Design Tips: Laying It Down

by Travis Gentry

On the first day of kindergarten we started drawing and painting on rectangular canvases. Our computer monitors, windows, TVs, movie screens, magazines, books. All rectangles. It’s been burned into our brains to such a degree that it’s common for an artist approaching a shirt for the first time to center a rectangular sheet of ink and call it a day. The artwork itself might be incredible, but the shirt comes across as a potentially unwearable afterthought.

So how can we make the shirt and the design play nice? It starts with good composition and smart placement. Let’s look at some simple, time-tested layouts that will help you do just that...

So we bash rectangular designs and now it’s numero uno on the list, huh? Well, bear with us. A rectangular composition can work very well on a shirt, but you’ll want to break up that rectangle as much as possible. We’re trying to avoid the straight, hard edges that can make a design feel like a piece of paper slapped onto a tee. We want this design to feel loose and allow it to breath. One way to do this is the effective use of negative space (a topic worthy of its own post). By leaving some empty spaces throughout (and in particular around the edges) you allow the canvas to break through and integrate with the design. Totally Awesome Deer does this really well:


Circles on a t-shirt are like peanut butter and jelly, baseball and Cracker Jacks, Laverne and Shirley. Maybe it’s because they make us feel like superheroes when we wear them. Or maybe it’s a simple, eye-catching way to get your message across clearly and quickly. A circle is practically a target on your shirt that shouts “look right here”. If you’re feeling bold or have a point to get across, a radial design might be just the ticket. Check out Think of the Children, a great example of this classic in action:


Horizontal Across the Chest
A horizontal layout on the chest is a great way to arrange multiple objects in a clear, easy to process format. Most of our audience has been trained to read horizontally from left to right. This allows us to time a sequence of events so they tell a story in the proper order. A good joke has a setup then a punch line, not the other way around. Take for example rglee129’s Do the Robot!. We progress from left to right through the various poses to get to the punch(line) at the end. Told the other way around and it’s like you’re putting the story together after you already know the ending. This might be a good format for a mystery themed shirt (hey there’s an idea!), but most shirts operate best when timed A to B to C, and a horizontal format is an effective way to achieve that.


Side Vertical
So vertical designs seem pretty straightforward right? Just take a horizontal design, rotate it 90 degrees, and you’re done. Think again, pal! Sometimes a design just calls out for a strong vertical alignment; a tree, a flagpole, another tree, a narwhal with a bunch of books spiked on its narwhal horn. The problem is that placing this right in the center of the shirt has some unintentional side-effects. One is the neck-tie effect, where a vertical design becomes a virtual neck tie on the wearer. Awkward, right? It also becomes an arrow drawing attention to the wearer’s face and, ahem, nether regions. Double awkward. And finally a centered vertical design visually divides the wearer into symmetrical halves. Awkward hat trick. But doesn’t placing your design on the side make the shirt unbalanced, you may ask? Not necessarily; check out our previous look at Harmony and Balance and the rule of thirds. Oh, and here’s a narwhal with a bunch of books spiked on its narwhal horn. Too awesome.


Diagonals convey action and motion, in life as well as art. This can make diagonal layouts a great way to inject energy into a design. They can also have the left to right readability of a horizontal layout, the pleasing, flowing feel of a vertical layout, and the ability to utilize a large amount of the canvas like a rectangular design. Self Expression by Stardamsel has it all…


These are by no means are every layout known to the Shirt.Woot world, just some of the most common. It’s also possible to mix and match to the point where a design could fit into two or more of these categories. And outside of Shirt.Woot you’ve got all-over prints, belt prints, repeat patterns… yeesh. So how about it: what’s your most trusted, all-purpose layout? Which one is overplayed and needs a hiatus?