Why T-Shirt Designers Should Put Faces on Things

by Michael Essek   ·   Updated: March 28, 2023

People love faces.

We’re naturally attracted to things with faces.

(take for example the ‘faces in things’ instagram account).

It’s why mascots and characters are so popular, and why they show up in so many brand and company logos.

(which reminds me of another fun twitter account I follow – the weird and wonderful mascots of Japan).

Given the innate appeal of mascots and characters – it’s surprising that so many T-Shirt designers ignore this – and instead rely on illustrations and graphics that are ‘faceless’.

I see a lot of designs that feature bland, generic graphics – silhouettes or lifeless objects of some kind.

That’s fine in certain situations – but if you want to really connect with your audience – you should consider ‘characterising’ your illustrations.

For example – I reviewed the following design in one of my livestreams:


This design has a lot going for it – a short catchy phrase, alliteration, a clear target market – but it’s just crying out for a character!

Simply adding a face to the monitor would be an improvement – but you could go one better and make it into an exercising laptop, or a keyboard lifting weights.

For example, here’s my quick sketch of how it could be improved:

These relatively simple additions would transform an ‘ok’ design into one that is much more likely to connect with the audience on a stronger emotional level.

There’s a few other reasons why characters and faces are a good idea:

  • Faces grab attention – which is exactly what you need in a fast-scrolling, small-product-thumbnail world. A design with a character is more visually appealing and more likely to stop a viewer in their tracks.
  • Characters can do more than just ‘exist with a face’. As in the example above – once we add a face, we immediately begin imagining additional things we can do with our character – like having him/her/it exercising or posing a certain way. And of course the ‘face’ can communicate near endless emotional meaning simply through an expression. You can’t do that with a basic clip-art level illustration, icon or silhouette.
  • Characters give you the opportunity to inject more of your own style and personality into a design. Even if you’re creating a design around a well-worn phrase or saying – an original character illustration turns it into something unique, original and more visually attractive (than say, a simple text-only design or one with a basic, non-character illustration).

    When you get more of your own original style into a design you:

    a) qualify for copyright protection (text-only designs almost certainly won’t qualify for copyright protection, and even some text-with-simple-graphic designs may also fall outside of the copyright criteria).

    b) create something you can build on. For example – you can do more designs in the same style (style of character, illustration style) – and create a whole series or mini-brand. A series of uniquely illustrated, character-based designs is much more valuable than a series of simple text-with-graphic ones.

It’s worth pointing out that this principle (of adding mascots, characters and faces to your designs) stands whether you’re selling through Print on Demand sites, building your own clothing brand or selling merch to your fans and followers.

It’s truly universal – people just love faces.

so give the people what they want – and get more characters into more of your designs.

 I hope you found this article useful.

This is a sample chapter from my new book ‘Trust Me, I’m A T-Shirt Designer’ – which is a collection of my best advice on the design skills and tips every T-Shirt Designer needs to know.

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