Carl Huber is a New Yorker and professional branding and marketing designer who loves Dungeons & Dragons. Lucky for us, he also loves designing t-shirts; pop culture t-shirts, gamer t-shirts, fitness t-shirts, political t-shirts… he’ll probably branch out into different themes when the inspiration strikes. He also enjoys a bit of celebrity cyberstalking. If I were in his shoes, I’m sure I’d do the same.
Carl has a formal art education but has continued to hone his skill independently. He’s got a webcomic called theWAREHOUSE that’s fun. I especially enjoyed the older strips. They are a nostalgic trip. Oh, the things we used to be concerned with. Anyway, to learn more about Carl Huber and Natural 20 Shirts, all you have to do is read on.
Carl Huber Interview
Your t-shirt brand is Natural 20 Shirts. I think this one I can figure out. You’re a hardcore tabletop gamer and a natural 20 is the best score on a d20 game dice. Your original t-shirt designs were game based and you thought you would create a line of t-shirts for tabletop gamers. Am I right or am I right?
Nailed it right out of the gate. One of my goals with this endeavor was to brand myself as something immediately recognizable that people can connect to. I’ve started a variety of design efforts and in the past always struggled on focus. I’m learning and realizing that I don’t necessarily have to eliminate my ideas, but I do need to market and brand them separately. For example, I have a line of fitness and workout based designs called Strong By Design. Natural 20 Shirts covers the gamut of my nerdy interests. Some video game stuff, some science topics, lots of pop-culture hits, lots of D&D and tabletop game references. That’s my jam. But in this current political climate, I am extremely moved and motivated to branch out into social justice designs as well.
I see on Facebook that you are based in New York. Born and raised?
I’ve lived in various parts of New York but yes, always within the state.
What do you like most about where you live?
Western New York has amazing hiking and biking, great lakes and parkland that a lot of people just don’t know about. We also have a vibrant music and restaurant scene.
What do you like to do in your free time?
Outside of creating new designs/art and promoting it (which certainly takes up a lot of time), I enjoy cooking, woodworking projects, reading, and planning and running two separate Dungeons & Dragons games. There’s so much good TV out right now that I have to be fairly selective about what I take in. It’s easy to get overloaded.
Do you work full-time in art and design? Do you have a 9 to 5 or are you a freelancer?
I have been a professional branding and marketing designer for about 15 years now, with a focus on consumer product packaging but also website design and development, illustration, copywriting – at my design agency we wear a lot of hats. I hate to be over-specialized.
About the Artist
When did you start creating art?
I’m grateful that I come from a family that was a blend of engineers and artists. I’ve learned a lot about creativity and critical thinking basically since birth. I’ve always been interested in art, both creative and practical.
Do you have a formal art education or are you self-taught?
I was graduated magna cum laude with a BS in Fine Art, a year early (I overloaded and took a summer semester). That said, a lot of the skills I developed were self-taught within an educational framework that allowed me to do my own research; tutorials, experiments, and creative exploration. I think it’s very important to have a mix of that. A college or university can lead you through a program, but if you don’t have the passion yourself to take some initiative, what’s the point?
I see you have a webcomic called theWAREHOUSE? Tell us about that. When and why did you start it? What type of topics do you focus on?
You DID do your research! For what it’s worth, we are still at warehousecomic.com and have been for a while. It started out YEARS ago as an offshoot of my then-blog but grew in popularity. The stuff I get around to sharing on Tumblr is either auto-posted or a once-a-quarter marketing effort from me when I remember that Tumblr exists. I used to have a blog back in the very very early CollegeHumor and EBaum’sWorld days where you could get a LOT of traffic by doing random weird experiments and projects and documenting it.
I remember x-entertainment being a huge influence on me – apparently, the guy’s over at DinosaurDracula.com these days. Anyway, I had a lot of traffic by doing all these random projects. I happened to draw a couple webcomics because I just had some ideas bouncing around my head. They caught on pretty well. We had a small but thriving forum community for a while; people with whom I’m still friends. My interest, and the internet’s interest, in visiting random-project-blogs waned, and so my focus turned to the webcomic. Then we got outpaced by other webcomics with bigger more bombastic concepts. We had a good run. That said, theWAREHOUSE still has a small but wonderful and dedicated fan base! Heck, people have even gotten tattoos of some of my comics!
For what it’s worth, the brand name “theWAREHOUSE” came about because of that initial lack of focus I mentioned above. I wanted a name that could encompass a little bit of everything. I pictured a big warehouse; every crate could hold a different topic.
Could you describe your typical design process from concept to completion?
For me, it’s all about the concept, first and foremost. I have a whole separate area of my life where I do spur-of-the-moment stuff; acrylic painting. As a professional designer, I have been trained to be extremely precise but also to come up with designs I think can tap into some sort of zeitgeist (I hate that word, sorry) – so if an idea hits me, and I think “yeah, that could work for people” then I dive into it. I will typically do a little bit of research to see if it’s already been done – I hate a thousand copycat designs of one idea, but I’m no stranger to trying to surf a wave of popularity. From that point, I’ll usually jump into a creation process that I’ve honed over the years. Primarily I work in Adobe Illustrator. I love the precision. I’ll gather references, play around with poses and compositions. I work in bursts. If I can’t complete a design in one or two marathon sessions I lose interest. But man, when I’m really cranking on a design, even if it takes hours, that’s a good feeling.
About the T-Shirts
I see you have had some success on Shirt.Woot. How did you get started there?
