I was approached by Kaisa from Muuliprojekti about a specific design for a t-shirt. She’d seen someone selling a second-hand tee with a cool mule-design in a Facebook group and immediately set to finding one for herself.
To her disappointment, the designs were either of mammoth donkeys, regular donkeys or some kind of pitiful attempt at passing off a horse as a mule by slightly elongating the ears. There really isn’t much of a design pool out there for the dedicated mule owner.
And pf course, it’s a point of pride for a mule owner to have a t-shirt with an actual mule on it, so she emailed me asking if I could come up with a design that accurately represented mules.
I jumped at the chance to design the shirt and started working on the lettering design. Since it was going to say, “Mule girl, just like a cowgirl, only much cooler”, and the mule was going to be in western gear, I wanted to have the lettering support that wild west feeling (mood board below).
In my initial sketch (below) I played around with placement and emphasis of words. I also introduced a ribbon element to soften it up a bit as well as to give a nod to the soft canvas tops of waggons and country fair tents.
I also wanted the pace of the words just like a to read faster than mule girl and to build momentum propelling the reader towards cowgirl.
(And you can see my expert mule-with-rider sketch in the centre!)
I worked on the placement and symmetry of the lettering, marking mule girl as the most important words by making them clearly stand out – both in style and complexity of the design. I added a drop shadow and embellishments inside the letters.
The reference I’d been given was a dark grey shirt with the lettering and design in white and pink. I knew that Kaisa liked pink so I wanted to find a way to make the shirt girly, since it’s for mule girls, but not so pink that it makes the wearer look like a 12-year-old.
To balance the colours I made the background a mid-tone grey and began working more with colour. I also placed an outline for the mule (from a reference photo of Kaisa and her mule) so that I had the proportions between the top and bottom lettering elements in harmony.
Next, I drew in the mule and the rider. The mule and tack I modelled quite closely off of Muuli herself, just as I drew the position of Kaisa’s leg for the rider.
I did adjust the mule’s ear on the far side, simply because I wanted it to be clear that it’s a mule – even from a distance – and in the reference photo the far ear was almost entirely hidden by the near ear.
You can see Muuli’s tack that I was using for reference (it got a bit altered in the final design):
The upper body of the rider needed some adjustment and I left face “blank” because I wanted anyone who wears the shirt to feel like they can picture themselves as the rider.
In the reference photo Kaisa, who was riding Muuli, was looking down towards the front. I raised the rider’s gaze up (even with a blank face) because I wanted her bearing to and energy to be up, to be positive, and looking ahead. In the photo, Kaisa was also wearing a riding helmet, which I naturally changed into a hat.
I also toyed with the idea of adding a lariat but it was a good thing that I decided against it because when Kaisa saw the design she immediately thought of some adjustments to make it even more mule-like (more on that in a bit).
I began by drawing the outline of the mule and rider and then filled in those areas where light would fall to give it a more three-dimensional look.
I also played around with some colour variation to see if it would help the pink look pinker but the more colour I added the more it started reminding me of baby decor – and it just drowned out the pink rather than accentuated it.
Below the background colour is the same colour as the shirt it’s printed on.
In the end, I went back to the original limited colour palette to keep it classy. I also filled in the mule and rider with a dark grey to make the characters stand out more clearly.
Since the shirt I chose for printing is a poly-cotton blend and has a textured surface, I wanted to make sure the fine lines of the tack didn’t disappear in the final printing.
Getting close to the final design but I still wasn’t happy with it. There was something off though I couldn’t put my finger on it. So, I walked away for a few days to let my brain rest for a bit.
When I came back to it I decided that the curve wasn’t letting the style of lettering I’d chosen really shine. The letters had a lot of curves and details that were becoming impossible to see in a curve, so I decided to redraw the letters on a straight, ascending line.
And already it started looking much better! This style harks back to when posters and signs were all drawn by hand and commissioned at great cost from professionals with super steady hands.
As a little Easter egg, I’d added a curved horizontal line to the L, making it loosely resemble a boot. I also turned down the back tip of the heel to give it an echo of a spur.
The softer lines in general, are reminiscent of the tack and movement of the mule itself. Though none of this is meant to be obvious – only to add to that overall western feeling.
Once I got the sketch done and the lines inked, it immediately started reminding me of old Coca-Cola coolers. So much better!
I added a drop shadow, moved the word only from between the mule’s legs to in front of them and put simple decoration in the letters.
This ascending line arrangement also worked out much better because the hooves were hidden in the reference photo and I drew them in based on other pictures.
And so, now it looks like they’re coming towards us, riding around a small hillock. This also conveniently hides the hooves behind the text and I don’t have to worry about them not being perfect!
The above image I sent to Kaisa for review. She came back with some additional wishes; add a breast collar, second girth and tighten the straps a bit.
And with the revisions, the design ended up looking like this:
Kaisa and Muuli were kind enough to take some pictures with the shirt so I could see how cool it looks in action (never did I dream that I’d see one of my designs posing with a real live mule!).
The shirt is now available in my shop, click here to see it. And I have to say, with this tee, there really is no denying that mule girls are so much cooler!
You can follow Kaisa and Muuli’s journey on Instagram @rosamiii.