Essential t-shirt design tips, Part 3: Getting your shirt printed

Maya Lekach

In a our first post in this series, we showed you how to create a t-shirt design to represent your brand on the (tech-free!) mobile advertising surface that is other people. Our second post gave you pointers on choosing a garment style, fabric, and ink. Now it’s time for a final tutorial that is truly essential: getting your fantastic new t-shirt printed. That means finding a printer, and giving them specific instructions. This process can be technical – be forewarned – but armed with a bit of industry-specific vocabulary and a few simple tips, perfect execution is well within reach.

How to pick a printer

There are two basic schools of thought on choosing a printer. On one hand, you can go with an online full-service store like Zazzle, Cafe Press or Spreadshirt. The upside to this is that these sites do much more than print a tee. They’ll also help you with sales, customer service, managing your online store, shipping… basically, the nitty-gritty. This can obviously be incredibly helpful, but be aware that you will be giving them a hefty chunk of your profits. If profits are not your goal, online shops are a great option. On the other hand – and this is largely how 99designs operates when printing up our own shirts (which you can now buy in our brand new Swag Shop), you can also find a local or out-of-town printer to just make the shirts, and then do the rest yourself. This is an advantage in terms of profit, but it will only work if you can find a printer who knows a lot and can offer advice.

Of course, unless you’re an expert yourself there’s no reason you’d know what makes a knowledgeable printer. But you can fake it. Here are the five key things to look for:

  1. Find a printer that can print 6 or more colors. Although you may or may not need this capability now, you want to be sure your printer is the best of the best. You are starting a relationship here, so don’t want to limit yourself. Leave some room to grow!
  2. Look for a printer with an in-house art department. This also implies in-house prints (which means greater control and accountability), more experience and adequate funds.
  3. Can the printer show you examples of finished shirts, and not just designs out of context? There’s a lot that goes on in the stages between designing and actually printing a shirt.
  4. Make sure the printer offers pre-press proofs. Sometimes parts of the design will need to be modified in order to end up with the t-shirt you want. So make sure you know exactly what the final result will be before committing to a big order.
  5. Beware of hidden charges. These often come in the form of screens, Pantone color matching, or films. You should discuss extra costs with the printer beforehand so you don’t get stuck with an unexpectedly high bill, particularly if you are operating on a tight budget (and really, who isn’t?).

Prepare to Print

Here we go, the moment you’ve been waiting for – it’s time to print! So now is not the time to get sloppy. Make sure your printer has all the information they need to create your t-shirt, which means delivering them the following 3 things:

  1. Excellent resolution on your design.
  2. Separable (not blended or shaded, i.e. Pantone) colors.
  3. A vector file—that’s a type of scaleable graphics file so that your design can more easily be adapted to fit multiple kinds of surfaces (if you’re working with 99designs your designer should be doing this for you already).
  4. A line sheet. Professional designers use these sheets to communicate design details to a manufacturer. You can use their same process to communicate to the printer the many details that otherwise might slip through, like a mock-up of where exactly you’d like your design placed on the t-shirt, as well as the ink you plan to use, colors, delivery dates, contact information – everything they should know to make your shirt a reality. Here’s what that can look like (and you can read more about the topic here):
line sheet blog

You never suspected that all those t-shirts you see around town resulted from such a complicated process, right? It can be daunting. But don’t worry. With the right preparation and a working knowledge of the lingo, getting your design onto a t-shirt should be a breeze. And now you can finally say, “I read these blog posts and all I got was this (totally amazing) t-shirt!”

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