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T-shirt-first development


T-shirts matter.

This is what the merchandise store at the JavaOne conference looked like last week, after three days. Those bright green arrows are pointing to all the empty shelves. And the store was still open; that poor guy in the photo is choosing from among the two remaining t-shirt styles, one of which is toddler-size only.

Each attendee got a commemorative "Happy 10th Birthday Java" shirt just for registering, and vendors on the show floor gave out t-shirts like candy all week. So even though everyone had a pile of free t-shirts to take home, they couldn't wait to whip out their MasterCards for another one. Or maybe for a $50 fleece. Or a $300 leather Java jacket.

(I was really mad that they sold out of the "Skateboarding Duke" shirt before I had a chance to buy one! I would have paid a lot.)

Guy Kawasaki (the original Mac evangelist for Apple) said it in his 1992 book Selling the Dream: make the t-shirt before you make the product.

If you're a team lead, project manager, open source evangelist... make the t-shirt. If you're promoting a business, service, supporting a cause... make the t-shirt. And the more subversive, the better. If the t-shirt is for internal use only, see how far you can push before marketing or legal steps in. The more maverick the shirt, the more valued it becomes. At Sun, for example, there was always somebody trying to make an underground, unapproved shirt featuring the Java mascot Duke. If you were lucky enough to get one, that meant something.

I know...it's just a frickin' shirt. How can a t-shirt mean something? Think about it. Go look in your closet. Go look in your garage. How many special t-shirts are you holding onto for sentimental reasons? Be honest. How often have you lusted after someone else's limited edition shirt? If you're really honest, you'll remember the time you "borrowed" someone else's special t-shirt and "forgot" to give it back.

It's not just t-shirts, of course. It's bumper stickers. Window decals. Lapel pins. The back window of my car has decals for the two things I'm particularly passionate about--Apple and Parelli Natural Horsemanship".


A few years back, Wired online had a fun article on the marketing phenomenon of the Apple stickers. And I just saw a Jeep the other day with a window decal that said:
"It's a Jeep thing. You wouldn't understand."

I believe in these companies, despite whatever questionable things Apple (or Jobs) might do. I believe in what the Macintosh represents for the creative (and now, since OSX, geek) community. I feel that a small part of who I am is represented by the fact that I have--and love--Macs. And these aren't just shallow "coolness" values... but my sincere belief that because of the Macintosh, there are ways in which I kick ass that weren't possible before. Ways in which--through the books I create--I am helping others learn to love what they do and do what they love. [I think it's just as cool when people have a passionate anti-Mac stance. Their rejection of all-things-Apple is something they're proud of.]

And I believe intensely in what Parelli has done for the state of horsemanship throughtout the world... helping hundreds of thousands of people move from a controlling, dominating relationship with horses to one of partnership and willingness and playfulness.

For me, the key intersection of these two companies is JOY. Mine. The real question is why I--and so many others--want to share (or show off) their relationship to a company, cause, product, idea, band, sport. We'll save that exploration for another time, but for now -- the main point is this:

Where there is passion, there are t-shirts.

Where there is passion, there are ways to express that passion to others, with t-shirts and bumper stickers and mugs as the primary vehicle. Does this mean that we want the t-shirts because we have passion for these things? Obviously, yes. But what if there's something even more interesting here... what if some part of why we're passionate is because of the t-shirts? And no I don't mean that we choose what to believe in simply because it's got a cool t-shirt (although, there's some shred of truth in that. I chose to run my first half-marathon, despite being in no way trained for it, because I HAD to have the t-shirt, and that was the only way to get one). What if the availability (and quality) of these "pride items" help to reinforce and build on the passion we have the potential for developing?

Remember, a big part of passion is connecting with others who share that passion. And showing your support/enthusiasm/belief is an element of what makes you a member of the group. By sporting the shirt, you belong.

So to those who see this as just one more terrible example of American consumerism -- worshipping the corporate logo gods -- I think that's missing the bigger point. It doesn't matter if it's a company, or a sport, or a cause. The "pride items" are about announcing some small piece of who you are to the world. Think of how much you can learn about a person just from those two things. What, for example, does it tell you about someone if they have a "Bush/Cheney" sticker on their car vs. a Peta decal? What does it tell you if they're wearing a Betty Rides snowboard shirt vs. a "No I won't fix your computer" shirt from Think Geek?

If you don't have a t-shirt for your product, service, or cause...get busy. And with Cafe Press, there's no excuse. It costs nothing. It's not the best quality, but it's a start.

