The RISD Collection

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Designed by RISD professor Trent Burleson.
Designed by RISD professor Trent Burleson.

To some, John Maeda and RISD's recent project with Threadless means four new t-shirt designs with considerable design cred. But for Maeda, it's the design and art school's field trip into the Long Tail.

Maeda, the graphic designer, computer scientist and recently appointed Rhode Island School of Design president, is the first guest curator for the Threadless Select Series, the online t-shirt design and distribution company's new stand-alone Web site and brand. Maeda says teaming up with an Internet-based design platform illustrates the challenge RISD faces: appealing to the Long Tail, a term Wired editor Chris Anderson coined for the collective market share that demands niche products.

"[This project] exemplifies how to connect with the masses—that's going to be critical for all institutions," Maeda says. "Anderson draws a curve that's high then goes low. In the fat part of the curve is mass media and, in the long part of the curve—the Long Tail—that's people that can't be reached. If you don't like CSI and you'd rather watch Bob and Ted's Jellyfish Adventures, it isn't on TV. But it's on You Tube. You can access the people who have such individualized tastes in the Long Tail because of the Internet. I think that Threadless is a good example of an Internet-based consumer company that knows how to get into the Long Tail. I feel that's RISD's question in the future."

Maeda commissioned four RISD professors to design t-shirts that went on sale at the Select Series site this Monday. He also chose a theme for his designers: "newness," to signal both his new post at RISD and the American political climate.

Designed by Nancy Skolos.
Designed by Nancy Skolos.

In her design "Nature versus Nurture," Nancy Skolos, a graphic design professor and principal of firm Skolos-Wedell, points to an image derived from a photograph of daffodil buds and rectangles that represent computer screens that haven't yet fully loaded as references to organic and technological newness because of Maeda's tech roots. Soojung Ham from the industrial design department and Trent Burleson and Randy Willier from illustration also contributed designs.

All subsequent curators—no hints yet, but we can expect representatives from the entire artistic spectrum, from sculpture to architecture to photography—will also select artists and a theme. In return, Threadless will donate money to the charity of the curator's choice. For Maeda, $15,000 will go to the RISD scholarship fund in his name.

"The curator series is a great way to give back to the community as well as highlight different types of art that aren't associated with t-shirts," says Dustin Hostetler, Special Projects Curator for Threadless. "We're trying to reframe the t-shirt more as art. The idea is to bring in all different forms of creativity, not just illustration or type on a shirt. For us it's a way to bring the broader artistic community into the t-shirt community."

As for RISD students, Skolos says a lot of her students are already entrenched in that community--a lot design and silk-screen their own shirts, and some have even started t-shirt companies.

"I'm imagining it's a way for them to own their ideas and wear them," she says. "Also, because of the computer, I think they love the hands on-act of seeing the ink go down and having a physical print experience."

"RISD does things that are very craft-minded, authentically created, hand-stamped hand-forged," Maeda adds. "So working with an online t-shirt design and distribution business is a good mixture of digital hand-craft and original hand-craft."

The Select Series concept is not completely new—Threadless has occasionally supplemented its user-generated and –selected designs with commissioned work since its inception in 2000, and the moniker The Select Series was coined in 2006—this is the first time the series has existed under its own name with it's own site.
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