Wednesday, May 18, 2011

T-shirt design contest brings in the Works

On the eve of Brian and Roger’s May 25th selection of a t-shirt design for Queen’s 40th Anniversary celebrations, I thought I’d share a few comments on a few of the entries and some of the recurring themes that have emerged from the designs.

As a designer myself, I was excited at the chance of submitting a design but felt that it was an impossible task for me to win given how the rules of the contest were set up. Like viewer voting on Idol, the 100 finalists would be chosen merely through a social network of Facebook friends rather than reviewed by professionals who can spot a reasonable design, anticipate its production limitations, and understand mass marketing messaging rather than self-indulgence, I knew that my Facebook connections weren’t going to be sufficient. Oh well. 

It doesn’t prevent me, however, from turning a critical eye on many of the entries and offer an objective opinion on how they could be perceived by Brian and Roger prior to their announcement of a winner on May 25th.

I’ve categorized a large selection of the approximately 300 designs into twenty or so themes or groups that had some kind of repetitive element throughout them. A few of the categories are exclusively mine (Kitchen sink, My favs, and Oops), while others are so big they need subcategories, like the WTF sections. I end with my submission that, while scarcely viewed online and garnered no votes, still exemplifies what Queen have been all about for the past 40 years and what they would like to do in regards to AIDS awareness worldwide.

1) Album covers

Incorporating album cover art into a design meant to reflect 40 years of musical output is an obvious place to start for a t-shirt design. The problem is, what albums do you include? Regular releases? If so, what countries’ releases do you include? What about the artwork from singles? What about video releases? Defaulting to the regular releases in North America and/or Europe is a safe choice but the challenge is now: what do you do with the covers? How do you arrange them or work them into a larger conceptual arrangement that still captures the essence of what Queen represents?

2) Charitable focus

The secondary focus of this t-shirt design contest is as a fundraiser for the Mercury Phoenix Trust Fund which is primarily an AIDS awareness and support organization. A few of the submissions took this approach, as seen here. I don’t know how much Brian and Roger want to make the fight against AIDS a dominant message rather than the celebration of their musical legacy. Although it’s a noble cause, fighting AIDS is only a small part of what the band stood for. Besides, the MPTF logo was not a requirement and they did not even provide artwork for it like they did for the 40th Anniversary logo. In my opinion, if they wanted it front and centre, this would have been made explicit on the Talenthouse website.

3) 4Q

The tail of the Q used in the Queen wordmark has been a recurring design element in the band’s marketing for quite a while now, so when I saw that many entries combined the zero in 40 with the Q from Queen, I thought it was a clever twist. There’s a gestalt problem with using a Q as a 0, though, because the Q becomes the dominant message rather than read as a zero. I don’t know about others, but my repeated perception of these designs is to see “4+Q” (i.e., four kues) rather than as two numerals (i.e., 40 years). It’s an interesting twist, nonetheless.

4) The Queen

The terms “Queen” and “The Queen” have never been interchangeable in my world. One is, without question, a reference to a musical act; and the other is, without question, a title for Queen Elizabeth, who has her own public legacy to worry about. So when I see QEII being tossed into the mix as part of the band’s legacy, I get confused because the two terms have inarguably different referents. Yes, I know that QEII is one of the most recognized British symbols and it’s tempting to capitalize on her stature by aligning her with Queen, but outside of Queen’s early promotional photo with the QEII lookalike, I don’t recall these two icons of British culture converging since. Unless there’s more to their connection that non-Brits aren’t privy to.

5) Art history motif

Queen have dabbled in a lot of musical genres over the years and many of their song themes range from fairies, fantasy, politics, science fiction, car love, peace, and big bums. They’ve also toyed with art history as well. The earliest example of this, obviously, is Richard Dadd’s painting The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke. Roger’s keen eye during the NOTW period introduced us to American-born (but Canadian-raised)  Frank Kelly Freas, a sci-fi artist from the 50s and 60s. And if we fast forward a few albums, we see that Innuendo cover art borrows generously from French caricaturist Grandville’s illustrations from the mid-1800s. Introducing new elements of art history to their legacy seems awkward and not the kind of imagery expected nor recognized by the average Queen fan (at least not here in North America). While I like the Picasso-type treatments and the Art Nouveau motif above, I don’t think they nor the Fabergé egg and the Duchamp-inspired [Freddie] moustache on QEII would resonate with Queen fans.

