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There are two main things that comprise a design on a T-shirt: typography (aka fonts) and images. Both of these things can make or break your perfect joke. For font junkies, there are a million options – probably too many – and a whole load of them are free for use. If you ask a graphic designer which fonts are “good,” they’ll probably rattle off a very small list (definitely including Helvetica), but there are plenty of options for a T-shirt designer that are going for funny instead of high design. Many fonts speak volumes without saying a word, or without the addition of extra images. Typefaces can range from knock-offs of famous movie or album titles to type dripping with blood or riddled with bullet holes. The correct font choice can be your only T-shirt design choice, if you choose the right one.
In defense of graphic designers (and Helvetica), sometimes simple is best. If you have a quote or joke that is perfect, don’t mess it up by choosing a deliberately overwrought or forcibly funny font. Just let it be. If it’s as good as you think, it will speak for itself. Putting it in Comic Sans isn’t going to make it any funnier (in fact, it will probably make it sadder). Now, if you are working with a word or two, and use the Band Hero font to say “Cowbell Hero,” you win.
Images, either in color or in black and white, are a pretty straightforward way to add to the joke, and are often the whole joke itself. The same rules apply here: less is usually more, except when it isn’t. Go deep and show a detailed woodcut print of an iPhone 4, melding old art with new technology, or show 100 frames of your personal comic book on one panel that covers the shirt. The key is to use the design of the image, and the way it is drawn, rendered, or photographed, to enhance the funny and help tell your story.
In conclusion, be smart first, funny second. People will thank you for it.
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