Essential t-shirt design tips, Part 1: How to come up with a killer design

Maya Lekach

T-shirts are more than just clothing. Since rising to popularity in the 1960s, t-shirts have been worn by everyone from children to grandmothers, rock stars to office workers. They’re effectively the new billboards – and better than the old kind, because they’re mobile, and they offer the bonus credibility of their wearer’s approval. These morsels of fashion and art are the perfect place for you to get some mobile, virile advertising and precious brand recognition. But that only works if your shirt looks good.

As you might expect, t-shirt design is one of our most popular categories – and we get questions from customers all the time about how to go about getting a fantastic design that matches their target audience, time frame and budget.

Here, in part 1 of our 3-part series on t-shirt design, we’ll help you tackle perhaps the most important question of all: how do I come up with an actual design people will love to wear, and that will also promote my brand? In Part 2, you’ll learn how to pick a fabric and an ink, and then finally in Part 3 we’ll help you choose a printer and prep for the process. By the end you’ll know how to take your t-shirt all the way from concept to execution. So let’s get started!

4 key design considerations

The American Outdoorsman

The t-shirt designs featured here were all created by BATHI* – check out all his winning designs here!

The basis of your shirt is the graphic design it displays. You want your shirt to represent your brand, and also to stand out from all the others. But that’s not easy – there are almost as many graphics on t-shirts out there as there are t-shirts themselves. Here are four things to consider in creating your graphic:

  1. Imagine your shirt as a piece of art. After all, these days the street is as much a gallery as any museum. Try to create something original and distinctive; start some conversations.
  2. Anyone wearing your shirt is introducing you to new clients. So use your shirt’s imagery to let people know who you are and what you do.
  3. Consider when and where people will be wearing your t-shirt. Ideally you would like to create something sleek for these street-strutting moments, rather than a big ol’ night shirt seen only by the wearer’s other half.
  4. You want the shirt to seem cool and exclusive, yes. But in order to get the most wear out of your t-shirts, make the design applicable to as many of your target markets as possible: male and female, young and old.

…And 5 practical things to keep in mind

In addition to those more theoretical issues, you also need to be practical. There are limits to what a printer can do, or can do for a reasonable budget (both of which we’ll address in a future post). Better to design for those limitations from the beginning. Here are a few of the more technical considerations:

  1. Simplify color, line and texture. These will all come into play at the printer, and either widen or narrow your possibilities – not to mention your budget. In general, more complexity costs more. Focus on clean lines, less shading, and more solid colors.
  2. New motto: Everything is easier with fewer colors. And speaking of colors, use Pantone. (Your designer will know what this means – it’s key!)
  3. Not to repeat ourselves, but you really want to avoid hard-to-print imagery, like fine details and subtle color gradients. These will only give you a headache and result in a t-shirt that looks nothing like your design, even as it costs a fortune.
  4. If you want to have a bold impact add DARK OUTLINES. Sorry to yell – we just wanted this suggestion to be as bold as your shirts should be.
  5. Make sure the final design is drawn to scale, exactly as it will be printed on the t-shirt. Don’t leave the work of rescaling to the printer (unless you like disappointment).

Of course you can create a design that is merely your logo stamped on a chest pocket. But if you want your t-shirt to stand out among the many, many on the street every day, you probably want to get a bit more creative. Play with the design – bearing in mind the technical limits.

And who said there would be a chest pocket on this shirt anyway? That’s for our next post, where we help you choose a shirt style, a fabric, and some ink… stay tuned for part 2!

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