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Tech t-shirts aren't sexy enough


I've been to seven JavaOne conferences. I've paid more than $10,000 of my own money, just for the attendance fee. You'd think--just once--they'd give me a show shirt that didn't hide the fact that I have, say, breasts. You'd think--just once--they'd take part of the $2000 entrance fee and spend, oh, .1% extra to print up some shirts that sub-6-foot folks can wear. And it's not just Sun's JavaOne show, of course--practically every tech company out there is guilty. If I had a dime for every booth vendor who's smiled and said , "Here, you can sleep in it!", I'd be typing this from my ocean-front villa. (Pssst--tech companies: most of us women don't sleep in anything, but I digress...)

The formula we've done to death on this blog is pretty simple:
How are you helping your users kick ass?

I put "helping them look good" in the "kicking ass" category.

But that's not even the point. The point is showing us that you care about more than just saving a few bucks on a t-shirt print run. That you care about ALL your users, not just the Big Burly Men. And even if you do not care, you'd think the marketers would get a clue that people aren't going to be wearing your logo around giving you free advertising if the shirt doesn't fit.

The bar's been set pretty low on this, so even a MEN'S SMALL would make me happy. But Webstock went all the way to give the gals women's shirts. I actually wear mine all the time. I've even been photographed wearing it at another conference.

I so don't want a lecture on logistics or saving money by making shirts for the largest common denominator. And I don't want to hear that, after all, it IS mostly men at these things. So what if you have some leftover shirts? Give them out at other tech events. Send them to user groups. Donate them to a homeless shelter.

Yes, you could argue that as a web-focused show rather than a pure programming event, Webstock was likely to have more women than JavaOne, so it made sense. And that's true, but doesn't explain why I also got a fitted, flattering, rather sexy blue tee at GUADEC (the GNOME user's and developer's european conference) which was not expecting but a very few women attendees. But they treated us like we mattered too. Like we weren't the tacked-on not-really-target-audience people. Besides, this isn't even a gender thing... it's a SIZE thing. There are plenty of men who don't look that much better in an XXL Hanes Beefy T than I do.

This is partly tongue-in-cheek, but still...the t-shirts are a metaphor for--or at least a reflection of--the way the company feels about users as individual people. The shirts matter, and they speak volumes about your company.

And hey, tech companies, I AM available to beta test your freshly-minted women's T's (size small or x-small). In fact, for any tech company that tells me they'll be keeping plenty of women's shirts on hand for trade shows, user groups, etc., I'll post a picture of the shirt on this blog. But it better make me look good. ; )

Posted by Kathy on December 15, 2006 | Permalink


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» conference t-shirts from apophenia
::laugh:: I just opened Kathy Sierra's blog where she talks about what conference t-shirts say about how the organization feels about its users. It's a funnier post but what's funnier is that i happen to be wearing my Webstock t-shirt today. And at Le ... [Read More]

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» The Problem with T-Shirts from AlfredTwo
Most places (conferences, special events etc) that give out t-shirts tend to give out XL Men's t-shirts.... [Read More]

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» Kathy breasts Sierra on baggy tech tee-shirts from The Warne Account
Kathy Sierra is frustrated that the t-shirts handed out at tech conferences hide the fact that she has breasts. I can confirm that shes right. When I went to Microsoft Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) in Seattle recently, I was... [Read More]

Tracked on Dec 17, 2006 12:56:16 AM

» Caring for the people from Greg's Weblog
I really like this blog from Kathy Sierra called Creating Passionate Users. She has a lot of stuff about marketing and sales but the general concepts are OFTEN very relevant to us in schooling/education. This post from today is about... [Read More]

Tracked on Dec 17, 2006 1:23:32 AM

» Linkpost | 12.17.2006 from TechBlog
• Time's Person of the Year- You • Hackers Selling Vista Zero-Day Exploit • Tech t-shirts aren't sexy enough • Microsoft turns up the heat on Windows 2000 users-- Upgrade or die • Microsoft patches Windows XP wireless, tells no... [Read More]

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We actually made a real effort with our Firefox Summit and Firefox Pary tees to get this right (or at least better.)... [Read More]

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» How to Gain Passionate Users from Hasan Diwan on the Web!
Kathy Sierra rants about how the distribution of sizes in tech t-shirts leaves much to be desired. As a gentleman who stands 153 cm on a good day, I have to agree. One company does need mentioning though. When I... [Read More]

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» Understand your clients when picking sizes from Indigo Clothing Blog
Image Source: Creating Passionate Users Kathy Sierra, over at the Creating Passionate Users blog, makes an excellent point which anyone buying t-shirts for an event should take notice of. In fact, if you dont have time to read her post just ch... [Read More]

Tracked on Dec 20, 2006 4:47:55 AM


Yeah, that XXL Tee might be too big for most, but at 6'7" and being built more like a football player than basketball player, an XXL -- if they even offer it -- is a "wear once, wash once" garment. By the time it comes out of the dryer, it becomes a paint shirt for the Mrs.

