Everywhere you look there's opportunity for character merchandising, from the custom toy on your book shelf to the cartoon branded yogurt in your fridge. Fueled partly by the popularity of artist edition toys, sneakers and apparel, and partly by advancement in manufacturing and printing technology, character merchandising is a great avenue for designers and illustrators to develop their creations and bring them to a wider audience. The following article will teach you the basics of what you need in a character before it's suitable for merchandising and what services are available for the DIY merchandiser.
Before you jump headlong into character merchandising you need to ask yourself the following questions:
What does my character look like from behind?
You may have the most amazing character ever, but without a proper character sheet you'll be at a loss to translate it to all available mediums. One of the first things any illustrator should do before venturing into merchandising is to have an exact idea of what their character will look like in three dimensions. This doesn't mean you have to go out and render your character with a 3D program (although it could be something to think about). It does mean that you should create a turnaround sheet if you don't already have one.
A turnaround is essentially an image that shows a character's size and what it looks like from the front, side and back. More advanced turnarounds will also show the character on the half side and in different poses. Turnarounds are commonly used for making characters for Games, Animations and Toys.
Who would my character appeal to?
When making the leap into merchandising you have to look at your products from all angles. As the creator you'll unconditionally love your character, and that's good, but don't let your personal taste stop you from looking at it objectively.
For instance, If you're looking to make merchandise you have to think about the selling point. Is the character exciting enough to attract customers? If you have a nice looking character but the merchandise isn't cute, clever, cool or must-have, then chances are people won't be motivated to purchase your products. If you know your characters traits, then you'll have a better idea of the traits of your customers, what kind of products they like to buy and how to attract their business.
Bubi Au Yeung's Treeson is cute, friendly and heart-warming. Each character in the Treeson family have carefully written back stories that can be read online or purchased as a limited edition box set that includes a baby Treeson and a story book.
Does my character have friends?
Would Super Mario Brothers be equally as entertaining to play without Peach, Toad, Bowser, Luigi and Yoshi? Probably not. The strength of a character relies on its supporting cast. Having a cast of characters also gives you the benefit of variety. Some people like to choose items and characters that they feel represents their personality and others like to collect each character in a set. Having a host of characters increases your potential for merchandising and gives your main character more depth and interest.
Sean Kelly from Bucket'o'Thought uses the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse as the basis of a character set.
Where to begin?
Most illustrators and character designers jump at the chance of becoming the next big thing in custom toys or apparel, but what do you do if you're tired of waiting and want to get out there and try it for yourself? The following is a selection of merchandising opportunities and how to go about making them independently.
Good items to begin with
When starting out with merchandising it pays to start small. Badges, postcards and stickers are low cost, they make great giveaways and can be used as promotional goods. If you're planning on opening an online store, or heading off to market, small items are a must have. You will always have customers who want to buy something but have a limited budget, while customers who make large or repeat purchases appreciate a free gift or two.
When producing small low cost items don't let your budget dictate your creativity. A greeting card with a pin incorporated into the design, or a postcard that folds like origami, has the potential to be more successful than a large budget item like a vinyl toy or pair of sneakers, success is in the execution not the price tag.
Pins and Badges: The best thing about Badges is that they're highly collectible and appeal to a variety of audiences. You can buy the badge pressing tools and make them yourself (try eBay), send your design to a local badge pressing company, or if you really want to play it safe and have as little overhead costs as possible, Etsy is the place to go.
Not many people think of Etsy when contemplating their options for merchandising, but there are many people offering small to medium badge pressing services for a fraction of the price of commercial businesses. To find your nearest badge presser go to etsy.com or try Minepress, Brainscan, or Kitty Crossbones.
Postcards: Postcards are a good multipurpose item. If you print a run of postcards some can be set aside for promotion, giveaways and mail outs. Selling postcard packs isn't as successful as badge packs, but a good postcard can go a long way and sell well as part of a multi pack of items (often alongside stickers and badges).
If you want to produce a large run of postcards (1,000+) a commercial printer is the way to go, often you can get a discount on your printing if you pool an order with a friend or two, so be sure to enquire about group discounts.
For a small run of cards it's hard to look past Moo. Moo print many different items, such as business cards and stickers and allow you to use multiple designs in a single order. Postcards can be purchased at a minimum of 20 cards per pack and have a 15% price break at 60. Dispatch is from either the U.S. or U.K. Go to moo.com to find out more.
Stickers: Everyone loves stickers, and for a good reason, stickers are cool! Not so long ago the only option to get stickers printed on the cheap was to spend $2,000+ and send your artwork off to a factory overseas. Now the best option is Sticker Robot, who allow you to upload designs via their website and has a handy quote calculator. Unless you're a multinational company required to make thousands of stickers, I would recommend you go to Sticker Robot.
