How To Create Killer Mashups

Mash up dance

The guys from Penny Arcade really hate a bad mashup; while not quite as passionate, I still see bad mashups as missed opportunities. It may seem simple, but fusing two cultural references on a t-shirt design can be tricky to pull off. But what exactly makes a mashup good or bad?

Let’s start by qualifying what’s good and what’s bad. I’m not going to focus on what’s commercially viable, because really, you can’t go wrong in that department if you slap a TARDIS on it. No, I’m not kidding. While earning money is a big part of why designers make shirt designs, there isn’t much to be learned from commercial success where mashups are concerned. Because they make their statement with cultural references, usually a well-rendered piece featuring pop culture properties (like Dr. Who, Super Mario Bros, or Princess Mononoke) will sell fairly well.

So if we’re not talking about money, what are we talking about? For lack of a better term, I’m talking about mashups that make sense artistically. Let’s cut the chatter and get into some examples though, hm? First up, a bad mashup (dun dun dun)!

“Deathstardis” by Sonofafish

You may be thinking that the mashup isn’t that bad. Why thank you! I made it. But I can tell you I designed it intentionally to be bad. I don’t think I did a poor job rendering it; it looks like a Death Star, and the TARDIS elements are apparent. But that’s it. These two references were jammed together with no thought as to what they have in common. There’s no gag, there’s no inside joke. It’s just a hybrid Death Star / TARDIS. Sure, both machines float in space, but that’s really the only connection. It feels forced.

That brings us to rule #1: The references in your mashup should have something in common. Even if you can’t put a common thread into words, there should be an aesthetic, a theme, or some other feature that both references share.

Dead Ned
“Dead Ned” by Dustin Rabjohn

Garbage Pail Kids were pretty gruesome, but that’s why we loved them! A big part of the Game of Thrones appeal is that the show is absolutely mercilessness when it comes to killing characters we like; it’s gory and unexpected, and nothing exemplifies this more than (spoiler alert!) Ned Stark’s execution. This design is fully aware of both of those things; Ned’s Head makes total sense as a Garbage Pail card, and it makes something we the fans regard seriously and turns it into a pretty funny joke.

Does there have to be a joke in your mashup? Absolutely not! But if there isn’t, you would do well to mind rule #2: Know your audience. If there isn’t something funny or clever about your design, no one is likely to pick it up unless they like both of the references in the mashup. I confess that I haven’t done a lot of (or any) research about fans of Firefly or Star Wars, but I think it’s safe to say there’s some overlap. With that in mind:

Partners in Crime
“Partners in Crime” by Saqman

If you’re a fan of both, you’ve probably stopped reading this article to go buy the shirt. Who can resist? Mal and Han are practically long-lost twins; the fans know it, and the artist who made this knows it, too.

Joke or no joke, fans in common or not, rule #3 is the most important: Make sure it means something to you.

Keep On Trackin'
“Keep On Trackin'” by Sonofafish

This is another mashup that I created. You may or may not get both references, but I can tell you both Star Wars and R. Crumb have been influential to my work. I can’t emphasize enough that if you don’t connect with the material, it will show. With t-shirt design, the devil is in the details, and when you mash up references to things you don’t particularly care for, it will be noticeable! You may focus on something real fans find unimportant, or worse, simply get it wrong. If you stick to what inspires you, then at least someone will relate to (and hopefully purchase) your finished design.

Are these real rules? No, they’re guidelines. There are no rules to mashups. I confess that it’s possible to disregard all three rules and make something beautiful that makes you buckets of money.

If you do, please tell me your secret, because no one is buying my Deathstardis.

Juan Aguilar

Juan Aguilar (aka Sonofafish) is a freelance writer and designer. His knowledge of Simpsons trivia has been described as "encyclopedic" and "completely unnecessary."