illustrations in my spare time.
I started submitting designs to Threadless about 10 years ago and I really enjoyed the challenge and the interactive nature of it. I think that process taught me a lot about the “art’ of T-shirt design, the importance of concept and how to strip an idea down to its core elements.
I finally went freelance about 2 years ago now.
Q: Your designs are sold in brick and mortar stores – Spencers and Hot Topic, alongside the most popular Print-On-Demand tee sites. I gather you also still do commissioned work. Can you tell us a bit about how your income percentage breaks down between all these different channels?
The licensing side of things is pretty new to me but is an area I’m keen to explore and develop further.
I’m not the kind of person that’s particularly interested in the business side of things. I like to stay busy with the creative work and not have to worry about production, shipping, customer service etc, so this business model is a good fit for my personality.
Commissioned work makes up the smallest percentage of my income. I like to keep doing occasional commissions as it helps you break out of your regular patterns when you have to design to a brief. It keeps you on your toes.
The passive income from the POD sites allows me to keep making my own self-initiated work.
Q: Your greatest success has come with your ‘vintage children’s book’ designs. When did you first realise you were onto something there?
That 70s/80s kids book design aesthetic has always been something that’s really appealed to me.
I grew up in the 80s so these kinds of designs are just a part of me I guess. The first design I made in this style was one called “Science!”.
I really enjoyed the process and the end result so I made another one in the same style called “Let’s Summon Demons”. This one turned out to be successful in a way that I’d never experienced before with any of my designs and I kept going from there.
Q: Looking back through your Instagram, you’ve done a few different design ‘collections’ in very specific styles (eg. the Wes Anderson collection). Would you advise artists to create series of designs like this, over creating completely ‘standalone’ designs?
Ultimately I think every artist is different and they need to trust their own instincts. Earlier in my journey I didn’t really have a distinctive ‘look’ and I would just use an illustration style I felt was most suitable for the concept. I think that was a useful process because that’s how you find the styles that work best for you and you can refine things from there.
I try not to overthink things too much and just go where the inspiration takes me.
Q: Copycats and infringers are a common issue for t-shirt designers. How do you deal with them?
And it seems to be getting worse all the time!
I do the normal things like DMCA takedown notices or just emailing/messaging the infringing company.
With a lot of the Chinese markets like AliExpress and Wish, the sheer amount of copyright infringement is pretty overwhelming and there’s only so much you can do as one person.
Q: You can obviously create proficiently in a variety of different design styles. Do you feel at all constrained now that you have a very recognisable, ‘Steven Rhodes’ style?
Fortunately this is a style I really enjoy working in, and I have a genuine love for the source material.
I could spend hours walking around second-hand bookstores looking at all the amazing retro cover art.
Q: You found your ‘thing’ in the vintage style stuff. How would you advise an aspiring t-shirt artist who wants to find their own ‘thing’?
My style grew out of a real obsession with vintage design.
My wife and I love mid-century modernism and we spend our weekends trawling through antique shops. I think the best work comes organically from the things you’re passionate about.
So I’d advise to look at what you find exciting and inspiring and use that as a springboard. The weirder the better. Don’t just try and copy whatever the trend of the month is.
Q: What is your all time best selling design, and which is your personal favourite?
‘Let’s Summon Demons’ by a mile. None of my other designs even come close.
I kinda like how ‘Don’t Talk to Strangers’ turned out. It has a bit more detail in the background than what I usually do.
Q: If you could go back in time 5 years or so – what, if anything, would you have done differently?
I’m gonna cheat a bit on this question and go back to my high school self.
I’d say follow your instincts and pursue an art career.
I feel like I’d have gotten to where I am a lot sooner if I’d had the confidence.
There’s no clear-cut career path for creative people and it can feel pretty daunting. But if you believe in yourself and have the drive it’s definitely achievable.
Q: What are your plans for the future?
I’d like to work on a few more projects that aren’t inherently T-shirt related. Maybe explore books and try and expand on my designs with some writing.
Thank you Steven!
Couple of thoughts from me…
- I really recommend you take a long, leisurely stroll through Steven’s Instagram, because it’s clear to see his development from doing a wide variety of projects, to narrowing his focus to his vintage-children’s designs. It’s a good reminder that it takes time and consistent effort to find your particular voice and become proficient at that style.
- Steven is immensely talented and his work speaks for itself – but he was also able to catch the zeitgeist with ‘Let’s Summon Demons’ (and subsequent work). Steven was smart enough to see that there was potential here for a series of designs, rather than simply going on to new and different stuff. The lesson is; if you find something that’s working: keep doing it.
- Steven has a knack for boiling down a concept and distilling it into the perfect design. The design skills alone aren’t enough – you must also be able to identify good ideas and develop them into workable concepts.
- Because Steven developed his own style, he now has a formidable personal brand and following. His work is protectable because it’s unique & original – and he now has the benefit of a legion of fans he can market to – and who come in handy when an infringement takes place. It may be tempting to chase the latest trend or topic, but long-term you want to build something of lasting value – and that means doing your own thing – and as Steven says – “the weirder the better.”
My thanks to Steven for taking the time to do this.
Any aspiring T-Shirt artist can learn a lot from Steven’s success, and I recommend you follow him on Instagram, and check out his full range of designs and products at the various stores linked below.
I’ve also included links to other interviews Steven has done – for those who want to pick more of his brains.
Be sure to pick up a shirt as a way of saying thanks to Steven 🙂
More Interviews with Steven:
- Threadless Interview
- Teepublic Interview
- Ohh Deer Interview
- Society6 Interview 1 & 2
- The Design Kids Interview