Friday, June 19, 2009

Hidden Rules of T-Shirt Design

Many cartoonists are not well qualified to design t-shirts.

Successful t-shirts show the difference between cartooning and graphic design. Being a hot cartoonist does not make you a champion shirt designer.

To the casual observer, the difference is slight: both are simplified methods of pictorial narrative. Both have enhanced visual appeal and a clear message.

This is deceptive. The illusion is enhanced by comic panels that make fine t-shirts with little modification. Then come people flattering our art, and next thing you know, we're designing mediocre shirts without regard for graphic principles.

The implications are significant. A store with a good seller relative to other stock might be happy with it. But what if that design is placed against a runaway hit that sells three, five or ten times as many units?

For each multiple, that's one less successful design that needs to be produced.

Also, large selections don't equal success. Many are desperate attempts to connect with something, anything. All must be designed, printed, financed, inventoried, stored, advertised, and in some cases, discarded.

What does it take to make a hit?

  • Generating lots of ideas and selecting only the best
  • Knowing the market potential of your genre*
  • Having the participation of a designer

Graphic designers are accustomed to producing a distinct image under tight conditions. Color count, printing issues, visual "pop," and other restrictions that rarely confront webcomics are critical.

Sometimes your screen printer will guide you through the steps. However:

  • They are often tired of giving the same speech to many people
  • They're happy with "adequate" when you want "outstanding"
  • If you use print-on-demand, you never meet them

Thinking as a cartoonist and not as a graphic designer can hurt. Since your prime job is making the comic, it's smart to recruit talent. There are many specialized graphic designers, so the challenge is to find one with these skills areas:

  • cartooning, or the style of art you seek
  • screen printing, or at least conventional printing
  • flawless color balancing
  • grading the graphic appeal of your ideas, so you can pick the best (I suggest you generate at least a dozen for every one you pursue)
  • culling ideas which are difficult or expensive
  • understanding the impact of statement over narrative
  • designing for men, who dress for identity, and women, who dress to look good or at least not bad
These needs are often overlooked, but are important. Along with laziness and poor business sense, they explain why some sites sell few shirts while others are t-shirt machines.

*A topic for another day.