Behind the Scenes: Making Merchandise

A look at how we produce the illustrated products for our exhibitions.


  • Holly Burrows, Alice Lickens
  • Other

One question we get asked by illustrators and designers is how we create the merchandise that goes with House of Illustration exhibitions. There's a lot that goes into the process, so we asked our shop manager Holly Burrows and designer Alice Lickens – who are both practising illustrators themselves – to give you a look into how our prints, poscards and gifts are taken from idea to shelf. 

How do you decide what merchandise to create?

Holly Burrows: I review which types of illustrated products have sold well in the past and use my own experience of being a visitor myself in other shops like ours. Postcards are always going to be popular, for example – even in the relatively short time that we've been open we've sold thousands!

Alice Lickens: And we look at whether there's a good company to produce the item and if we have a good supplier we can use. We try not to repeat items too much as well – so we wouldn't necessarily use the same image on each product, unless we were sure that it worked well across all types of items.

HB: It's also really important to ensure that a series of products has a range of price points so that there's something for everyone. Plus there's the very practical consideration of our shop's size and layout – thinking about what works in the space and how something might be displayed.

What process do you go through for choosing the images?

AL: We'll go through the artwork featured in the exhibition with the curatorial team who can point out any particularly special and interesting images. We then think about which images are the most engaging and reflect the show well, as well as which will work on different products – a long, thin image won't work on a mug for but might be perfect for a limited edition print.

HB: We always think about who the likely visitors are for the show and what kind of images will appeal to them. It's probably one of the most involved parts of the process – when we were selecting images for our limited edition Ladybird by Design prints it took several meetings with representatives from Ladybird, printers King & McGaw, and ourselves. We were restricted to choosing four images from an archive of hundreds. I have to admit to feeling slightly smug when the image I chose was the top seller of the four!

AL: We have to consider things like copyright issues and getting permission to use an image. It could be the case that there's a great image in the show but we can't lay our hands on the license or it's just too pricey.

HB: Yes, and if it's especially high we'd have to consider whether it would make the item too expensive to produce and whether the customer would pay a higher price for it.

AL: And sometimes if an image is quite old the original image might be damaged or faded and might not reproduce very well.

HB: There are some predictions we can make based on what we know sells – e.g. anything with a cat on it! There's also an element of us using our own personal judgement – which images do we like?

How do you get the image on to the product?

AL: Holly and I have a discussion about selected images and the products we'd like to use them for. We also have to plan for what we can create within the available time-frame. It's then a case of making some tricky decisions about which ideas make the final cut.

HB: Alice will do some initial sketches to work out how the images would look on different products and crop them appropriately. When we were working on tote bags for the Mac Conner show, we looked at the ways the image could be applied to the bag: should it be a smaller image in the centre, full-bleed (edge to edge) or wrapped around from front to back? In the end, we went for two cropped images which filled the whole of the front of the bag.

AL: I'll then make digital mock-ups or proofs of what the final products will look like and we'll continue to tweak the designs until we're happy with how they look.

HB: Often companies provide templates which Alice will base her designs on so that the image fits the product. On other occasions we'll be working with a partner who brings their own creative and practical advantages to the table. For the Ladybird by Design exhibition, working with Ladybird's designer was great as they had all the images in their archive. And for A New Childhood: Picture Books from Soviet Russia, we're thrilled to have Julian Rothenstein on board to design our prints, postcards and postcard packs due to his incredible expertise in this area.

How are the products produced?

AL: We have a number of tried and tested suppliers who we rely on for producing things like postcards and tote bags. If it's something we haven't done before we'd either find a company through a word of mouth recommendation or our own research.

HB: Sometimes we might see an item in another shop that we particularly like and then we'd look into who made it. We want suppliers who are good to work with, produce high quality items but for a competitive price. We do pay attention a company's ethical standards and if they are considerate of the environment too.

AL: Once the company has been sent our designs they'll send us a sample to approve. When we made our EH Shepard tote bags we realised that the bleached white fabric that had worked so well for Quentin Blake's Inside Stories image wasn't such a good match for Shepard's wartime illustrations, so we changed it for a natural canvas which suited it to a T.

HB: Once we're happy with the item we can then confirm the order with the supplier.

AL: It's always great to receive the new merch! We then work with our marketing team to draw attention to any exciting new items we want to highlight so people don't miss out.

HB: Most of what we produce is sold in our brick-and-mortar shop in Granary Square, but I've been slowly increasing the amount of products on our webstore, so even if you’re unable to visit the show you can still have a look and buy from us.

A lot of our stock will only be in production for the duration of the show so if you see something you like, get it while you can!