Since your average *store* doesn't even carry my size clothing, a vendor's unusable schwag at a trade show rarely burns my shorts is when my *employer* doesn't think to supply shirts for everyone. My current employer supplied a big-enough button down shirt for me at a trade show (although a much smaller colleague called hers a "tarp" for is huge size and plastic-y feel), but at a previous company's project completion celebration, they tried to foist an XL on me. The conversation went like this:

Me: "Do you have any XXXL or XXL-Tall?"
Them: "You should try the Extra Large -- it's really big!"
Me: "That's what Extra Large means. I'm really, really, really big... and tall. I was last merely really big when I was 13."

Way to make your employees feel valued -- exclude some of them from the commonality of sharing a T-shirt.

Posted by: joelfinkle | Dec 15, 2006 10:42:23 PM

Meebo sent me a shirt. I was expecting the usual superlame tech T, but instead received a (sweatshop free!) American Apparel shirt, with a tasteful logo placed in the middle of the chest, and a small URL towards the neckline of the shirt. Instantly I knew why these people have a great product. They care about quality.

Posted by: Aaron Schmidt | Dec 15, 2006 10:49:54 PM

perhaps you'll allow me, as a long time reader to shamelessly plug skreened.com for these tech shirts. As it is my company. But i also have something to add to the discussion.

A fitted tee is the very least conferences can do for their female attendees. Also, from an environmental point of view a well designs shirt not only gets 'impressions' but they also don't need to be turned into something to wash the car with when people get home.

oh, and responding to the comments, I print almost exclusivly on american apparel, and my process is great for people who want small quantities.


Posted by: daniel fox | Dec 15, 2006 11:02:33 PM

Joel, I never thought about it from the perspective of an employee -- but that's even MORE important. What you said here is a really important idea:
"Way to make your employees feel valued -- exclude some of them from the commonality of sharing a T-shirt."

Aaron: thanks for that example! It really does seem like there's a mapping between the t-shirt and the products/service. And even when there's not, we still THINK there is.

Daniel: Thank you for stepping in to let us know you have a company that can help! I'm going to check out skreened... I'm just not happy with what you can do Cafepress style, great as it is.

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Dec 15, 2006 11:49:56 PM

Well, just so happens I'm wearing my small men's Webstock t-shirt right now. It's the first time I've worn it since the conference (I usually don't like t-shirts much), but yeah, it looks damn good! And not many conferences offer you anything smaller than medium, so I was pleasantly surprised when I did have the option for a smaller mens size. The Webstock design and logo placement is very cool too!

Posted by: Zef | Dec 16, 2006 12:33:50 AM

Oh so true...

I have a drawer full of exceedingly nerdy huge t-shirts from when I used to go to trade shows, and a bunch of DEC Alpha stuff. They were useful in college when I got them. Thinking of making a quilt out of them one day if I ever figure out how to hack the antique sewing machine.

Oddly enough, a Sun booth once gave me a men's small.

Posted by: candice | Dec 16, 2006 1:02:09 AM

Swag shirts are generally cheap and as one-size-fits-all as possible, to cut down on costs. I like how women are all into equality until it comes time to put on something that doesn't highlight their brain containers.

Posted by: Idiot | Dec 16, 2006 1:03:06 AM

Hey Kathy,

Ryan back finally. As you know, my previous company we originally met when you spoke at, they do not do t-shirts at all.

Now, I have a new company - one making all the news. Google of course. Now, in terms of local swag, Google does runs of both girl t-shirts and guy t-shirts in a variety of sizes. Staff are pretty good about supplying as many sizes of each as possible, EVEN for swag type things. Of course you can always spend your own hard earned cash (look for 'google store') and get properly sized google ts. Although just attend enough google-sponsored events and you'll get one for free anyways.

Going from no-tshirt land to uber-tshirt land (my GF is wearing a girl-t that I grabbed because no guy ts were left), I must say the change is ... wonderful. It's a whole culture shift, but it's really kind of like the employer version of your blog. "Creating Passionate Employees" - maybe I need to start that blog? Or maybe you need a new sub-section, I'll guest write :-) I went from total polar opposites of the spectrum and I am pretty pissed that I spent so many years in the suck.

Posted by: ryan | Dec 16, 2006 1:39:41 AM

I'm wondering what you think about the idea of protective camouflage? Surely that's not what the organizers of JavaOne were thinking, but I have noticed a trend in what people wear.

Me? I just skip on the free T-shirts altogether and pack clothes that I know are flattering.

Posted by: Simon Law | Dec 16, 2006 2:37:17 AM

A couple of weeks ago, Maryam Scoble delivered a whole bunch of small T shirts to a girl geek dinner in London on just that basis.

