*Disclaimer: I don’t think I honestly know how to create a great cycling T shirt. If I did I then I probably wouldn’t be writing blog pieces like this, I’d be sunning myself on a beach, sorry… ‘riding a bike down a mountain somewhere’.
So how do you go about designing a great mountain biking T shirt? Simple, just stick the words MTB on the front, alongside a vector graphic of a bike and off you go, right? Or maybe a neat catchphrase like ‘Mud, sweat and gears’, ‘Life behind bars’ or ‘Shut up legs*’ or any number of off-the-shelf super cliche turns of phrase, that you think are, like, totally original, but in reality you stole from somebody elses website.
So the reality of it is, it’s really not that simple. And, boy, do I know it. I never thought design would be this hard. I mean, I was a graphic designer for over 20 years and had some really great clients and turned out some pretty nice work. But doing it for yourself? Putting yourself out on the frontline and saying ‘THIS is the best I can do’. Fuck, that’s hard. Well it is for me anyways. I’m not a Grade A narcissist who thinks the sun shines out of his exhaust and claims everything he does is a ‘great success’ and ‘terrific’. Sadly I suffer from that particularly British infliction of ‘beingtotallyinsecureabouteverythinghedoes’. I’m that cliche of apologising to people that bump into me, sorry.
So this post is basically ‘what do I think it takes to create a great cycling T shirt’, rather than anybody elses ideas. Which I’m sure are just super great and totally awesome, or whatever.
OK, so what does make a great t shirt design?
Generally I’ve alwacys tended towards designs that show ‘substance over style’. I like my graphic design with a bit of wit and humour (as well as great style). Something that makes me think ‘Yeah, I get it’. Sometimes it’s a play on words, or a visual pun that makes me smile. Or that little difference that creates a twist out of the usual cliche and turns it into something else altogether. It is best summed up in the book ‘A Smile in the Mind’**, a glorious collection of visual trickery, some terrible puns and a lot of what could be summed up as ‘brilliant ideas’. It’s definitely a book worth digging out for any budding designers reading this.
The Spencer Wilson ‘Le Tour’ poster (left) is the perfect example of what I’m talking about. First you see the wheel, then you see the bottle, and you see the French colours but then suddenly you twig: ‘D’oh… the bottle is the valve’. Clever. It’s a beautifully executed design that works on multiple levels.
I love this anniversary tour poster by Foster Type (right). The idea is just so simple – why not turn the Eiffel Tower into a crankset, et voila! Yet it’s not just a great idea, but the implementation is perfect. It reminds me of a Victorian/Edwardian era technical drawing torn out of a bicycle components catalogue. The combination of the parchment coloured background and black ink line drawing fit together perfectly.
And yet, and yet… despite what I’ve just said, I can be a total sucker for something that simply LOOKS great. There doesn’t always have to be a ‘clever’ idea lurking in the background. Sometimes it’s just enough to produce a design that can engage or entertain and occasionally even, an amazing piece of artwork.
Pretty much since the modern bicycle was invented, artists and designers have been creating stunning pieces of work that reflect the passion, energy and style of cycling in all it’s forms. Whether it be a gentle ride through rolling English countryside or the drama of a Tour stage, generations of artists have produced some memorable work.
I am particularly fond of the stark minimalism captured so perfectly in Otl Aicher’s Olympics posters. I find it incredible that these images were created 45 years ago, before PCs were even invented, nevermind Photoshop. They look so fresh they could have been baked yesterday. Aicher was also responsible for the pictograms used to convey all the Olympic sports, you know… those little symbols depicting swimmers, gymnasts, cyclists and er, toilets.
And you can’t really discuss cycling art without mentioning (IMO) the heyday of poster art. This classic Peugeot Cycles advertising poster (right) by Roger Perot sums up the Art Deco merger of art and advertising that epitomised the 1930s.
So there we are – I like pretty much everything, as long as it’s good.
So, how do you create a great cycling T shirt?