6) Freddie’s moustache

I suppose the Duchamp moustache entry above would qualify for this theme as well, but it had a stronger tie to art history than to Freddie’s image, so that leaves us with these three which are trying to capitalize on the band’s history as being the same as Freddie’s image. The problem, as I see it, is that Freddie’s moustache is just one of many different looks he adopted over the duration of the band’s existence, so to adequately reflect a 40-year legacy with a look that didn’t even start until 10 years after they formed doesn’t tell the whole story. Not that you can tell their entire story in a single design, but treating Freddie’s image as the only identifying moniker is not fair to the other three band members. Queen was more than just Freddie’s band, as we all know.

7) Song titles

Okay, so using album covers as the basis of a t-shirt design was tried already. How about a typographic solution using song titles to create a figure/ground relationship? Okay, but you’re still challenged with how to arrange the song titles into a shape that symbolizes something about Queen and incorporates strong enough design principles that it becomes a well-rounded solution both conceptually and visually. Or take a line from a song and give it a context. This works very well as we see in the Killer Queen design. The Fat Bottomed Girls attempt falls short for many reasons, which are obvious. But limiting a 40-year career to a single song is risky, unless you’re talking about Don McLean.

8) Miracle blend

When I first saw the cover of the Miracle in 1989, I was amazed at the photo-realistic blending of their faces into one another. If I remember correctly, Photoshop didn’t exist yet and something called a Quantel Paintbox was the photo manipulation system used to achieve this hyper-realistic effect. (Boy, Quantel got their butt kicked by Photoshop in this market, didn’t they?) This blending of faces was uniquely Queen at the time, so many of the t-shirt entries took this approach as a way to symbolize the band. In a strange way, I actually prefer the typographic version of the Miracle blend which shows four different Qs morphing into each other. However, I don’t know whether most fans would get it immediately which is one of the parameters of good t-shirt design.

9) Cartoons & caricatures

Having Queen portrayed as caricatures or cartoon renditions of themselves shows how the illustrator sees them in their own idiosyncratic way. Some here are more successful than others but all seem to play off one stereotype or another that Queen has had over the years. Freddie as Japanese anime would be an interesting video short or comic series. 

10) Illustrations

An illustration sets the bar for spatial depiction requirement that much higher than cartoons or caricatures. These entries all take a commendable attempt at rendering a design that hinges on some technical ability to paint or draw. My hats off to them as it is extremely difficult to do well. The problem with this approach, as with other themes, is that it pigeonholes the band into a single time period which may be too restrictive to fully express 40 years worth of musical output.

11) Chess pieces

Like the Queen Elizabeth discussion earlier, here the Queen chess piece is used as the primary symbol. But just like the conceptual problems associating QEII to the band, forcing two strong identities into one design creates a competing focus. It underscores the semantic problems inherent in using identical labels for different cultural memes.

12) Playing cards

Where else can we find the term “Queen”? Oh yeah, in a deck of cards. I’m surprised that no one included a queen-sized bed in their design. I think these entries are struggling to find something unique in their interpretation of the band, their name, and to tell a story that’s not been told before. It’s a noble effort but the problem is that fans might not buy into your version because it was never officially endorsed by the band. There needs to be some modicum of recognizability in the visual cues presented so fans of all stripes can appreciate the common history of the band. But to introduce an element that was never part of the band’s identity derails the intention of the message. 

13) Creepy . . . in some way

Sorry, Freddie’s unitard exposing pale yellow skin reminded me of the cadavers I handled at the funeral home years ago. Besides the coloration issue, how many women would be comfortable portraying a hairy chest with a tattoo? Is the photocopied face meant to imply that Queen punched this guy in the face? Putting lion heads on the band members’ bodies looks like something out of The Lion, The Witch, and Wardrobe. Putting letters on the heads of the band members gets weird, too. Freddie and QEII going halfsies is creepy and doesn’t flatter either of them. The amorphous abdomen is a commendable attempt at updating the morphing of bodies together. Too bad it’s so ambiguous as to what it is. And a hand holding a bleeding heart just isn’t that romantic, contrary to what the song title implies.

