Do you have an awesome t-shirt idea and think others will like it too? Are you looking for means of promoting your business, or making some side income with merchandise? Do you want to make an event special, like a wedding function or a farewell party? Whatever your reasons, the fundamentals of t-shirt design remain the same; it’s what you do with them that counts.
In this Ultimate Guide to T-Shirt Design, we’ll run through the each step of the design process, from the inception of an idea to getting your shirt mass-produced. No matter how much (or how little) experience you have, these t-shirt design tips will give you everything you need to know.
1. Ask yourself – Who do I need a t-shirt?
No matter your reason for designing a t-shirt, it’ll always involve a little bit of branding. If you’re using t-shirts for promotional purposes, branding is your main goal. Even if it’s strictly fashion, you’ll still need to weave consistent brand themes into all your products. For personal use—like commemorating an event, for example—you want to make sure your t-shirt design communicates clearly.
If you haven’t already, write out a list of the key themes, styles, and personality traits you want your brand and shirts to convey. Is your brand playful or serious? Edgy or conservative? Luxurious or affordable? A focused t-shirt design can answer all of these questions at a glance.
To get the most effective design, move away from your personal preference and rely more on real, quantifiable data. Who are your target clients/customers? What brand traits do they want to do business with?
Regardless of their use, most t-shirts are promotional in some way. Even if you’re designing t-shirts as merchandise, include your brand logo so observers know who made the shirt if they want something similar. It should have a strong, even dominant, presence on the shirt.
Apply the same design quality and cleverness as you would a billboard advertisement. More than just clothes, t-shirts provide exposure every time a person wears them in public, especially if the owner likes the shirt and wears it often.
Once you’ve determined your goals, you can then prioritize the different aspects of your t-shirt design. For example, fashion might be a high priority for merchandise tees, but not for employee gifts. You want to tailor your design in a way that best suits your needs.
2. Figure out your budget and quantity
You’re anxious to get to the actual t-shirt designing. We get it. But let’s settle some details first so you can focus your design better: namely, your budget and quantity. How much you can spend and how many t-shirts you need will impact your design.
For example, budget and quantity will help determine how many colors you can use. Depending on your printing method, additional colors may cost more money. If your budget is tight, a good way to save is conserving colors.
The number of shirts you need will also influence your printing method. Some methods are ideal for printing in bulk. Others have a higher cost per shirt and are better for small orders.
Before you begin to think about designing or printing, plan your budget and quantity accordingly.
3. Select the best printing option
There are a lot of things to consider when you’re looking for the best t-shirt printing method for you. Cost, appearance, production time, materials—they’re all important. The more you know about each method, the easier it will be to decide which one is best for you.
This is the gold standard for t-shirt printing. Your printer makes original screens of your design (one for each color) so you can print in bulk.
Pros: Reliable standard for printing. Affordable and high quality. Ideal for large orders over 20.
Cons: New screen required for every new color or design revision (which gets costly). Colorful designs end up being expensive.
Another method of heated transfer, vinyl printing uses more durable vinyl instead of just ink.
Pros: Extremely durable and high quality. Ideal for when you want your design to stand out (literally).
Cons: Additional colors cost more, so complicated designs get expensive. Not great for large orders.
Direct-to-garment (or print-on-demand)
A newer option, DTG printing uses the freedom of inkjet printing, but prints directly on fabric.
Pros: Highly customizable designs with maximum detail and extensive color choices.
Cons: Use for small batches or perhaps a single sample. The more you’re printing, the less viable it becomes. Doesn’t work well on dark-colored garments.
4. Prepare full design concept
Here comes the fun stuff… Now you get to start figuring out what’s actually going on your t-shirt! Make sure you don’t jump to this step first. The more time and effort you put into preparing for this, the better.
Your design could go in a million different directions. As you’re brainstorming, here are some tips to help focus your creativity.
All this talk about t-shirts, and it’s easy to forget that there are lots of different types of shirts. Just to show a few…
Think about your audience and intended goals before deciding the right type of t-shirt. A crop top might not be the best promotion for a law firm.
As you start sketching out t-shirt design ideas, make sure it will translate to the actual size. Design using an 18”x18” canvas and physically place your designs on a shirt. That doesn’t mean you have to fill the whole space (like if you’re keeping it minimal with a small logo), but a realistically sized canvas will help you get the proportions right.
Once you have your design, consider how it will look on larger and smaller shirt sizes. If you choose a screen printing process, different sizes may require different screens, which means additional costs.
