Wearing his home on his sleeve, Andy shows his love for Northeast Ohio through Ohio Boy and The Social Department
words by Kurt Kleinham; photos by M. Sophie Franchi
Andy Taray didn’t plan to start a company designing t-shirts celebrating Northeast Ohio when he grew up. But growing up as an Akron native, he had the tools right in front of him.
As a student interested in art, Andy skipped working on cartoons and his own characters. Instead, he tried out new logo designs for this favorite bands. And as the youngest of four, he picked up pointers about clothing design as his sister studied fashion merchandising.
But one of the biggest pushes toward his company, The Social Department, came from a lifelong love of t-shirts, shared with his father.
“My dad and I would always collect t-shirts. Everywhere we went, it was like, yeah, we’ll get the shirt for that,” Andy says. “The old joke was that my mom would say, ‘Well, you know your dad’s going to buy a shirt. You might as well get one too.’”
But before he became known for state-based t-shirts, he had to leave Ohio. After graduating from Kent with a degree in graphic design, he lit out for New York and got started working with a small studio filled with people from places all around the globe.
But he couldn’t stop talking about his home state, a fact that wasn’t unnoticed by his friends and colleagues.
“Everybody was always joking, ‘You always talk about Ohio so much and how you love it. What is it about Ohio? Is it really that great of a place?’” he says.
The joke sparked something for Andy: His friends didn’t know anything about Akron, Ohio and he didn’t know anything about the small towns they came from. He worked with an artist from a small town in Georgia, and another from a small town in Connecticut, each also proud of their hometowns.
“It kind of hit me, everybody in New York is going through the same thing, because we’re all from these different locations,” Andy says.
In 2006, he and a friend started a t-shirt company that focused on what made each of those hometowns special.
“It’s about being proud of where you’re from, no matter where that is,” Andy says.
The goal was to do a classic shirt for each of the 50 states. But the designs couldn’t just be straightforward travel brochures for every state or city. He wanted to make shirts that told the story of those cities and towns, and at the same time make designs he loved.
“What if you learned about another place?” Andy says. He wanted to give people “not just a standard travel t-shirt, but something very specific that you wouldn’t get unless you grew up there, or became a fan of the place.”
For example, one of his early designs was Cleveland-based, a very simple Helvetica-stacked type that read: We’re underway at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario.
The fledgling company, then called Campfire, started traveling a craft show circuit, researching each city as they traveled and tailoring their shirts to fit the crowds in Chicago, L.A., Austin, San Francisco or Minneapolis.
“At the time, we didn’t have kids, and it was fun to travel, and we just had a lot of fun,” he says. “It was like, ‘Oh, they’re doing a show here? All right, let’s go.’”
As time passed, Andy and his partners at Campfire found themselves moving to different places across the country and building families rather than printing t-shirts over a long weekend. Eventually, Andy (having returned to Akron) was still making shirts. He changed the name of the company in 2010 to The Social Department.
For several years, Andy and his family ran the company out of his house, working his day job as a graphic designer under Ohio Boy Art & Design, then going out to the spare garage, which they had converted into a print studio.
“I had to have really weird hours,” he says. “I would do my design studio work, working directly with clients and open during the hours a normal studio would be open. Then eat dinner with the kids, then put the kids to bed. And then go back to work, working on The Social Department from about 9 to midnight, which was our schedule for years.”
In 2015, even though they were still involved in craft shows, it was time to look for a local storefront. Andy partnered with HiHO Brewing Company on Front Street in Cuyahoga Falls. Like Andy, the brewery is run by Ohio natives who moved away (to Denver), then came back to their home state with a new business. Andy knew he wanted to handle their corporate design through Ohio Boy, and he wondered if they might have some space he could use to set up his retail shop for The Social Department.
With the new storefront came a focus on new, intensely local shirts rather than digging up little details on each new city before a craft fair. He tries for a classic, retro vibe that he hopes mimics the feel of a favorite old, comfortable shirt, even when it’s brand new.
“It’s really led us to more local work,” he says. “As much as I like researching another place and designing for it, it’s way more satisfying when it’s in your backyard. It’s like doing a craft show five days a week. You’re here having these great conversations with people who are all going through the same stuff.”
Eventually, Andy would like to be able to bring a corner of the craft show world to his shop by featuring products made by his friends and colleagues. But until then, he’s dedicated to making designs and shirts that tell the stories of the cities and people he loves.
“A t-shirt is a walking memory,” he says. “You put it on and think of where you got it, and where you wore it, and where it’s from.”
Kurt Kleinham is a freelance writer who still has the t-shirts that his boyfriend printed for him when they first started dating.
Inside The Social Department
Inside The Social Department
Andy screenprints a shirt for HiHO Brewing Co.
Andy at work printing a shirt
Behind the scenes: newly printed shirts drying on a rack at The Social Department
Behind the scenes: various screens used for printing shirts
The Social Department team, from left to right: Andy Taray, Christy Taray, Zach Nelson and Zach Hudson