Posted by: John Dodds | Dec 16, 2006 2:49:48 AM

In the good old days of bubble 1.0 I attended to a game publisher event and they arranged some kind of "beach party" including the ability for some swimming and surfing an artificial wave.

They were giving away both robes, towels and so on. The boys were getting blue shorts for swimming and the girls got a HUGE selection (like a small shop they created) of various bikinis and swimsuits. The event obviously got managed by a girl knowing how bad a non-fitting top can be (not that I could imagine).

Nevertheless some female press members left in protest for this being a sexist event. Interestingly particulary the skinny-blond type who would look great in it - most of the "have-some-pounds-too-much" girls had no problem with it.

So sometimes "helping them look good" can backfire if it turns into "forcing them into something".

Posted by: mikx | Dec 16, 2006 3:15:11 AM

Small people scare me.

-grant, 6'8" 235 lbs.

Posted by: grant | Dec 16, 2006 5:12:56 AM

If you're going to do T shirts that fit both ends of the bell curve, you're going to have to ask people to pre-order their size - AND STATE THE INCH MEASUREMENT. Which means not using cheap-ass T shirt blanks. Even Threadless' women's T in the largest size doesn't fit me - when I can happily wear far less than the equivalent size from any normal US outlet like Old Navy. You need to pay for something properly sized, which costs more so you need to check how many of which you need. As a journalist I'm not that agitated; I have a ton of T shirts from events but I wea clothes I've bought because they look good. I also have a project for when I next have some spare time, to turn 3 or 4 badly sized shirts with spiffy designs into one very spiffy shirt.

The other thing is - why just T shirts? UK firm Dr Solomon's made great play with giving away socks - would you wear Alan Solomon's socks? He could take a couple of pairs in his pockets and give them out, say when he won an award and handed a pair to the Prince of Wales... A nice Hawaiin shirt? A fleece jacket. A scarf - something I've never seen. Something that really embodies your brand.

But it's easy for the company T shirt thing to go creepy. The idea of all the Google folk wearing their free T Google shirts and drinking their free Google soda and eating their free Google barbecue makes me look for the bottle of free Google coolaid..

Posted by: Mary Branscombe | Dec 16, 2006 5:43:14 AM

I have ranted to my poor husband about this very topic many times before!

The latest bad move I saw at a conference was SIGGRAPH, where there are just as many artsy-types as techie-types in attendance, maybe more. Although the population is still male-heavy, there are certainly plenty of women.

So what did they sell for T-shirts? The standard male-sized shirts AND kids' shirts! Really now-- if you're spending money to make kids' shirts for a conference where there might be ONE kid in attendance and maybe a handful of parents who'll buy them as souvenirs, wouldn't that money be better spent on providing WOMEN something good to wear? These T-shirts weren't even free-- you had to buy them. Argh!

So, I did what I've previously done in these situations... I bought the largest kid-sized T-shirt they had. Unfortunately, the neck was so tight that I could barely breathe, but at least it was something that looked halfway decent.

Posted by: Natasha Lloyd | Dec 16, 2006 5:53:30 AM

Hey Kathy, good article - but good pic too, it really gets the point across. You look good on the left!

Posted by: Jeff | Dec 16, 2006 6:23:53 AM

I think this is the shirt you're looking for.

Plus, I hear they'll be handing out these at the next RailsConf.


- Dan

Posted by: Daniel Berger | Dec 16, 2006 6:26:46 AM

You are right on, Kathy. A generic sized shirt is ok but something just a little step above is so much better - as long as the folks creating the shirt keep as many different types of people in mind, as possible.

The tiny elexa tshirts at blogher were horrid and fit almost nobody in attendance but the more generic sized style-feeder shirts were excellent because they were more fitted than a normal fits all shirt AND they had v-necks.

Posted by: Denise | Dec 16, 2006 6:30:57 AM

As long as everybody's getting a shirt that fits her or him, let me put in a word for another segment of the population: In case you haven't noticed, a lot of IT people are... er, "big." I am not only "big" but "tall." This leads me to two gripes:

1) Most XXL short-sleeve shirts fit pretty well, but believe it or not, I find shows often run out of them. This is especially galling if the show asked for my t-shirt size on the registration form (which, really, every show should if they're handing out shirts.)

2) There's no way to say this and not make it sound like a flame, so I'm just going to say it: Those American Apparel shirts everybody likes now suck if you're not dangerously skinny. They make one feel like a sausage. Giving me one of these is a good way to guarantee I won't wear it.

Actually, the most comfortable t-shirts I've worn over the years come from, believe it or not, naturist (nudist) conventions. Why? Well, since they don't like wearing clothes at all, they make the stuff they actually do wear as comfortable as possible. Somewhat like programmers scratching their own itches in writing code, no?