Now comes the hard part. I have to take one of my own designs (gulp!) and do a teardown to tell you what I think makes it a great design. No pressure then. So here goes…
OK, so I’m the client so why do I need a brief? Any designer worth his Himalayan Pink mountain salt knows that you need some kind of brief to create a successful design. It doesn’t have to be complicated, just something along the lines of:
Brand profile – how should the design fit within the brand?
Concept – what’s the idea about? Does it make sense within the brand profile?
Look and feel – the choice of colours & typeface? modern or retro design? illustration or photography?
Target Audience – who is it aimed at – male, female, age, road cyclists, mountain bikers?
Tone of Voice – is it meant to be funny, nostalgic, cool or minimalist?
Technical aspects – can the design be printed within the technical limitations of the process?
“The Cake Stop” – a teardown.
Taking the above aspects of a brief, lets how this design fits. As a brand, MTFU is an affectionate expression of the love of bikes and biking, in whatever form it takes. Bikes inspire passion, pride and obsession in equal measure and our designs are dedicated to these moments (as well as occasionally taking the piss).
The Cake Stop is a celebration of one of cycling’s oldest traditions, as old as cycling itself. It deserves a design that reflects the origin of the cycling clubs formed back in Victorian times. It is inspired by the brash and gaudy ephemera of that period in its multitude of typefaces and decoration, like a poster for a circus or fairground attraction. The exhortation to ‘Ride Bikes, Drink Tea, Eat Cake’ assumes a mantra not unlike those adverts proclaiming a cure for all ailments. It is deliberately nostalgic and retro, harking back to a simpler age before the explosion in technological advances we have seen over the last few decades. It’s showing respect for the great traditions of bike riding, without pining for some long past ‘Golden Era’. This is because some things never change. The cameraderie and friendships that develop out of the simple act of riding a bike are as strong today as they ever were. This design is just a simple reminder of that.
In terms of who this shirt would appeal to, I think the message and design are universal. It’s for people who love their cycling and want to share that with other like-minded individuals, yet without it coming across as preachy or elitist. The bold colouring helps tip the design away from being a blatant copy or pastiche of Victoriana and gives it a modern twist. It’s retro and cool, but not old fashioned.
I explored a number of design ideas before settling on the final version, trying out a variety of typefaces, colours, backgrounds and borders. Some of the typefaces were not quite Victorian enough, whilst others were just too ‘circus’. I initially thought the grungy backgrounds would give the ‘circus poster’ effect I was looking for, but in the end found them too distracting and preferred the look of the design when just applied straight to the shirt.
I like the smaller details incorporated in the design such as the small cup of tea in the second line of text, where the ‘T’ looks like a hot water spout dispensing beverages. At the bottom of the shirt a devil is tucking into a piece of cake. It’s a sly reference to suggest that eating cakes is naughty, but yet after riding your bike… who cares? Be the Devil!
From a technical perspective the design makes use of the background colour of the shirt as part of the design. The design looks very different depending on what colour shirt it is printed on and yet it works equally well on both light and dark coloured shirts. When designing for T shirts you have to be aware of the limitations of the material you are printing on. When printing fine details such as the decorative elements in this design it’s important to ensure that the line thickness and typeface you choose are printable. We use a process called DTG (Direct to garment) printing where a white background is applied first before printing the top colours. This enables the colour to show as intended. On large areas of colour, like a photograph, the fine details is easier as a solid block of white is put down first. But the registration of the colours is a little trickier when printing a design like this. So I would always ensure a minimum line thickness that is printable for text and graphics as the lines may simply be too thin to print or be difficult to register on the white background.
So that’s it really. All you have to do is create a shirt that fits your brand, has an original idea, talks to your target audience, and will look right when printed. Simple huh?
If you like this design you can buy The Cake Stop T shirt here.
*An actual real quote from gentleman racer Jens Voigt, who coined the phrase many years ago. He even has his own range of branded clothing with that phrase now.
** A Smile in The Mind, by Beryl McAlhone, David Stuart. Phaidon Press 1996