Intelligent design

Artistic T-shirt company on the cutting edge in competitive market

Jeff Sierra inside Design by Humans’ funky, modern headquarters on Humboldt Avenue.

Jeff Sierra inside Design by Humans’ funky, modern headquarters on Humboldt Avenue.

PHOTO by melissa daugherty

If Jeff Sierra isn’t in his office, there’s a chance he’s taking a “walking meeting,” strolling down Humboldt Avenue, next to the neighborhood park that sits just across the street from his business, Design by Humans.

Chicoans who haven’t heard of DBH, as Sierra referred to the business during a recent interview, are in good company. This reporter heard about it only recently, though DBH has been locally owned since 2011 (previous owners operated out of Irvine for about four years).

“I don’t think anyone has a clue we’re here,” Sierra said.

Over the years, the operation steadily and quietly has built an impressive empire in the world of T-shirt sales in collaboration with thousands of artists from around the world—more than 15,000 since the company began. Sierra spoke about DBH from his office in the company’s headquarters in a recently remodeled warehouse—wood and metal elements in the modern-industrial design give the place a distinct startup feel.

The business supports 18 employees. Sierra, a 34-year-old Grass Valley native who came to Chico for college, has an entrepreneurial background. He started Chico Web Design back in 2004, but after years in that service industry, felt it was time to move on to something else. Design by Humans fit the bill.

Sierra, the company’s managing partner, came aboard in 2011, helping the business evolve into a streamlined operation that’s unique in a ubiquitous industry. As Sierra explained, Design by Humans—which also sells sweatshirts, phone cases and art prints—now employs a print-on-demand process.

“That allows us to cut down on waste and allows customers to get designs on any color of T-shirt,” he said.

It’s revolutionized the business, he explained, because there’s now no inventory waiting to be purchased. That’s eliminated a lot of risk. “Inventory is what kills businesses, because you’re investing capital on products sitting on a shelf that you’re hoping sell,” he said. And as he pointed out, what doesn’t sell gets discounted.

Conversely, under DBH’s model, customers simply order the design they want from the several thousand on the company’s website (, choose a color, and the rest of the process is automated.

The shirts are printed locally as well, at Fifth Sun (, a company based in north Chico that specializes in producing licensed and private-label apparel for large retailers. They also are packaged and sent from that location. Fifth Sun’s owner, Dan Gonzales, is Sierra’s partner in Design by Humans.

Behind the scenes at DBH, designs are curated by the company’s creative team, which Sierra noted has recognition in the industry for the quality of art chosen. He stressed the importance of the business’ relationships with the artists, who are able to apply to feature their work and are paid royalties.

Additionally, the company has developed some interesting partnerships with the likes of video-game developer Blizzard Entertainment, on the release of Diablo III, for T-shirt designs. For a similar collaboration with Warner Bros., for The Dark Knight Rises, director Christopher Nolan chose the top-five winning entries.

In other words, the company’s doing big things whether Chico knows it or not. But Sierra doesn’t seem to mind that the company flies under the radar.

“We’ve got our heads down concentrating on the end goal—to be a successful business.”