Style and imagery
At this stage, you have to rely on your creative and artistic instincts to communicate the messages you want to say. Don’t forget these questions we talked about before:
- What is your brand?
- Who is your market?
- Why are you designing a shirt in the first place?
Put all of that together, and you’re ready to start designing a t-shirt that’s perfect for you.
The fonts you choose say a lot about your brand. Serif fonts (the ones with little arms) or script fonts look more classic. Sans-serif fonts make it more modern. T-shirts offer more of an opportunity than other areas of graphic design to play with fun, crazy display fonts, but do keep readability in mind. If the words on your shirt are important to communicating your message, make sure they don’t get overshadowed by swirly, grungy, loopy typography.
Color in t-shirt design
T-shirt designs have two sets of colors to keep in mind: the fabric color(s) and the print color(s). To make sure that these two complement each other, always use your fabric color as the background of your design ideas. (And also note that a colored canvas can have an impact on what inks look like, so make sure you talk to your printer about that!)
Pantone colors vs. CMYK printing
Because of the way t-shirt inks work, printing colors can get a little tricky. The least expensive way to print your design will be to approximate the colors. Just know that your “Cyan” might not match your printer’s “Cyan.”
Exact color matches are possible with Pantone (PMS) or custom blended CMYK inks—but they’re more expensive. PMS uses predefined, exact ink tones that your printers can purchase. CMYK printing creates virtually any color by combining Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Key (black) inks. Check with your printer to determine what’s available.
5. Look for a designer
Got design skills? Get crackin’! If you don’t, don’t worry. There are tons of pros out there ready to turn your design concept into a reality.
The DIY route
The main advantage of designing a t-shirt yourself is the price. If your budget is tight, the decision is already made for you. Design freedom is a huge advantage, but don’t forget that professionals know the technical concerns of t-shirt design (plus a whole lot more). If you broke out into a cold sweat when we mentioned acronyms like CMYK, you might sleep better handing this off to a pro.
Hiring a pro
Rather than teaching yourself marketing, branding and graphic design, why not pay someone who knows all them already?
Once you’ve found your designer(s), you have to clearly communicate your vision. Tell them what about your design ideas, messaging, and intended audience. Include details about colors, logos, visual style, t-shirt type and printing specifications. Send them images of designs that match the style you’re looking for. Give them everything they need to know so you can get the perfect t-shirt design.
6. Review your design
As your design options start rolling in, browse through every version and select your favorites. Don’t forget your marketing and technical requirements. Will your design fit on a tank top? Is the amount of color within your budget? Is the messaging right? This isn’t just an art contest, but a business decision. Communicate your feedback clearly to your designer to make sure your next set of options look even better.
Then, make sure to run it by both key stakeholders and people who don’t have any connection to what you’re doing. Even if it’s just your neighbor across the street, people not closely associated with your t-shirt design will notice things you never did.
Consider asking them:
- What is the one key message you get when you look at this shirt?
- Who is this shirt for?
Their answers to these questions will help you determine if the t-shirt is communicating what you want it to. If it’s not, go back to your designer and figure out what you can change.
Once your design’s ready, it’s printing time! Find one that offers the method you need at a price you can afford. Of course, extra features and discounts to sweeten the deal are great, too. Sifting through printing options to find the best one for your particular project usually requires experience and time… but we’re going to fast-track it for you!
- Find out if the printer has an in-house art department. Not only does this mean the printer does in-house prints, but it usually means these folks do good work. Only successful printers can sustain an in-house art department.
- Request samples of finished shirts, not design images. Most printing companies love visitors! Stop by their shop to see and touch their shirts. Remember: a printer’s job is to translate design to an actual print, and only a finished product reveals that.
- Start building a working relationship with a printer you can grow with. Find a printer who prints six or more colors. Even if you don’t need that many for your first project, you might need them later.
- If you’re doing a larger order, make sure your printer offers pre-press proofs. You won’t know for sure how the design fits on the shirts until you see a sample.
- Beware hidden charges, particularly with screens, films or Pantone color matching. Just like any other industry, there are a few rotten eggs. Go over all the charges before payment to make sure they’re being up front.
Time to design an amazing t-shirt!
Every year t-shirt design and printing are becoming more and more accessible. They’re something every business can take advantage of… as long as they know what they’re doing. We hope this guide on how to design a t-shirt gave you everything you need to break into the world of making t-shirts. Got questions? Ask them in the comments below or write to us at info[at]vinikafashions[dot]com.