JOINT BASE MYER-HENDERSON HALL, Va. - How important is T-shirt design to the success of an event it celebrates, be it a concert, charity or athletic endeavor? Is the graphic element a visual cri de coeur that creates buzz and binds its wearers together in common cause or aesthetic, or is it just disposable art; a soon-to-be-fading souvenir; a splatter-safe garment that three months later can be worn when repainting the dining room?

For about six years the organizers of the Army Ten-Miler have been holding a T-shirt contest as a prelude to the annual run through Arlington County and the District of Columbia in October. A panel of military and civilian judges whittle submissions down to a handful of designs and post them on the ATM website, where those registering to participate in the race - at least those filing up through the end of May - can vote for their favorite design.

The Army Ten-Miler is hosting a series of shadow runs at military installations and other sites across the globe in early October, a prelude to the main event that starts at the Pentagon Oct. 20. Ten-Miler officials will distribute T-shirts to runners in the shadow runs, encouraging organizers to document the event with photos and video for posting on the ATM website. Clips of these shadow runs will be the first opportunity for the general public to see the new T-shirts in action.

A curious advertisement for the contest recently appeared in the Washington City Paper.

Besides listing the ATM website and prize money, it included a photo of a less than inspiring shirt with the words, "We need a T-shirt design that doesn't suck like this."

ATM Marketing Director Nancy Brandon said she intentionally created a lame shirt for the ad in order to generate interest in the contest.

"We wanted to attract a younger, edgier audience," she said, noting how a similar ad ran in the alternative newspaper the Village Voice out of New York City.

"The Army Ten-Miler isn't just for the military, it's for the whole community," Brandon said, explaining how T-shirt entries come in from service members and civilians, runners and non-runners.

Last year's first place winning entry came from Manassas, Va., native Peter Pawlak, a George Mason University senior and graphic design major who found out about the contest from a teacher, who turned it into a class project.

Pawlak said his method is to start off with nine or 10 ideas and then narrow them down, working either on a computer program or by drawing free-hand.

"I sometimes sketch (an idea) on a napkin so you don't forget - even if it's so bland you don't recognize it later," Pawlak said, describing his process. He said you sometimes have to put the initial idea down for a day or two "to let it evolve in your mind."

As a native of the National Capital Area, Pawlak said he may have had a leg up by being familiar with the visuals of the Washington, D.C., area. He said he incorporated local landmarks runners would encounter along the race route into his design.

Pawlak was in JROTC in high school and had a grandfather who served in World War II.

"I'm interested in the military. I've always had a decent knowledge base of what it's all about," he said.

GI dog tags were another key element in his design.

Staff Sgt. Caleb Barrieau, an Army broadcaster with XVIII Corps at Fort Bragg, N.C., has placed twice in the Army Ten-Miler contest. He won second place in 2011 and third place in 2012. Barrieau said he taught himself computer graphics and has done work designing coins, logos and other items for units he's served with.

Before beginning a design, Barrieau said he examines what previous winners have submitted on the web.

"I wanted to see what other people were doing so I didn't copy them," he explained. "It's a guessing game. Every year it's a totally different thing (theme-wise). I want to do something new."

Barrieau said the contest is something he does for fun and that he urges soldiers under him to take a try and submit a design for experience. "It's on the job training," he said.

Jason Siegel, a professional graphic artist from Long Island, N.Y., found out about the Army contest from a notice on a graphic design website. He'd previously made T-shirts for a hunting organization and a high school science fair.

He said his process is to surf the web and look at the latest trends in design. "It's tough competition out there," he admitted.

Siegel said he works up several variations on a theme, trying out different angles of a monument or building, for instance, and circulates them among friends and family to get feedback.

"If you've got an idea, get it down on paper or the computer," he said in advice to those looking to enter the contest for the first time. "Just go for it."

Last year, the top three winners of the contest won prizes, including, appropriately enough, new computers and graphic design software. This year monetary gift cards will be distributed in the amounts of $2,500 for first place, $1,000 for second place, and $500 for third place.

Brandon said the number of submitted entries each year ranges from 75 to 125, while the number of registered runners who vote for the designs continues to increase. Participation by those registering for the race increased from 4,500 to 5,000 from 2011 to 2012.

"We have started to include the contest link on the runner confirmation form to try and increase participation," Brandon said. The thinking being, that "since you just registered for the ATM you are in the ATM frame of mind, so now go and vote for the official race shirt."

Submissions to the T-shirt contest will be accepted through May 3. The top three winners will be notified May 31 and the results posted on the ATM website June 1. For more information on the rules and specifications for the Army Ten-Miler T-shirt contest, visit the website