And on that note, I'm horrified to realize that I haven't updated my cafepress site in years, and haven't put up a single thing on passionate users. Bad, bad Kathy. So... I'm going to spend the next day recrafting my cafe press store to have some of the artwork and cartoons from this blog.

Bonus dating tip: want to get to know someone? Don't just check out their bookshelf and iPod playlist. Check their drawers.

Boxers vs. briefs, cotton vs. silk, garters vs. no garters can only tell you so much. It's the t-shirts that reveal the soul. So, what are you wearing right now?

[Disclaimer for the cynical--this post is partly tongue-in-cheek. But you'll have to guess which part.]

Posted by Kathy on July 4, 2005 | Permalink


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Does CafePress send to AsiaPacific at reasonable rates?
;-) stw

Posted by: Stephan H. Wissel | Jul 4, 2005 7:31:53 PM

Stickers on your car !!!, gee I'm so gonna stop reading this blog !!! ;)

Yes it's funny how much a t-shirt can do for a community/project/group/etc.

Posted by: Johannes de Jong | Jul 4, 2005 11:02:16 PM

Your wearing a toddler size T might also have the desired branding effect!

Posted by: john dodds | Jul 5, 2005 11:03:22 AM

For the ultimate t-shirt fan, check out preshrunk's "What's in your closet" postings, including the fascinating t-shirt collection of Cory Doctorow: http://preshrunk.info/2005/05/whats-in-your-closet-cory-doctorow.php

Posted by: Beth Freeman | Jul 5, 2005 2:27:06 PM

Great post. I've always used t-shirts and tattoos as my personal measure of brand strength. Asuming, of course, that they're paid for and permanent.

Posted by: Tom Asacker | Jul 5, 2005 4:28:24 PM

They should've auctioned the last few off "for charity" at the end of the event.

Posted by: Phil Boardman | Jul 5, 2005 8:08:15 PM

Kathy: Welcome back! We missed you! NOW. DON'T EVER DO THAT AGAIN!

On the t-shirt thing, I totally agree. My family is blended - when we got married last year we created a family "brand" complete with logo that incorporated both last names. The justification was that it would help everybody (our 3 three kids) adjust and understand this new thing. We have stickers, drinking glasses (laboratory glassware actually), coffee mugs, fleece vests and duffle bags...so far that is. The real reason - it makes us feel like we kick ass, which, coincidently, we do.

Welcome back!

Posted by: Matt Galloway | Jul 6, 2005 12:26:36 AM

Good to see you back again! :-)

I tend to shy away from corporate logo type T-shirts, especially the designer stuff, as a lot of companies these days seem to be all marketing and little content, but I make an exception when it comes to geek-wear. If the *product* makes me feel kick-ass or wearing the t-shirt advertises *my* skills in some way (like ThinkGeek's "No, I will not fix your computer"), I'm happy to spread the word.

Posted by: Matt Moran | Jul 6, 2005 1:23:03 AM

I do not make emotional purchases!

I don't! I don't! I don't!

Posted by: Shaded | Jul 6, 2005 4:12:40 PM

What a great post! I am so going to spend the next three days making shirts (and looking through my drawers to relive some memories ha!)

Posted by: paul | Jul 6, 2005 9:36:09 PM

Oh, I also ment to mention that in his book The Art of Innovation, Tom Kelley of IDEO fame says "Whatever your current T-shirt budget is, dobule it." He talks about IDEO's use of T-shirts to create "team solidarity" in their "Hot Teams".

Those IDEO kids are big on passion too and I'm sure they'd agree with Kathy's thoughts here.

Posted by: Matt Galloway | Jul 7, 2005 5:27:40 PM

Um. He actually said "...double it..."

Posted by: Matt Galloway | Jul 7, 2005 5:29:14 PM


I have never see people so crazed over free t-shirts than @ a software conference... we gave out about 100 at the www.fitc.ca conference and people loved them... and if only they would be so passionate about our software !

especially the macromedia ones where I've seen people clamor over each to snag a t-shirt that a speaker has flung out into the crowd...

Posted by: Brandon Flowers | Jul 13, 2005 9:21:39 AM

Great post, Kathy. Hopefully LauraR was able to pass along one of the way-cool OpenSolaris t-shirts to you at Foo. Do let me know if you like them - I love the fact that they contain real open source code (the first thing the engineers do is go searching to figure out where exactly the source code comes from.) Looking forward to meeting you one of these days...

You can find more of the fan buttons that are on that black t-shirt below. What'd'ya'think?



Posted by: Claire Giordano | Aug 23, 2005 12:17:27 AM


Posted by: George Mekkattu | Apr 3, 2007 11:32:21 PM

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