There is a lot of controversy about competition sites like Shirt.Woot and the Threadless voting spaces. They’re all unique. I really like brainstorming concepts and Shirt.Woot has regular topics. So if a concept comes to me that I think is clever, it’s actually HARD for me to NOT give it a shot. I like coming up with clever sayings, grammar puns, interesting solutions. Those contests gave me an outlet. For a while, I was winning and selling pretty regularly but some of the designs have come down over time. Additionally, their gamut of creativity has really narrowed to a couple of styles that sell really well, and that already have a couple artists firmly ensconced there. It’s an uphill battle that’s not worth my time right now unless I really wrench my style around specifically to “win” votes – which doesn’t necessarily translate into actual sales.
Do you remember your first print at Shirt.Woot? If so, what was it and how did you feel?
I can’t quite remember which was first, but one of my absolute favorites was this mashup of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Pac-Man. I really felt like that was a solid, clever concept. It’s since been taken down by a request from, I think, Atari – which is a shame.
You sell your designs on TeePublic, RedBubble, Design by Humans, and Spreadshirt.
Which performs best for you?
Which is easiest to work with?
I like that each has its own audience. There are people you can market to on Spreadshirt that will never go to TeePublic. As far as interfaces go, I feel like TeePublic is the most user-friendly. I’ve got some stuff on Zazzle too but it’s a mess – barely a step above CafePress. Ugh. Spreadshirt was my bread and butter for a long time and I really do think they’re great, but it’s such a huge marketplace that sometimes one has trouble standing out, SEO-wise. But it’s also got a huge audience, so in some respects, it balances out. Honestly, my best selling design is one on the Spreadshirt platform; Spreadshirt also sells some of their designs on Amazon and eBay. I can’t track that but it’s a great performer. I’m extremely proud of my partnership with Spreadshirt.
Of the t-shirts that you designed, which one is your favorite?
My best performing tee by far is my Strong By Design “Gorilla Lifting” design. My favorite concept and design is probably the TMNT Pac-Man mashup. But I love a lot about a lot of my designs. Some were simply a lot of fun to create that I know nobody will ever buy.
I recreated “the” control panel of the Large Hadron Collider. Relatively photo-realistically, entirely in Illustrator. Nobody’s going to buy that. But I had a ton of fun and satisfaction creating it.
Do you wear the t-shirts that you have designed?
Although I absolutely love a lot of the work I’ve done, I’d feel so self-conscious. Some of my friends have wonderfully bought my tees. That fills me with joy – a happy mix of embarrassed and proud. I’d love to wear a lot of the designs I create because I don’t just send them out into the void – I’m very proud of the clever ones. But I don’t know that I’d be able to get over feeling like I’m bragging. That’s one of the conflicts of being a commercial artist, right? You have to like your work enough to send “your vision” out there and market it, but as a hopefully usually humble person, it’s sometimes a struggle to brand and advertise.
I see that Harry Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe was wearing your shirt. Tell us about that. How did you find out? How did you feel?
I love that he’s wearing it because practically everybody I know is huge into the Potterverse. I saw it completely randomly on Twitter. I don’t even remember how I came across it. I freaked out; probably went a little overboard because I thought “okay, I like him well enough, but I know other people go absolutely bonkers for him! That’s some great free advertising!” – I tracked down a bunch of pictures of him wearing it. Felt a little stalkerish, honestly.
All of that was tempered with this sick feeling I’ve been dealing with a lot lately. How do I know he actually got it from one of my stores? I’ve gotten “popular” enough lately that people are stealing my designs left and right. It’s disgusting. I’m not talking about copying a concept, or “great minds think alike”, or “both tapping into trends” – I mean literally finding my exact art files being sold by complete randoms out there. No scruples. I am constantly filing DMCA takedown notices on pretty much every t-shirt platform. Amazon and SunFrog are terrible, even TeePublic and Spreadshirt occasionally.
That’s opening a whole can of worms.
Photoshop or Illustrator?
Illustrator 100%. As a packaging designer and brand developer, I love the precision, the scalability, the editability. I have a decade and a half of experience in building tremendous efficiencies into my workflow. Don’t get me wrong, though; they do go hand-in-hand. I love bringing natural textures into some of my work and doing freehand painting style illustrations. But they tend to take a lot longer and generally don’t sell as well…for me. I’d LOVE to be one of those amazing concept artists but it’s just not my style.
About the World
What is the most exotic location you have been to?
Outside of the contiguous states, I’ve been to Canada, Ireland, France, and Hawaii. Perhaps France is the most exotic because of the language barrier, but I was with a big group of people and tour guides then, so I didn’t feel particularly exposed to the culture in an exotic way. So perhaps Ireland.
Where would you most like to visit? Why?
I’ve got rough plans/desires to visit Wales and Glacier National Park in Montana. I’d like to see Greece. I’d like to see Japan. I’d love to go to Sweden. I have trouble convincing myself to travel, though. That’s the problem (one of the problems) with having Generalized Anxiety Disorder. I am not a good flier and honestly, sometimes it’s hard being too far from home. Again that’s another can of worms. But I love watching international television – I’m a big Anglophile and enjoy a lot of Japanese culture.
About Other Designers
Which t-shirt designer(s) do you admire the most?
That’s easy. James White (@signalnoise). I love everything he does. I dig his work ethic and his style, and sometimes he puts things on shirts.
Who would you like to see interviewed on the Shirt List next?
I suppose James White would have to be it!
Any advice for other designers/artists?
There’s sweet spot of great concept and great art. That’s the point to aim for. But along the way, it’s certainly worth it for your own satisfaction to do some good art with a terrible concept, just for yourself.
What are you watching on TV at the moment?
You caught me at an odd moment between new shows. Right now we’re skipping around Star Trek Voyager, The Expanse, Terrace House Aloha State, The Great British Bake Off. I’m very much looking forward to more Stranger Things, Better Call Saul, and Game of Thrones.