Essential t-shirt design tips, Part 2: Unleash Your Inner Stylist

Maya Lekach

Your journey toward becoming a famous t-shirt designer – or just getting a bit of organic recognition for your business – began with our first post in this series, in which we explored the basics of creating a phenomenal design to print on your t-shirt. In a future post, we’ll prep you for the printing process. But first, you have to select your materials. There are two major consideration here: fabric and ink. We’ll talk you through both.

Get to know your wearer

It’s fairly obvious that once you have a design, you’ll need a surface to put it on. Less obvious is what kind of surface that should be, because there are so many options! T-shirts come in v-neck, waist crop, long sleeve, tank top…and on and on. To sort through the alternatives, think about your target market. Whether someone decides to wear your shirt will depend on its fit and feel – not just in terms of their body but their identity as well. Who is your wearer? What kind of look are they going for? Casual? Trendy? Conservative? Are they wearing the top at the beach, to work, on a date? Which is the best match for your own brand identity? Visualize your design on a variety of shirt styles, and try to imagine which one will look best on your intended audience:

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The weight of the fabric is key to the fit. A thicker fabric will support more ink, meaning the design will be more durable, but it will also be bulkier to wear. A lightweight shirt is sleeker and more comfortable, but might not hold the design as long.

Finally, you need to consider the material. Cotton is usually the easiest material to print on, but other fabrics, such as polyester or jersey, are useful for different printing techniques and may convey a more sophisticated look.

Get to know your print processes

How are you going to get your design onto that shirt you just chose? Your printer can help you figure this out (more on that in the final installment in this series), but you should be aware of the alternatives since not all printers can do all methods, and the different methods have major implications for what your t-shirt costs and how long it lasts.

Here are the major methods, and their pros and cons:

Screen printing: In this method, a screen is pressed against fabric, and ink passes over it to transfer the design.

  • Pros: It’s cheap, high quality, professional, durable.
  • Cons: Limited combinations of colors.

Heat printing/inkjet/laser transfers: Here transparent inks are printed from a computer onto a special kind of paper. Heat is then used to adhere the ink and paper onto the cloth of the t-shirt.

  • Pros: Easily prints multiple colors and complex designs, works well for small orders, you can customize a variety of moderately different shirts.
  • Cons: Has a heavy feel, the cloth is the brightest part of your design (though this can be worked to your advantage), it’s better for white than dark fabric, it’s quick to crack and fade.

Vinyl graphics: This process uses a machine to cut out designs on special, colored sheets of vinyl, which are adhered to the shirt with heat.

  • Pros: High quality, durable, easy to customize, good for small orders.
  • Cons: Each color is separate, so it’s not great for complex designs or designs that include lots of background (try heat printing for that!).

Direct-to-garment: Exactly what it sounds like – the design is inked straight onto the shirt.

  • Pros: Simplifies the process.
  • Cons: The cloth is the brightest element, so it’s best for white fabric; it’s high-labor, as the shirts are completed individually.

Dye sublimation: This process relies on a special kind of computer printer that employs heat to transfer dye to your cloth.

  • Pros: Good for full color on white or light garments.
  • Cons: This process is more expensive than others, and does not work on 100% cotton.

One last word on inks; there are tons of specialty inks you can use to make your design stand out. Don’t be afraid to dabble in “suede” prints, metallic for an extra glow, or even add some sparkles!

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Congratulations! You’ve created a design, chosen a shirt style and a fabric, and figured out what kinds of ink processes you’d like to work with. All that’s left is the printing. For that you will need to find a printer and create a plan for getting exactly what you want from them. Check back in next week for Part 3 of this series, where we tell you exactly how to do that!

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