Creative design

Nice Shirt Merci – “funny” before “creative”

The custom t-shirt brand has taken over TikTok – here its founders talk about process, creativity and why comedic clothing is serious business.

“I’m not sure if that’s what you had in mind,” Mason Manning says in a TikTok video, before flipping a t-shirt to reveal his illustrated design. The shirt features three cats – one pink, one cream, one brown – squeezed into a box. On the side is the phrase “No dogs or people allowed”.

As the illustrations progress, it becomes obscure. But since the brief for the design was “I like Neapolitan ice cream and I like cats more than people,” it ticks all the right boxes.

While most people don’t like receiving tough cases, Hayden Rankin and Mason Manning have made it their business. Nice Shirt Thanks was created by the two best friends in 2020 and has taken social media by storm since then, racking up over 325,000 followers on TikTok and 58,000 orders.

@niceshirtthanks Reply to @hanledbetter ♬ original sound – PRETTY SHIRT! THANK YOU!

“We’re not concerned with things like shading and composition as much as fun”

The premise is simple: customers give a one-sentence brief when purchasing their shirt, and the Nice Shirt Thanks design team produces a custom t-shirt based on that brief. There is an emphasis on humor for each t-shirt, with designers encouraged to spend between 20 and 40 minutes on each design so the outcome is based on their initial visceral reaction to the prompt.

As Rankin explains, “We don’t worry so much about things like shading and composition as about fun – detail is good, but that’s not the most important thing.” Because of this approach, the designs are as weird as you might expect. But thanks to Rankin and Manning’s marketing approach – based exclusively on social media apps like TikTok – the briefs have also gotten weirder.

A recent TikTok shared by the brand opens with the two-word prompt, “Weasels Incorporated.” When Manning reveals the final design, it’s an amorphous ball of fluff with several small animal heads sticking out – weasels, incorporated.

@niceshirtthanks Shirt of the day? What is your rating? #beautifulshirtthank you ♬ original sound – PRETTY SHIRT! THANK YOU!

“It’s great fun to be able to play with well-known ideas”

Briefs submitted by clients are entered into a central database accessible by the entire Nice Shirt Thanks design team. “Each person can come in and choose as many or as few as they want, usually based on what they like to produce,” says Manning. Those who like to draw animals, for example, can stick to their preference by searching the database.

There are very few rules when it comes to developing designers, the two say, but one of the most important is avoiding copyright infringement. “We absolutely don’t want and can’t have any logos on shirts,” Rankin says. But rather than being a hard ceiling on the limits of creativity, he insists it’s another catalyst for designers to go wild. “We have to go for something even more creative and off-brand, and it’s great fun to be able to play with well-known ideas.”

In total, Nice Shirt Thanks has about 350 designers who work with them on a freelance basis around the world. Always on the lookout for more designers to onboard, applicants are selected for their creativity and storytelling abilities. Fees for their time have more than halved since the company was founded, and the duo are looking to push it even further in the future.

The current application process requires a first and last name, an email address, and an illustration that answers one of the following questions: “Vladimir Putin eating chili dog while rafting. He comes with a frog, of a grizzly and a two-headed chicken”; “Queen Mary Antoinette in a UFC fight against a giraffe. The giraffe has an advantage: it has the power of love”; and “In 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed the blue ocean; however, before reaching America, he discovered a colony of angry capybaras. A portfolio is optional.

@niceshirtthanks It could have gone in so many directions #beautifulshirtthank you ♬ original sound – PRETTY SHIRT! THANK YOU!

“Like trying to build an airplane while flying”

Having to coordinate so many designers can sometimes be difficult, Rankin says, when it comes to things like international taxes for payments. But he says it’s worth working with such a diverse pool of creative talent.

The numbers Rankin and Manning are currently working with go well beyond their original predictions. “We expected to design maybe two or three t-shirts in that first winter, but we sold out our inventory in eight hours,” Rankin says. “It was a bit like trying to build an airplane in flight, but we’re in control of it now.”

Due to demand, the pair had to limit daily orders – capping it at 150 per day – and imposed a turnaround time of four to six weeks. But Manning and Rankin insist they’re still running a relatively small operation, saying they’re looking for slower, more sustainable growth for Nice Shirt Thanks. When they speak at Design Week, it’s from Manning’s basement, which doubles as the brand’s design studio headquarters, as well as their center of operations.

When asked why they thought the internet adopted their offering so easily, Manning said it was because of the uniqueness of each experience. “People who are willing to buy our shirts appreciate everyone’s creativity and the fact that they’re able to wear a part of their personality,” he says. Then, of course, there’s the TikTok community they’ve built to surround the brand. “Due to the nature of the designs, it’s pretty much instant content that people love to interact with.”

@niceshirtthanks It’s epic I must say #beautifulshirtthank you ♬ original sound – PRETTY SHIRT! THANK YOU!

“We have the dumbest job in the world”

There’s a semi-serious intent behind Manning and Rankin’s venture – the pair say comedic clothes have long needed a designer touch. “It’s a goofy idea, sure, but one that exists in a sphere that has never really received much design attention before,” Rankin says. While he notes that being funny comes first, just having designers working on the pieces elevates the product.

That said, Rankin says there’s still an air of ridiculousness. “We’re going to look at a design around the computer and we’ll have to step back and think, ‘We’ve got the dumbest job in the world,'” he says.

Again due to their presence on TikTok, the pair were able to show their faces as they grew the brand. The fan community is so tight-knit that briefs sent out have been known to include requests for the duo’s faces to appear on shirts.

“Every time I see a final design with my face on it, it kind of catches me off guard,” Manning says.

Banner image: Shutterstock

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