14) Memento mori motifs

I was surprised to see so many skulls finding their way into several designs. At the risk of generalizing, I am wondering if such momento mori images are a cultural norm found outside of North America (except for the cow skull, which I’ve seen a lot of in Canada). This imagery borders on the macabre, which is okay, actually. Queen routinely sang about death -- such as Death on Two Legs…, All Dead, All Dead, Who Wants to Live Forever -- and even March of the Black Queen gets pretty occultish in parts. The bigger question is whether the depiction of death is reflecting Freddie’s passing or the perceived death of the band? Come to think of it, maybe death should have been the dominant theme because the rapture will be here on Saturday.

15) XL

A few clever souls realized that 40 years can be expressed as XL in Roman numerals and conveniently worked their designs around this interpretation. While I think the approach could work, the fact that it appears on a shirt immediately sets the context to that of clothing. Clothing size (XL) now supersedes the notion of “years.” At least that’s me. Perhaps there was an intentional double entendre with Queen (Freddie?) being larger than life. If that’s the case, then Extra Large would be okay, but then you lose the focus on their anniversary. Again, this is one of those multimodal gestalt situations that could go either way depending on a viewer’s initial reading of the message.

16) A rainbow of colour

There’s nothing like a rainbow of colour to grab your attention. The problem is, once you’ve got it, what are you telling them? It would seem from most of these entries that use the 40th Anniversary crest as the focus of the design, which is fine, but they all tend to look the same because of it. The album cover art used as tone (ala Hot Space portraits), wasn’t intended to be a rainbow of colour, but it comes off in a similar way. I think the colourful hair design (bottom row, second from right) was one of the leading contenders in the contest according to votes, so I’ll be curious to see how it fares on May 25th.

17) Interesting . . . for some reason

These ones caught my eye for different reasons. They all had some quirky connection to Queen, even the papercut butterfly. The headphone bra and heart-shaped ear look like they were produced by the same person. The 40 fingers=40 years=crown idea is unique, although at first glance it resembles a turtle skeleton. Freddie as land masses is great. Killer Queen looks like a James Bond character. The Rock Legends idea strikes me as an awkward combination of two disparate symbols. But unlike the shared nationalism of QEII and Queen, this one is half American and half British. I don’t know how the Brits would feel about it.

18) Original . . . for some reason

Life doesn’t get better than a cranky Leo giving the finger to the masses on a t-shirt design. (Sort of reminds me of the tourism volunteer I met years ago who was wearing a shirt with Mickey Mouse flipping the bird.) While I don’t quite understand how Queen became ferriers (i.e., horseshoes), but it’s original. The other two designs are just kinda cool in their unique interpretation of Queen’s legacy.

19) The kitchen sink

Sometimes less is more, if you know what I mean. With 40 years of activity to reflect in a t-shirt design, it can be tempting to include as much of the band’s history in a single image, which is what happened here. All of the constituent parts of these designs work well on their own -- whether it was a photo, design element, or colour pattern -- because they were intended to be the focus of the item they were used with. But to put a bunch of primary images together creates a lack of focus and ultimately weakens everything. Sort of like bolding everything in your text because you want to draw attention to everything but everything is given equal emphasis because of it. There needs to be a visual hierarchy for the viewer to follow.

20) 40th Anniversary crest

By far, more entries in the contest used the 40th Anniversary crest as the basis of their designs. This makes sense because it was meant to be the star of the show anyway, so to speak. What’s really interesting here is to see all of the interpretations of the crest and the mixing and matching that went on to create a unique look for it. As well, the fact that the 40th Anniversary crest is a version of Freddie’s original band crest underscores the strength of Freddie’s idea and the stability of his design through the years. But when you see them all together like this, can you pick one that is definitely the best out of the bunch? They tend to all look the same because the concept is, more or less, the same for each.

