It’s been a funny old year in High Frontier HQ and you may have noticed a change in emphasis from writing articles to promoting space themed t-shirts. I thought it was time for an explanation.
I’ve been writing this blog for about 3 years now and in that time I’ve tried to use it as an avenue for learning about aspects of spaceflight that have always fascinated me and – hopefully – communicating some of that information across to anyone who finds it.
As with all things there have been highs and lows. It’s been amazing to have readers contact me and pass on their own thoughts or recollections of programmes I’ve covered, even more so when they or close family members were personally involved, providing first-hand accounts of events that I can only experience from a historical perspective.
I’ve met amazing space artists such as Nick Stevens who was kind enough to allow me to use his painstakingly researched and visually stunning illustrations of the Soviet N-1/L3 lunar landing plan. I’ve been contacted by dyed-in-the-wool aerospace engineers including Carl Ehrlich who worked on Lockheed’s ultimately unsuccessful Space Shuttle proposals – I hope I did justice to that period of his career and to the many colleagues who worked so hard for many years. Possibly most importantly I’ve made new friends with the same shared interests, becoming part of the flourishing online ‘space-geek’ community and in many cases meeting up to share a beer and talk spaceflight.
The lows? Well sometimes with the internet being what it is people find it easier to criticise your efforts than to suggest how to improve them, but thankfully such incidents have been few and far between and the response has been generally good. As 2017 dawned I had every intention of pushing on and covering a bunch of new subject areas (many spaceplane related, but that won’t be a surprise to regular readers!). Sadly life has a habit of interfering with plans.
Time for change
At the start of February this year, my employers informed me and my colleagues that our company was being wound-up and consequently we were all being made redundant. This was a new experience for me and, I have to say, not a great one. I should at this point explain that I earn my living as a graphic designer – well a User Interface and User Experience designer specialising in mobile devices, but graphic designer is generally easier to explain.
Starting to look for a new job after being through the mill of a couple of successive start-ups really left me wondering what to do next. The fact I’m in my mid-40s seemed to be an almost disqualifying factor to many employers – it’s a young industry needing fresh ideas. So, what do you do as a space-obsessed graphic designer looking to take a new direction?
I came up with a few answers to that but unfortunately Astronaut qualification requires skills I don’t have and aerospace engineering relies on a grasp of mathematics well beyond my ‘creative’ mind. In the midst of this turmoil I experienced an episode of anxiety and depression, a recurrent problem probably not unrelated to my lack of employment but certainly a sign that I needed to look for a more fulfilling direction. One avenue did seem to offer some immediate promise.
Over the years I’ve bought a few space themed t-shirts during visits to NASA and ESA facilities and I’m happy to wear my space affiliations with pride. I did however find that they often didn’t feature designs that I thought very striking or effective. Well, I decided, if I think I could do better then why not give it a try? And so a new venture was born!
Getting Going again
After talking to some friends about how to proceed I chose to use the online print-on-demand supplier Redbubble. I do the design and upload it, say what products I want it to be available on and the rest pretty much takes care of itself. I started with some old favourites, Apollo and the Shuttle plus Pioneer 10, the first of a few designs I’ve done celebrating our amazing robotic planetary missions. Since then I’ve tried to add new designs regularly covering programmes and missions that have some significance to me personally. I’ve covered Mercury, Gemini, X-15 and Skylab on the American side and Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin on the Russian side, plus the Apollo Soyuz test Project covering…well, both sides! I haven’t managed an ESA design yet, but they did such an amazing job with Rosetta that it’s tough to follow. I’m sure i’ll try soon though.
The initial reception to the designs seemed pretty good and soon I began to see pictures on social media of satisfied customers which gave me a real buzz (see main image). People soon started offering suggestions for themes they’d like to see covered or different colour variations and these led to new designs for the ISS and LIGO amongst others (and new suggestions are always welcome, I can’t design them all but it’s really good to get new ideas).
I was able to use Redbubble to pass shirts on to people who had inspired me with their own efforts, so Rowland White now has a Shuttle shirt as a thank you for Into the Black, his fantastic book on STS-1. Space journalist and writer Sarah Cruddas got a Totality eclipse t-shirt in time to take it to the actual event and broadcaster Dallas Campbell now has an Apollo t-shirt to accompany him as he brings his fantastic book Ad Astra: An Illustrated Guide to Leaving the Planet to a wider audience. Perhaps most rewarding of all was the chance to give an Apollo shirt and mug to a man who actually flew to the Moon. I’m not sure how much of a t-shirt guy Al Worden is, but I think he’ll use the mug for his morning coffee!
