T-shirts are a staple of our everyday wardrobe. They can work as a blank canvas in a way other clothing can’t, and that means the possibilities are endless. Get inspired by these 38 amazing t-shirts so you can create your own perfect design.
It’s hard to believe that t-shirts haven’t been around very long at all. Starting out as an undergarment issued by the U.S. Navy in the late 1800s, t-shirts were made popular in the 50s as outerwear by Hollywood stars like James Dean. With the humble t-shirt dredged up from its sweaty underwear prison out into the open, it wasn’t long before different colors, printed graphics, and even shapes beyond that of the eponymous “T” became commonplace.
T-shirts are incredibly popular because of their versatility. From businesses to basketball teams to bands to bachelorette parties, an awesome shirt makes it all better. Whatever goal your t-shirt might be aiming for, you’ll need a design style to match if you want to stand out.
T-shirts for businesses
Beyond just keeping us warm and not naked, clothing boosts confidence and self-image. Now imagine if that feeling was associated with your brand. This isn’t just important for the potential consumer but also for employees, the folks who work with your brand on a daily basis.
One of the challenges of creating a T-shirt for a business is getting people to wear it. Unless the design is spot-on and exceptionally clever, you’re going to be hard pressed to find folks to put it on. Nobody wants to waste a fashion opportunity to be your walking billboard. One helpful tip: use the product to tell the design story. There’s nothing exciting about a Fed-Ex package, but clever placement is all it takes to deliver a knockout t-shirt design. Fed-Ex took the funny approach, but Nike’s logo as shoelaces is just plain cool.
Company names, slogans or any kind of corporate text tend to make a t-shirt design feel like an ad. If your company has brand imagery to work with (Lyft’s fuschia mustache or Mailchimp’s mascot, for example), drop the sales pitch and focus on the art.
T-shirts for events and conferences
If you’re hosting a conference, you’ve got an audience that’s already invested enough to purchase a ticket, so t-shirt sales should be a no-brainer. An event shirt is a great way to create memorabilia that participants can look back on. If your conference is challenge-based (like a hackathon or artist’s workshop), your shirt becomes a kind of badge or proof of the wearer’s accomplishment. It’s like those shirts you get for surviving a hurricane, which is a “natural event,” I guess.
Take advantage of recurring events like an annual festival by upping your design ante each time you hold your event. Treasure Island Music Festival, for example, reimagines the same brand image—a capsized pirate ship—every single year. The new designs imply that every festival will be different and better than the last. Plus, each t-shirt becomes a collector’s item for participants—both of which encourage repeat attendance.
A clever twist on a classic design never fails. Salesforce’s Dreamforce conference celebrates San Francisco and its tech community by evoking the iconic “I Heart NY” t-shirt. Similarly, Yammer’s hackday t-shirt plays on the Back to the Future logo, trusting its community of (ahem) computer enthusiasts will appreciate a geeky 80’s reference.
T-shirts for parties and celebrations
Ever regret that Friday night you sat on the couch watching Netflix with a bucket of ice cream, and you checked your social media feed only to witness the photo deluge of your friends enjoying that party you were currently too (*cough*) busy to attend? Yeah, me neither… Man, that FOMO feeling is killer. Now imagine if everyone was wearing the same t-shirt.
The ultimate party shirt marks partygoers as members of an exclusive group, and it can also be another badge of honor. After all, depending on how much alcohol is involved, epic parties need to be “survived.”
While a t-shirt for your average house rager might be a little much, it’s a must for milestone events like birthdays or for large-scale parties like Mardi Gras.
T-shirt designs for parties can be a smart move for retailers as well. Take advantage of the “ugly Christmas sweater party” trend by designing an “ugly Christmas t-shirt.” And remember, it’s party time so keep it light and humorous. You know, like a Reagan, beer bong theme.
T-shirts for sports and athletics
Nobody—not coaches, not commentators, not even players themselves—is as passionate about sports as sports fans. Just ask these people. In this case, total and complete obsession is definitely a good thing. So, cater to it.
While sports enthusiasts might be willing pledge their allegiance with a loud t-shirt, that doesn’t mean you get to slack off by lazily slapping the team’s logo on it. Try reimagining your logo, like the Chicago Cubs. Or take a cue from the San Jose Sharks, who dressed up the sleeves and collar to make it look like a jersey.
