In the world of music, the stage isn't the only place where artistry and creativity shines. Most people stop by a band's merch stand to cop a new piece without thinking twice about where the artwork has come from. Behind the scenes, talented designers craft the merchandise that fans proudly wear, putting an immense amount of thought and effort into creating iconic products that showcase the personality not only of the band, but of their devoted fans too.
Tom Gordon is a name that stands out among these unsung heroes of the music industry, with an impressive portfolio boasting designs for the likes of Don Broco, Bury Tomorrow, Ice Cube, Billie Eilish, and more.
In this interview, Tom shares with us a bit about his journey as a designer and creative director, as well as his approach to designing unique pieces for a range of artists.
First off, can you tell us a bit about yourself and the work you currently do?
I am a freelance creative director and designer from the South West specialising in merchandise design for the music industry. Beyond artwork for musicians, I am also passionate about interior design and spend most of my free time working on my home (alongside my 2 dogs).
Tell us a bit about your journey as a merch designer – how did you get started, and how did you build it up to where you are now?
Before I started working full time as a merch designer, I had my eyes set on being a touring musician. I began touring as a teenager at 16 years old where I made a lot of contacts. Once I started making the artwork for my own bands and various concerts that I was promoting, it naturally turned into commissions as other musicians I toured with would reach out to me to design for them as well.
I ended up quitting the band that I was in at the age of 22 to work full time as a designer, as my oldest son was born and I couldn’t commit to long stretches away from home. This was when I started to take it really seriously. Whilst I was building up my client base, I would spend a lot of evenings cold calling musicians and labels looking for as much work as possible and would take on a variety of different projects to diversify my portfolio. Once I had secured a handful of high profile clients, it snowballed for me as I had quickly gained a reputation for my quality.
What has been one of the most challenging aspects of the work you do, and how have you overcome that?
The biggest challenge of being a full time merch designer (and the reason many people don’t stick to it long-term) is the extremely tight deadlines. You have to get used to working on projects with very little notice under intense pressure (often 24 hour delivery).
Designers that don’t work well under pressure often find it exhausting very quickly and move into other sectors. The pay isn’t as high (per design) as other areas of the creative industries, so unless you can work fast whilst maintaining the quality, it isn’t very lucrative. For me, I always thrived under pressure as long deadlines make me feel complacent.
You’ve designed merch for some of the biggest names out there, including Avril Lavigne, Coldplay, You Me at Six, BMTH, and more. Working with such a diverse range of clients, I’m sure you’ve got to keep your design style quite fluid. Can you talk us through a bit of your design process and how you approach each project? How do you make sure your unique style still comes through every time?
I definitely had to learn to adapt to different styles very early on. I was always very fluid with my music taste, so was exposed to a number of different styles from my years of trawling through album sleeves. That translated fairly well to my artwork when I started creating, so I did have a natural head start in that respect.
As I mentioned before, I was creating artwork for a lot of concerts that I was promoting which spanned through a number of genres, so I decided early on to not hyper focus on any one style. I do have my own tastes which are usually rooted in religious imagery which shows through in a lot of my personal work, but I genuinely enjoy all styles.
I always keep a big mix of boards updated on Pinterest which are split into different styles, which helps me when approaching new projects. I also have really great clients who usually put together comprehensive mood boards for me which can cut the inspiration portion of any project down. When it comes to actually creating designs, I definitely have the ethos that it’s better to not over think. I’m very interested in streetwear and like making products that people will want to wear. I can usually picture what an artists fan will look and dress like and I’ll design with that in mind.
If I’m designing for Coldplay, it’s going to be dramatically different to someone like BMTH because their average fan is going to be in their 30s and 40s, as opposed to teens and 20s. I think that understanding the artist and their fan base is really the key to getting a design right.
Who are some of your favourite designers & artists out there, and what is it about them that inspires you?
I guess I don’t have any favourite artists, but there are certainly some whose work I consistently admire. My earliest inspiration came from Roger Dean who was responsible for a lot of 70s album cover artworks for artists like Yes, as he had this really cool fantasy art style that felt original.
As I got older, I started to appreciate more minimalistic designers. I’m more influenced/inspired by brands like Aimes Leon Dores in NYC, and KITH. They don’t overly complicate their clothing and instead focus on making clothing that simply looks great when you wear it. Every time I visit NYC I frequent both brands and stock up whilst being simultaneously very inspired.
There are a handful of artists that I do enjoy, such as Aaron Hockey (Fantastic illustrator with an incredible eye for lettering), Lauren Marx (very morbid nature illustrations), and Gustave Dore (Religion inspired illustrator) however they rarely inspire my interiors more than my client work!
What’s one piece of advice you’d give to aspiring designers out there who are looking to get into world of music merch?
I think that there are always 2 ways of approaching getting a career in any field of design. You can either hyper focus on one style and aim to be the best at that style, or you can opt to be a jack of all trades and learn to be comfortable working in a number of aesthetics.
If you opt to hyper focus on one style, you will find that it’s easier to build an online following and will probably find it easy to get in with certain clients that you may wish to work with. If you opt to be very versatile, it does make you more dependable to the larger companies who manage a wider roster of artists. It really depends on your own tastes.
There will always be heavy competition to get noticed in an industry like merch, because the appeal of working with famous artists is naturally very strong. So if you are serious about getting into that world, then you definitely need to be devoting your life to the craft but you will likely find it very rewarding as a result!
What's next for you? Are there any upcoming projects or collaborations that you're particularly excited about that you can share with our readers?
I can’t really share details of upcoming freelance projects due to the nature of the industry, but I am currently working towards my newest venture which is a clothing line inspired by my town. I wanted to create clothing that I would want to buy if another brand made it. It’s very inspired by brands that I frequently buy, aesthetically. The town where I live in is a retirement hot spot and as a result is very right wing, so I’ve made a bit of a tongue in cheek collection themed on that.
What’s your prediction as to where the world of music merch is headed? What design styles or trends do you see taking over?
I wouldn’t hazard a guess as to where it may evolve next, but it’s usually fairly inspired by streetwear. The emphasis has definitely turned towards different printing techniques over the years. Artists have realised that they can make more money if they create clothing that people would wear, whether or not it had the band name on it, as opposed to the traditional way of making every band tee match the album artwork. As a designer I’m very grateful that it’s shifted towards quality items.
Quick fire questions:
a) What design tools can’t you live without?
Photoshop first and foremost! It’s my main tool. But also my Wacom drawing tablet.
b) What album have you got on repeat at the minute?
Dead Poet Society “-!-“. It’s wall to wall bangers and honestly I am baffled that they haven’t exploded
c) In an alternate life, if you weren’t a designer, what would you be?
100% I would be in the building trade. I absolutely love being hands on and creating something out of
nothing. I think transforming houses has been such a fulfilling experience to me, combined with my
love of DIY. I’m especially passionate about retaining the character in old properties.
d) What does a typical day-off look like for you?
When I’m not working I’m definitely lounging around with my 2 handbag dogs, with my friends or at a
gig. I’m not the most exciting person in the world, I’m afraid!!
Follow Tom on Instagram here.
Work with Tom:
Email - firstname.lastname@example.org
Photos of Tom by Rebecca Need-Menear