What better way to show off your love for a city than by plastering its name on a t-shirt? Mikelis Bastiks – co-founder and lead designer of the Latvian design company Asketic did just that and brought one of Riga’s most famed creative initiatives to life – Rigashirts.com. We spoke with the young, self-taught designer about the project, creative entrepreneurship and doin’ your own thing.
How did Riga t-shirts come about?
It all started when one of our designers went to Denmark for three months. During his stay he missed home and was wondering how he could best express his love for Riga. When he came back he started making the t-shirts. In the beginning it was just 20 t-shirts for our circle of friends, but somehow it became a product that people wanted to pay for. The idea behind Riga t-shirts is to give the citizens something they can use to show how much they love their city.
As you come into Riga from the main roads there are these huge letters right by the highway that say “Welcome to Riga”. We simply took those letters, did a little bit of redesign and spread the text between two lines. It was no more than ten minutes of design work. Then we started printing them right here in the office. We made the first 20 shirts by hand one winter’s night. We made a post about it on Twitter and the orders started rolling in. Then we found someone who could print them professionally. That was about a year ago.
In the beginning it was very difficult for us. The color of the t-shirts would either wash out and start to crack or stains would show. We also hated all the blank t-shirts we found in stores. They didn’t fit well. We started looking for an opportunity to make them ourselves. Now we have people who sew the t-shirts especially for this project! And after half a year of searching we’ve finally found a place that prints them the way we like. But all this has been no easy road to travel. Once we got 60 shirts printed but they were all mirrored! The guys who did them probably got drunk while printing. It has all been an interesting experience though. Now we know Riga inside out – we know who are the good guys and who are the bad guys!
The website is just for fun. People simply started sending us their photos from all over the world so we decided to post them online. Maybe in the future we’ll add a map so you can see where people take the photos.
How did Asketic get started as a design company?
Design is our passion. At first we didn’t actually know what we were doing, but then people started saying “Can you do this? I’ll pay you a bit of money!” and gradually everything evolved and we got better and better. We’re currently working for clients in Barcelona and London. After we started here in Riga two of my partners went to study in the United States and started a sister company in San Francisco. Then one of the guys married a girl from London and moved there. We’re trying to be a bit more international because Riga is a small city – there is only so much you can do.
Do you have any formal design education?
Actually none of us have any graphic design education. We are all self-taught. It’s like a big experiment every time we do stuff. Even today you can’t choose an education in graphic design in Riga. Either you study abroad or you just learn by yourself. I’m a senior designer and I’ve learned from working with professionals in the field and by spending a few years in advertising. Most of my knowledge has come from browsing the Internet and doing small assignments here and there.
After I finished school in Riga I had the choice to either go to the university or into the army. So I found this weird design-school, but it was so bad that I dropped out. And as soon as I got the taste of doing real work and seeing myself develop I didn’t want to stop. It’s a fun process. Even if you fail you gain an enormous amount of experience. It’s much better than any education you can get.
You can either pay thousands of dollars for an education or you can spend the same amount having fun and doing your own thing. When we started the t-shirt project we decided that everybody should be able to buy one. We didn’t start it as a business project – we were selling the t-shirts for almost nothing. Actually the shops selling them make more money than we do. For us it’s more of a social product.
Was Riga hit hard by the financial crisis?
Almost as hard as Greece! But now people have finally begun doing their own thing. Like the girls from QooQoo who just quit their day jobs because they realized they could make money doing what they love.
We started Asketic around the same time the crisis hit so we haven’t actually felt any difference between now and how it was before. Since starting the company we’ve always had more work than we can handle. So I guess we haven’t really felt the crisis. The only bad thing is since we have no education or financing we can’t really hire the best designers. We have to work with young people and teach them what we do. That’s also a reason as to why we can’t say yes to everything handed to us right now.
As a friend of mine said, we have been so far behind on everything here in Riga because of the Soviet regime that the only way we can get anywhere is if we find shortcuts. We have to find a way to fit 25 years into five. And that’s what we’re trying to do.