One really enjoyable aspect of making these designs is that I can put in my own little touches and messages that may not even be noticed by many, but are there for a reason all the same. I did an Alan Shepard shirt with his Mercury Redstone heading for the stars – 7 stars as it happens, to signify the Mercury 7 who have sadly now all left us. One star is slightly brighter than the rest and that’s for Gus Grissom who tragically gave his life in the pursuit of his dream.
When I decided to do a shirt to celebrate the Northrop HL-10 lifting body, I knew there was one little custom item I had to include. Through twitter and my blog, I’ve made friends with Erik Reedy who is carrying on his family’s amazing chapter in California’s aerospace story. I met with Erik in Los Angeles during a visit in 2016 and as we strolled around the space exits at the California Science Center he told me more about his grandfather and his exploits out at NASA’s Flight Research Center at Edwards AFB (later NASA Dryden, Now NASA Armstrong). Jerry Reedy was an ace metal worker and contributed his skills to many projects during his long career in the Mojave. When the HL-10 was badly damaged during a lift while at the aforementioned California Science Center, it was Jerry and his metal shop that put it back together to give us the perfect looking HL-10 that forever flies outside NASA Armstrong. Jerry’s signature was a spray-painted bat symbol (you can still see these on the venerable NB-52 ‘Balls-8’ as you approach NASA Armstrong), so with Erik’s permission I included a small black bat symbol in my design. It’s tiny, but it’s there and there for a reason.
More recently I put together a design for the end of the Cassini mission. Few space missions deliver such a wealth of knowledge over such a long period as Cassini did and I really wanted to mark the occasion. I decided to use a favourite quote (from Blade Runner which itself paraphrases the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu):
A week or so later I was really touched to receive a message from a buyer that read:
“I’m a member of the Cassini flight team. Just days after our spacecraft’s demise, this design really brings tears to my eyes. Thank you.”
Over the brief time I’ve been doing this I’ve tried to build up my own little code of conduct for my work. I’m not saying these should apply to anyone else, but they make sense to me:
- I always aim to try and do something original and create a new design (although occasionally as with my ‘Astronauts’ shirt, I think I miss the mark)
- I don’t reuse existing logos or IP as the main design. I know there would be money to be made just re-using existing logos or artwork, but that’s not what I aim to do (I have used the NASA logo twice at a small size on an item for realism, but not as the main design)
- I try to keep my profit margin as low as I can. Redbubble allow the artist to set their profit margin above the basic cost. I’m trying to keep my margin low to keep the overall price in line with what I’d feel comfortable paying for something similar.
- I try to ensure the overall product is of a good quality. So far the reports I’m getting have all been favourable, and I do test them myself. If you do have any problems please inform me, but talk to Redbubble customer service as they seem to be very accommodating regarding returns etc.
- I also try to do promotions, or let customers know when a Redbubble promotion is underway. This isn’t always easy as I can only tell when Redbubble have a promotion in the UK (my territory), so please feel free to let me know if you see one where you live and I can let others know. I sometimes run limited promotions by lowering my margin, so look out fro those on my Facebook and Twitter pages.
- I generally now limit the product line to Shirts/Hoodies etc (I’ve never sold anything else besides 2 stickers, but if you really want a Sputnik duvet cover, let me know – it can be arranged!), but I make sure that all designs are available over a range of sizes and styles to cater across age and gender. Space appeals to all, so space related products should reflect that.
So there you go. I hope you like what I’m trying to do and, if you’ve bought a shirt, I’d like to thank you and I hope you like the product and enjoy wearing it. This venture has allowed me to combine two of my real loves – spaceflight and graphic design – and to hopefully create a product that some of you will also feel an affinity with. It’s certainly helped me regain a bit of confidence in my abilities after some difficult months and I hope I can continue to produce interesting designs that strike a chord and fulfil a need.
I hope to resume writing my space history and commentary posts soon, but for now a combination of shirt design and some other freelance design work is keeping me pretty busy, so bear with me on that.
In the meantime, thanks for the continuing support and encouragement. It’s hugely appreciated!
You can view my Redbubble shop here: www.redbubble.com/people/TheHighFrontier/shop
If you have a suggestion for a design you’d like to wear, but currently doesn’t seem to be available, please leave a comment here or contact me via twitter (@thehighfrontier).