Posted by: Mark | Dec 16, 2006 7:45:17 AM

Oh Kathy -- Certainly nobody could be said to be more in favor of breasts than I. The problem is that if you try to produce a flattering shirt you will almost certainly fail for 90% of the women at the conference.

Each year I produce between 1500 and 2100 shirts on behalf of a dozen or so sponsors. We give the shirts away at the Lotusphere event in Orlando. We buy regular sizes and shapes - nothing contoured or curve hugging because frankly it raises the cost too high and would force me to consider what an appropriate amount of sexiness in a conference t-shirt is. I have a wife and three daughters, yet womens' sizes remain a complete and utter mystery to me. Perhaps if you created a "Head First Womens' Clothing Sizes" book it might help.

Here's how I handle sizes:

I have all the shirts bagged in lots of 30. Each bag of 30 contains 4 Small, 5 Medium, 9 Large, 10 Extra Large, and 2 Extra Extra Large. Each sponsor gets 4 bags.

We also give each sponsor a bag of high quality rubber bands with enough of each color that they can roll the shirts and wrap the small with red, medium with orange, large with yellow, xl with green, and xxl with blue. The order matches the colors in the rainbow. That allows a sponsor to reach down and grab a shirt knowing what size he or she is handing out without wasting time looking at the label.

I also order 5 shirts in the 4x or 5x size. There are a few people at the show who need these and can see me directly (sponsors are aware of them). These people (all men, so far as I know) are enormously grateful as are the (mostly women) who get the small and medium shirts.

These are not cheap shirts to make - we buy good quality shirts and do 4 color screening on both front and back as well as both sleeves. I can tell you then, that there is no additional cost to vary the sizes except for the 4x and 5x ones which cost an extra dollar each.

I've gone on with way too much detail to make the simple point that there is no valid reason not to vary the sizes at a conference according to an easily figured out demographic distribution of sizes.

Posted by: Andrew Pollack | Dec 16, 2006 7:51:45 AM

I should add one more comment about sizes. Sizes aren't the same.

Aside from being a geek programmer type, I'm also a firefighter.

In any other venue, for any other product, I wear XL. I'm a 5'9" 200# man with a 48" jacket size and 34" waist. That's XL pretty much all the way around.

In firefighter gear -- gloves, turnout coat, etc.. I'm a Medium. These are big boys. Even my size 13 shoes are right in the middle of the road when it comes to fire boots.


Posted by: Andrew Pollack | Dec 16, 2006 8:10:34 AM

Well, I say "T-shirts are underwear."

This is one of my pet peeves. What's with the T-shirt culture? Pseudo-egalitarian dress at best.

Posted by: Chris Ryland | Dec 16, 2006 8:45:13 AM

Damn! That shirt looks good on you!

Another bonus is that if all the women look that great at conferences, more men will want to show up!

I'm not saying, I'm just saying...

Posted by: Kent | Dec 16, 2006 8:46:42 AM

Kathy, I so feel this. I haven't gotten a tee that fits from any company these past 10 years of being in the 'net space. The closest I came was when I was at ELNK back in 2000 - I was able to get a mens medium.

I can't even think of the last time I wore a branded tee. I now ask: do you have a baseball hat?

You would think that companies would understand that I'll only wear it and provide you with free branding if you make me look good.

Great post.

Posted by: Tamera Kremer | Dec 16, 2006 9:29:24 AM

Completely agree as a small female geek myself. Fitted Ts are not hard to make, as Jinx sells quite alot of them (I have more than a dozen myself from Jinx). They're called baby Ts and women look darn good in them.

For a $2K conf fee, I'd think making a shirt that can fit, say women, would be worth the extra effort.

Posted by: Robyn Tippins | Dec 16, 2006 9:43:20 AM

Having been in charge of schwag for corporate events, I can say with resignation that you can make EVERY effort - men's shirts, women's shirts, t-shirts, dressier shirts, asking sizes, providing approximate measurements... and you will still get people who will bitch. Ordered the wrong size, delusional about the size they think they are and ending up with a shirt that doesn't fit, women who decide they want a men's shirt, don't like the colour/style/logo, and people who simply do not fit on the available spectrum (sorry, within the limitations of our suppliers, 3-4X is often the best we can do...)

Speaking as a woman who does NOT fit a small or x-small shirt (which is the majority of us), and who has been burned trying to buy women's American Apparel (which is made for dolls, though, oddly, the unisex is well within the normal clothing size spectrum), while making an effort to provide women's shirts is nice, much like you're often out of luck looking for a men's small, you're also out of luck looking for a women's XL or larger. Having breasts and acknowledging that is one thing, having someone's logo stretched obscenely across them so people become apparently incapable of looking me in the eye is something else.

Posted by: Melle | Dec 16, 2006 12:34:11 PM

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