21) Oops

Before you upload, you might want to have another pair of eyes proof your work. Or at least turn on spell check.

22) WTF . . . tenuous connection?

Queen as stormtroopers? Okay. . . I get it. But the Star Wars connotation is so bloody strong I would wonder who is paying who for licensing of their brands on such a t-shirt: Queen to Lucas or Lucas to Queen. (This brings up an interesting point: what did stormtroopers look like before Star Wars since Brian’s song predates Star Wars?) The graffiti approach is interesting but so illegible that it is rendered moot. Is that a Mormon temple with Shrek fighting off a giant snake? And a fly with Queen tattooed on its back? Is the brain meant to symbolize Queen’s cerebral music? And WTF is Freddie’s silhouetted hair doing on the table with a nose on the floor? I don’t get it.

23) WTF . . . representational

Who’s your daddy? A neaderthal feather walker? A flaming eyeball? A countryside church? Wow, these entries are miles away visually from anything a typical Queen fan would recognize as being about the band. Perhaps in the entry write-ups the designer had a solid explanation as to how their image ties back into the Queen legacy, but if you need to explain a concept in 250 words, it falls far short of the few seconds that a t-shirt has in communicating its message. What’s truly missing in these entries is any semblance of a shared memory between the designer and the viewer.

24) WTF . . . abstract

Enter the realm of complete ambiguity. These abstract entries have nothing at all to connect them visually to Queen. Why bother entering if you’re not going to speak the same language as other fans?

25) My favourites

Out of all the entries, here are my six favourites . . . all for different reasons. If I had to pick my second favourite shirt, it would be the Q-neck design. It’s a clever use of the t-shirt shape but subtly suggests Queen through the distinctive tail of the Q. If I had to pick an absolute favourite, it would be the band members-as-roots illustration. It is so absolutely bizarre in its portrayal of the band but executed in a unique style that still manages to incorporate subtle motifs from the band’s history, it works in my opinion. 

My design

So I barely got any views and not one vote on my entry through Talenthouse, but that's okay. After reviewing all of the submissions, it is obvious to me that it’s nearly impossible to encapsulate Queen’s 40 years of achievement in a single, graphical image. You can sum up their history in words, though, which is what I opted to do. They made a big noise in rock history . . . and it is their hope that us fans will make a big noise in bringing awareness to the problem of AIDS worldwide. 

UPDATE: MAY 25, 2011 — Winner announced

Well, here it is . . . Brian and Roger’s choice for the fundraising t-shirt design. I was surprised that they went with such a Freddie-dominant theme since the band was definitely larger than just Freddie’s influence. 

The fully contoured design will require a significantly more demanding manufacturing process since the textiles will need to be printed first, then sewn into a shirt later on. I’ll be curious if I see anyone around town wearing one to Costco and such in the next few months.

Photo credits: Talenthouse (except mine)


  1. Well done Patrick! Great research and well written.
    With all due respect, i disagree with your comment on the submissions for the "40th Anniversary crest category". You suggest " when you see them all together like this, can you pick one that is definitely the best out of the bunch? They tend to all look the same because the concept is, more or less, the same for each."
    If you look closely at the QR code design, this concept is definetly different. In fact it is likely the only interactive Tshirt out of the 1000 entries.
    I agree completely that it’s nearly impossible to encapsulate Queen’s 40 years of achievement in a single, graphical image hence the video interactive component to this shirt.

    All the Best

  2. See shirt and description below.

  3. Thanks for the comment, Gary. I'll have to have another look at the QR design you mention as I obviously missed the intent of it for whatever reason. I'll be curious to hear which design Brian and Roger go with tomorrow.

    How'd you come across my blog, BTW? Just curious.

  4. Hi Gary,

    I just checked out your QR code design and you're right, nothing else like it was submitted. (My apologies for missing the whole quick response code component.) I guess Brian and Roger would have to anticipate how comfortable people would be with having strangers scan their shirts and invade their personal space. But as you mention on Talenthouse, it would definitely reflect Queen's use of innovation and technology.

    You're from Yorkton? I lived there for a couple of years back in 73-74 when I was a military brat.