A sports t-shirt also doesn’t have to be specific to any team or player. It can be used to appeal to an entire sports community, like this football illustration or Keith Haring-inspired skateboard t-shirt.
T-shirts for bands and musicians
Your favorite shirt can be like your favorite song—something you go back to again and again and it never wears out. Great music is something special, and great music on a t-shirt is even better.
Band t-shirts are staple at most concerts, and for good reason. Just like sports fans, music lovers want to identify themselves as fans and find others like them—especially if their favorite band isn’t very well known. T-shirts help promote musicians, but also build the fan community around them.
Music is already art, so there are very few constraints on what a band t-shirt design can convey, though it shouldn’t stray too far from the mood of the music itself. Ghost Trails, for example, is self-described dark folk band, and their t-shirt emphasizes dark lines and pagan imagery. Lowers is more concerned on expressing genre with a vintage design that harkens back to 70s and 80s metal and punk.
A band t-shirt should be more than your band logo or album artwork slapped onto the shirt. But similar to album art, this is another chance to creatively express your album’s themes, musical style or reference a specific song. Tame Impala’s Elephant and this Radiohead t-shirt achieve all three.
T-shirts for schools and universities
Short of walking around with their diploma around their neck, college apparel is the best way for students and alumni to express pride in their university. You love your school, so show it off.
I’ll say it again: Think outside of a simple representation of the school logo. Ohio State University’s classic logo is naturally reminiscent of a basketball rim, making it an obvious vehicle for promoting the school and its sports team. Meanwhile, the University of Oregon logo gets a complete makeover with sparse, clean linework and matching typography.
Make school a fun experience for younger kids, too! Take a cue from both of these elementary school t-shirts that give their schools a space exploration and video game twist.
T-shirts for clubs and organizations
Clubs are filled with people that have similar interests and hobbies, and matching t-shirts can go a long way in reinforcing those social bonds—just like teammates wear uniforms. Giving members cool threads to wear around town or the gym can help spread the club’s word-of-mouth and encourage continued membership.
A tacky design is going to have your members feeling like this. Your t-shirt sets the tone for how you will be perceived. If your club is seen as a little nerdy, an awesome t-shirt is a great step towards building a cool image.
Or maybe your club isn’t for the faint of heart. A “join-at-your-own-risk” style can actually inspire people to rise to the challenge. Carnivore Crew, a group for meat enthusiasts (you read that right), uses a skeletal dinosaur and 80’s metal style typography for a gritty appearance. And while Fight Club might not be real (or is it…?), a design this cool might have you starting one of your own.
T-shirts for non-profits and social issues campaigns
Occasionally, a t-shirt design should make more of a statement than just a fashion one. While nobody wants to think about anything in their closet as capitalist advertising space, a design for a non-profit cause is a different story.
A t-shirt isn’t going to solve the world’s problems, but it does a great job of promoting awareness, like these shirts for the Balkan Floods and declining bee populations.
The subject matter may be heavy, but the design doesn’t have to be. Nonprofits are focused on helping others, and a cheerful design can emphasize that positivity. Check out these two examples that reimagine their charities as rock festivals and video games.
T-shirts for retail
Graphic tees are what shirts were made for. Think about it. Pants, button-ups, jackets, etc. all tend to come either solid colored or patterned (and you just can’t show off artwork very well on a pant leg). T-shirts are a great way to be simply unique and cool—and that’s the reason people look to fashion in the first place.
Most t-shirt graphics are placed front and center (for obvious reasons), but you don’t have to be constrained to that. Take a look at how the above examples utilize space in a unique way to draw the viewer’s eye.
Graphic patterns are a hot current trend and a great alternative to presenting a single illustration on the front.
Creative typography can be a work of art all by itself. Just because you’re not selling or promoting something doesn’t mean your t-shirt can’t have a powerful message. Take Invision’s “Design Makes Everything Possible” shirt, or stormyfuego’s design that uses color and typography together to create a graphic.
T-shirts: perfect for anything
T-shirts aren’t underwear for sailors anymore. They’ve got so many different uses (and tons more beyond this list), but whatever your t-shirt need, make sure you give your audience a design that is just as cool as something they’d buy at the mall.