Five Steps to Creating A Best-Selling, Beloved, Hilariously Perfect Shirt Design

by Barbara Rutledge

Can it possibly be that easy to create a shirt that is adored by the Shirt.Woot community, bought in record numbers, and has some serious longevity in the Reckoning? Well, sort of. After five years of looking over thousands of design submissions, I’ve compiled some tips to maximizing the awesome potential of your next great idea. Now it's time to share the wealth and pass those tips on to you!

1. Start with a relatable topic.

Sure, you know our artists and audience often gravitate to pop culture references, but do you know why? It’s because those topics are familiar. People know them, they recognize the concepts, and they say, “Hey I like this thing” and click away to purchase. But like anything else, too much of a good thing starts to lose its charm after a while. Try to think of new variations on relatable themes – the oddball concept, household items, or familiar phrases are all good starting points for a design.
Think relatable and familiar for your initial design concept.

2. Add an environment and/or narrative.

Think about your 5 questions: who, what, where, when, and why. Sure, you’ve got a great character, but plunking that guy down in the middle of a blank shirt isn’t conveying much information to your audience. What’s that character all about? The background environment is an opportunity for you to create a narrative around a character, some sort of “hook” to grab the viewer and draw him in.
Take the opportunity to add context to your design.

3. Simplify.

Now is the time to strip away extra information that might confuse the viewer or detract from the overall design concept. Did you go overboard with the textures in the design, so it starts to look like a magic eye poster from the 90’s? Did you cram in 400 tiny jokes at the expense of legibility? Take a moment to consider if your concept is clear. Simple characters are more relatable than those where you can see every nose hair and eyelash.

Make sure your audience can read the design quickly – you’ve only got about 10 seconds to sell your design before you lose them.

4. Make it read correctly.

The Shirt.Woot audience is mostly used to reading top to bottom, left to right. Make your design read the same way. If you’re illustrating a joke, for example, the set up should be on the top, left side of the design. The punch line should be below and to the right of that.

The design should read comfortably for the majority of your audience.

5. Design something that someone wants to wear on a t-shirt.

Have an audience in mind! It doesn’t have to be super-specific, but have some idea of someone you could see sporting this design around your local mall. Remember the design will be printed on a shirt. It’s got to be wearable.  Three panel comics aren’t terribly successful on t-shirts, though they’re great to read in the paper. A rectangular frame around your design is going to look a little awkward when filled out with the usual lumps and bumps of a human being underneath.

It’s important to recognize that a design says something about the person wearing it!

Will these five steps guarantee every new design you submit will be a best-seller? Of course not. If there was a guaranteed formula for success I’d be too busy counting my winnings to share it; but these concepts will definitely get you headed in the right direction. Once you get the knack of creating relatable designs people want to wear on t-shirts, you might just be our next superstar artist!