How to Use Inspiration, Not Imitation to Create a T-shirt Brand

How to Use Inspiration, Not Imitation to Create a T-shirt Brand

Over the last 20 years, I have bought a large number of Christian t-shirts. Over that same time, I have sold quite a few as well. 

As a self-proclaimed t-shirt connoisseur, I have seen a lot of design styles over the years.

When creating your own t-shirt designs that will set the tone for your apparel brand, it's important to use inspired designs, not imitations

Imitation: How "Parody" Designs Can Hurt Your Brand 

What are parody Christian t-shirts? Basically parody Christian tees are famous brand logos, marketing messages, and pop-culture designs that have been converted to Christian messages on t-shirts.

A good example is a shirt designed like a brand logo everyone knows. The Subway sandwich company. Like most companies, Subway has a memorable logo and brand colors. The below "Christian" shirt design is a very slight variation of the original Subway logo, but with the words "His Way".

HisWay Subway shirt

Here's the thing. These aren't really even parody shirts. A "parody" is actually a humorous exaggeration of the original. 

This type of design is really a reproduction or "rip-off" and should not be used to build a brand. And here's why. The only advantage to selling shirts like this is that sellers can leverage the fame of another brand to make money off of these "copies" of the original designs.

And no matter the many examples of parody shirts that have been sold over the years (and I like many of them), I do not believe these designs have any place in the "Christian niche". 

Why You Should Stay Away from Parody Designs

  1. Like I said above. these are "rip-offs" of big brands. 
  2. This type of design is extremely "cheezy" and it feeds on "Christian stereotypes".
  3. We are called to Love. This type of shirt often gives off the opposite vibe.
  4. There is nothing unique or artistic about these designs.
  5. Sellers could be sued or forced to remove the apparel with the potentially "infringing" works.

 

But I didn't always feel this way. 

In fact, about 10 years ago, I created several "Christian parody designs". Here's one I did that was basically a Monopoly copy:

Monopoly God's gift

 

While this shirt was fun to make at the time, and it seemed pretty clever, is this really how believers should do business in the Kingdom?

"Get Out of Hell Free". Hm. Even though the "Get Out of Jail Free" card seemed like good inspiration, it's interesting how my "creative" brain of a decade ago somehow thought that our Salvation is free. Yes it is a gift.

And yes the gift is "free" to us. But considering the penalty that Jesus paid at the cross, I don't think this "parody" shirt is reflective of a Kingdom life and being the "light" in a dark world. 

So while I thought this was a good Inspiration for a shirt, let's be honest. This shirt is a straight up Imitation.

Are Christian Parody Shirts All That Bad?

There are a lot of Christian apparel brands selling t-shirts like these. And let me be clear. While I will never sell these again, I am not above or more righteous than brands who do sell them. 

It's simply my preference, and I don't want to speak negatively about Christian apparel brands that do sell parody t-shirts.

One of my good friends, a graphic designer, is AMAZING at creating these parody designs. He is a Kingdom brother of mine and I love how he brings his artistic ability to create fun designs.

And one of the biggest longtime sellers of Christian parody designs is Kerusso, who is arguably the top Christian apparel brand in the world. Here's what some of their current parody designs look like:

nada kerusso

friends kerusso

mayo kerusso

 

While these designs are just a few of the many designs Kerusso offers, and are no longer a large part of their brand, I personally choose to steer clear of designs like this.

Inspiration: Creating Design Ideas from Ideals

Here's the thing. There are very few designs out in the t-shirt world that are 100% unique. In other words, "Picasso" type creations. While these designs do exist, many designers and t-shirt brand owners most often get inspiration from other sources. 

Because of the amount of Biblical text contained in the 66 books of the Bible, much of the inspiration around Christian t-shirt designs can be and is found in the Word.

For example, we sell several shirts that are based on Scripture, or spiritual ideals that have been around for centuries.

Iron Sharpens Iron t-shirts have been designed and printed by hundreds (if not thousands) of people. Iron Sharpens Iron is not a unique design idea. It is a spiritual ideal from Proverbs 27:17 that's been around for hundreds of years. 

And while there are hundreds of variations of this one ideal, we created our own version of Iron Sharpens Iron in our store. 

 

So what about the inspiration that personally led me to create this design for my brand?

This is one verse that has always been near and dear to my heart. I have been "sharpened" by many great people over the years.

Like when we are in the gym, we hold each other accountable when we work out. We push each other to work hard, which is what it takes to grow physically strong. 

In the same way if we want to grow spiritually, we must train and be held accountable by a brother or sister. 

I extend Iron Sharpens Iron to this business. I do not believe in competition. I believe that Christian businesses should build each other up, not compete with each other. How much could we accomplish for the Kingdom if our businesses were helping each other do business for the glory of God, not for our own profit?

Because I feel so strongly about this truth, I was inspired to create a design that reflects that truth. 

How to Create Inspired Designs that Have Your Brand Feel

While Iron Sharpens Iron, or Faith Over Fear is a great ideal, how do you take something like that and incorporate your own unique look into it?

The way NOT to do it is buy downloadable designs from Etsy or some other seller.

If you buy Christian t-shirt designs that are sold to many people, you can assume that many hundreds or thousands of people will be selling the exact same shirt. 

Nothing against the sellers of these designs. I applaud their Etsy sales, and hope they are successful. But unless you are just doing some fun shirts for yourself or hobby, or a church group, don't buy designs like these for your brand:

faith over fear designs

 

When you first start your brand, focus on what you are most interested in. Think about who your target audience will be. And try to keep your designs somewhat consistent around that audience and that theme. 

Once you do that, determine how to create your own inspired design(s) that have your own consistent brand look and feel.

If you are selling shirts to Skaters, then stick figures on skateboards could be your thing. If Moms are your audience, then many of the designs you see on Etsy are going to have that style. If your audience is Veterans, then maybe designs with stencils and military fonts are what you might use to give your brand a consistent look. 

In the case of our brand, I like distressed fonts. I am a Veteran and I like manly shirts, so destroyed bold lettering with a touch of distressed photoshop brushes is what you will see in a lot of our t-shirts. I also like Christian rock bands, so a lot of our designs are printed on black shirts with large letters that can be seen when bands wear them onstage.

And most of all, do not follow the crowd. If everyone is going in the same direction, do something a little different. In other words, big typographic, swirly fonts are very popular. They look great on shirts. But there are too many people doing this today. 

Create unique designs doesn't mean you have to "paint Picassos". You will have unique ideas like the "This Shirt Is Illegal" design which was created and sold by Gardenfire through partnership with Voice of the Martyrs years ago.

Illegal Christian shirt

This design sold tens of thousands of t-shirts. The message connected with a lot of people over the years. It was an original idea.

But the original creator had some inspiration that sparked the idea.

With some chance and inspiration, any T-shirt brand can create a design that becomes remembered in the thousands of designs that are created daily. 

But even if you never create a single design that goes viral, your inspirations can help build a legitimate, long-lasting T-shirt brand that is very successful for years to come.

Let us know your thoughts and feel free to contact us with any questions you have about your Christian apparel brand!

 

Bryan E. Robinson is the owner and founder of 316Tees. He is a Veteran of the U.S. Army (10th Mtn. Div). He has over 17 years experience as an entrepreneur and marketer and has worked with Fortune 100 brands, eCommerce, and B2B companies. Bryan is passionate about helping others to grow their brands and find ways to fund their ministries.

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