This area of merchandising is often overlooked, but is a great for putting your products in front of an audience on a daily basis. The opportunities are endless: mugs, pens, pencil cases, binders, mouse pads, note paper, calendars and many more items are perfect canvases for your creativity.
Mousepads: Once necessary for working with a ball-track mouse, mousepads are another item that's not greatly needed anymore but have remained popular because of their aesthetic value. Many digital photo labs can custom print mousepads with an image of your choice or you can upload designs to Zazzle.com to do it yourself.
Stationary: Even with electronic messaging and social networks, letter sets are still in high demand. As with the previous items, you can look for a local printer to produce your letter set (remember to ask about bulk and group discount) or you can go for the low cost, small run option. Zazzle offer stationary printing on a variety of paper stocks and with a price break for bulk orders. Zazzle also have worldwide printing bureaus so be sure to choose your local site to save on shipping costs.
Laptop Skins: Laptop skins are probably the best of all office merchandise. They're easy to ship, have a large surface area to design for and are seen by many people. Popular websites to visit if you want to print your own laptop skins are Gelaskins and Infectious. They also sell items designed by popular illustrators and artists so it's worth a visit if you're looking for some inspiration.
Apparel and Accessories
There's more strengths and weaknesses associated with apparel and accessories than the previous categories. If you're planning on producing items for retail, there will be substantial costs to produce the different sizes and quantities needed, but the exposure and potential for profit can be worth it.
Skateboards: Here's two skateboards I made for my Artsprojekt store. Most of the skateboards I produce are printed locally by a professional skateboard manufacturer, but Zazzle will give you a similar result without a minimum purchase number. The digital printing technology used by Zazzle lets you use an unlimited number of colors and can apply the same image to many different size decks. Skateboards cost substantially more to post than many other items, so don't forget to shop at your local Zazzle site for reduced shipping.
Shoes and Sneakers: Sneakers are at the height of apparel design and until recently have been almost impossible to produce without being commissioned by a footwear company. Luckily, digital printing technology has opened up an entire market for small run, custom designed products and apparel, including shoes. By now you can probably guess that the best place to make custom shoes is Zazzle. It's a good idea to set up a zazzle storefront if you intend on selling your designs, the price of shipping alone makes this an unrealistic choice for retail.
Artist edition sneakers by Takashi Murakami are highly sought after by shoe and art collectors alike.
T-Shirts: T-Shirts are fantastic for merchandising and are more popular than ever before, there's even a magazine dedicated to T-shirt designs. Websites such a Threadless, Design By Humans and la Fraise run ongoing T-shirt design competitions. It's worth joining these sites to get a feel for what people like and don't like about your designs, and connect with fellow T-shirt designers. If you don't like design competitions, companies such as Broken Arrow Wear can silk screen designs with a variety of finishes (including foil) and T-shirt styles.
Toys are easy to make, all you need is a bit of creative thinking. Even mold cast toys are viable (provided you're not afraid of competition). Remember that characters with personality and a back story make great toys, characters that lack these things don't.
Paper Toys: Paper toys are by far the easiest of all toys to make, this doesn't mean they're not exciting. Many artists have paper toys available as downloads from their blog or website. Templates are available from a variety of sources, including the Flickr group - Paper Toy Templates, or you could invent your own.
Soft Toys: If you're not a skilled crafter then the best way to make a soft toy is to make it in 2D. Essentially, character pillows consist of a cut out piece of fabric printed with the back and front of a character that's sewn around the outside and filled with stuffing. To learn more about making files suitable for print you can read my tutorial "A Beginners Guide to Digital Textile Printing," fabric printing is available from Spoonflower.
Vinyl Toys: Last but not least is Vinyl Toys. Manufacturing your own toys requires allot of money, a fantastic character set, a large fan base, distribution channels, substantial marketing and the list goes on. If you're feeling ambitious, you can try molding your character with Super Sculpey, or alternatively commission a sculptor to do the work for you. The stress free alternative is Patch Together which regularly produces toys from popular designs submitted by its members.
So now you've seen a selection of the merchandising opportunities available and how to go about making them for yourself. Remember, your characters are only limited by your imagination and even though your merchandising may be limited by a budget, clever ideas can make even the smallest, cheapest product into something brilliant.
Note: none of the brands or businesses mentioned in this article have sent me money or products.
Quick Reference Links:
- Badge Pressing at Etsy
- Postcard Printing at Moo
- Sticker Printing at Sticker Robot
- Mousepad printing at Zazzle
- Stationary Printing at Zazzle
- Custom Laptop Skins at Infectious and Gelaskins
- Skateboard printing at Zazzle
- Custom Sneakers from Zazzle
- Silk Screen T-shirts from Broken Arrow Wear
- Paper toy templates on Flickr/Paper Toy Templates
- Print on demand fabric from Spoonflower
- Custom Toy competition at Patch Together
- Instructables - Read and download instructions on almost any subject, including how to silk screen your own T-shirts.