David Schwen: The Interview

Two of our favorite tee shirt designs from 2011 were cooked up by David Schwen, an accomplished artist with a growing portfolio of work inspired by pop culture motifs. He speaks to us below about the appeal of Star Wars, Threadless, the creative process, and more!


It Goes to 11: If you could be so kind, would you introduce yourself for our readers?

David Schwen: I am a designer/art director living in Minneapolis. I have worked in the advertising/design industry here for the last 8 years. I’ve worked at Carmichael Lynch, Fallon, Mono and I am now currently a Senior Art Director at Target. I’m 28 years young. I am a proud father and have a very loving and supportive wife. I am not ashamed to say that I live in the ‘burbs and own a labradoodle.

Note: not David's dog.

It Goes to 11: How long have you been designing tee shirts and where did the inspiration typically come from?

David Schwen: I got into t-shirt design a while back. It wasn’t until I first got printed at Threadless, that things started to click for me. While working a full-time job, with clients and responsibilities, t-shirt design has been a great outlet for me. I am able to do whatever I want, and have freedom to be the ‘final say’ on the idea. I’m inspired by living my life.

I come up with ideas in the strangest places – riding the bus, walking down the street, seeing something in a movie (especially Star Wars). Inspiration is all around us, and when you turn your mind off, that is when the ideas just pop into your head.

It Goes to 11: Talk us through the design process. Do you like to sketch in hand or do you prefer to work with a digital pallette from the get-go?

David Schwen: It always starts with the idea. Usually when I think of something, I’ll either write down the idea, or do a quick sketch of it in my pad. Depending on the idea, I will also try to ‘Google’ it, to make sure it ‘hasn’t been done before.’ If I feel it’s truly a ‘new’ idea, then I will go into the execution phase.

I never go right to the computer. I need to sketch it out, even if it’s going to be purely just typography or a vector illustration. My mind works best when I work it out with pen and paper first. Then I will try to find a style and execution that best fits the idea. I never try to get stuck in a rut of having a set style. Each idea needs to have it’s own voice.

It Goes to 11: The Pop Culture design is absolutely genius.

No X-Men Allowed

How did the idea come to you and what’s been the response to it thus far? On a related note, I see on your blog that you actually applied the design to real cans

David Schwen: I can’t even remember exactly where that idea came from. I had created the ‘Pok√© Beer‘ idea, while I was doing the series of poke ball concepts. I think when I was looking at the can on my shelf a couple days later, I thought “why not do a whole series of ‘pop (can) culture?'”

There was a minimalism contest going on at Threadless, and I wanted to create nostalgic pop culture icons, that people can identify with, at the most simplistic level.

People may argue that the shirt doesn’t make sense — some people say ‘pop,’ and others say ‘soda.’ But being the midwesterner that I am, I say pop, so it worked for me. Once I had the idea, the execution phase actually went pretty quickly. I ran the design by a few people, just to make sure everyone could identify what most of the cans where. My 8-year-old was also very helpful in the process! It’s been exciting to see all the traction the design has been getting on the internet. Always fun to have people enjoy the work I’m creating!

It Goes to 11: Talk to me about the Star Wars Eye Chart design.


What is it about the yellow and black colorway? Yours is immediately evocative of Star Wars, naturally, but there’s something deeper, I think, at play, from a design perspective. It’s bold, bright, simple, and eye-catching. Would you agree that Lucas was a savvy brander?

David Schwen: I originally had the design titled “Jed Eye Chart,” but I had to change the name for copyright reasons (editor’s note: damn, that’s also insanely clever…). The funny thing about the color of the typography, is that I originally had it in blue. The reason was because in the movie, the phrase “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….” was actually in the blue subtitle, before the scrolling yellow text came on. But after talking with some people, I decided to change it to the light yellow, so it would make a faster correlation to Star Wars.

I really enjoy the color choice that Lucas made. Instead of just doing a white on black, the light yellow color adds a bit of warmth to the typography, and doesn’t make it stand out as much.

It Goes to 11: Thoughts on working with Threadless and the voting process? Was that intimidating at the outset (I see that you’ve had about 15 designs go to print, yes?)?

David Schwen: It can be tough to find a groove at Threadless. When I first start subbing designs on there, I would go through different phases. I’d create 20 designs, and not get printed, and then get bummed and stop subbing for a while. Then I’d get motivated to submit more designs, and do the same, and it still wasn’t clicking. But when I got my first email notification that I was getting a design printed, something switched ‘on’ in my head. Sometimes you have to go through waves of failure, and persevere, no matter how hard it feels at times – to find your way.

I had my 15th design just released at Threadless this week. Each design printed is just as exciting as the one before it. The community of artists at Threadless is the thing that holds it all together. There is a healthy competitive environment, of people that just want to help others make great things together.

(Update: David has just submitted a new design. Vote on it here.)

It Goes to 11: What are some of your favorite sites online (tee shirt or otherwise)?

David Schwen: I like to be inspired daily. I frequent sites like Pinterest and FFFFOUND; like most designers. I also like to go to places that are more out of the ordinary. I enjoy staying up on things by going to Boing Boing and The Daily What and following various people on Tumblr. This helps me to stay up on the trends and to make things with cultural relevance.

It Goes to 11: Any other new projects/designs/developments that you’d like to mention?

David Schwen: I had started a “Make-Something-Cool-Every-Day” project in January, and created something every day for 6 months. I had to take a break from the project, to focus on some other things in my life. But I have gained some motivation back to keep creating — as I have realized how important it is to use my creativity as an outlet in my life. I am also planning on doing some collaborations with my two sons. They pitch me t-shirt ideas daily at the dinner table. There is NOTHING more creative and raw, than the minds of kids!

On behalf of the blog, I want to thank David for taking the time to graciously answer our questions.

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Why Waltz When You Can Rock & Roll: travis [at] founditemclothing.com

2 thoughts on “David Schwen: The Interview

  1. Andrew

    I tried to order the eye chart shirt the other day, but it is out of print! I requested a reprint, but would love if others can do the same.

    Nice little insight to the mind of a clever designer. Thanks for the post.

  2. Pingback: David Schwen interviewed by It Goes To 11

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