April 10, 2020 4 min read

Take a look behind the scenes of cool tribute t-shirts, with this collection of iconic clips from our favorite flicks, distilled into morsels of textile delight.

 
T-shirt design is about crystallizing concepts into stylish wearable art. This got me thinking about what makes a cool tribute t-shirt to a movie or film. Anybody can grab a quote and slap it on a t-shirt. But how do we breathe new life, and new viewers into the original scene, in a way that holds up for the t-shirt medium, all the while creating something wholly unique in its own right.

 

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Similar to summing up the magic behind what makes a scene from a movie so powerful, it's hard to put down in words how these memorable moving moments can be translated into successful t-shirt design. But with 20 years of t-shirt design under my belt, I've got a few key suggestions.

 

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Besides the obvious starting point, of a top notch t-shirt, ethically sourced, and sustainably printed with biodegradable inks, the key components to a successful tribute tee in my experience, are scene selection, transcribing the moment in a unique way for the t-shirt medium, and quality of design. 

1) Scene selection

For pop culture tribute t-shirts, tapping the right vein is a big part of the process. The selection of the right moment, in which to dedicate your time to designing, is the starting point.  Often these moments, those that penetrate the cultural zeitgeist and take on a life of their own are obvious, but I find the ones that have the best staying power, are those that are slightly less than obvious.

 

There are many cult hits, with niche followings that provide fertile ground for good t-shirt designs. Identifying the scenes that harness the power of these movies or shows is your next challenge. The best ideas, most ripe for t-shirt expression, not only capture the essence of the original scene and the broader movie, but offer enough space for a unique spin to be infused into the idea and the potential to stand up in their own right and appeal to those who haven't even seen the movie or show as of yet.  

 

 2) Transcribing the Moment

Distilling a scene or phrase from the screen into a morsel of textile delight to be digested by a different audience, requires an ability to inhabit the eventual wearer and the new audience viewing it. The moment or phrase needs to settle into the space of the shirt in a simple, iconic way, that can be conveyed almost instantly to the viewer. To do this, in my experience, a phrase for a t-shirt should be no more than 5 words. There are ways of successfully delivering longer phrases, but it’s a very slippery slope.

The design or phrase should serve as a quick intro and voice for the person wearing it. There are a few ways of doing this, either with a parody on the original idea, a mash up of two different pop cultural references, or mixing in original artwork and imagery that enhances the moment, and shortens the time it takes for the idea to be absorbed. Honing in on the right balance, and interplay of subtly and obviousness, is THE key ingredient. Depending on the scene or movie moment you are trying to harness into timeless graphic t-shirt magic, the design aesthetic can either dial up the obviousness or rein it in. It's the job of the t-shirt designer to use the right mixture of color, font, scale, and art elements, working in harmony with the initial idea, to tune the graphic t-shirt in a sense, for maximum resonance.

3) Quality of Design

Designing a t-shirt is as simple or complex as you want to make it. Obviously, with decades of experience in this craft, I've gone through many varying degrees of simple and complex. My design style is rooted in the origins of early graphic t-shirts that started taking hold in the 1960's and 1970's, growing out of surf, skate, and rock band culture, and slowly expanding into pop culture, movies, TV, and advertising from there. I find that there is a timelessness to the aesthetic of this era that provides a strong foundation upon which the design can be rooted. Building upon good bones in a design, opens up freedom to infuse your own vision and emotions into the art, and provides a better chance of it working out. 

A strong, iconic t-shirt design contains many of the same principles of quality logo design. It must be sturdy enough to stand on it's own, in any format, all the while soft and engaging enough to invite the audience in, and unique enough to convey something new to both the wearer and the onlooker. A successful design brings a concept to life in a way that effortlessly, and somehow miraculously  elicits an emotional response that allows the idea to be more than the sum of its parts.  


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