Your comprehensive guide to t-shirt design & printing

Alex Bigman

Most competent designers look at t-shirts and think, “I could do that.” As though the knowledge were somehow inborn, or so simple that any novice could figure it out. Then you get going, and you get stuck. Quickly. The fact is, t-shirts (and all screen-printed designs for that matter) are really their own game, and you should know the rules before setting out.

The hurdles are small, but they are many and unexpected. Some will occur during the design phase, when you realize the specificity of the destination. That great design that you spent the last three nights making might not be so great when it moves from the computer screen to a sheet of cotton fabric worn on a human torso. In part one of this post we’ll go over all of the special considerations you have to make when designing for clothing.

Screen printing process
Screen printing process (via Flickr)

Other issues will inevitably crop up when preparing your files for the printer. Screen printing is ultimately a pretty simple process, but one with many possibilities for error and expense. The last thing you want is for you – or worse, your client – to wind up with a botched print run or much higher price tag than what you quoted. In part two below, we’ll go over all the considerations to need to make, and terms you need to know, to communicate properly with a printer and avoid this sort of situation.

Before we get started, a quick disclaimer. Every sophisticated t-shirt designer has their own process for setting up files and, similarly, every print shop has their own approach and rules. In order to allow for this variability, we have kept this post comprehensive, while at the same time somewhat general. That is, it won’t be a literal step-by-step instruction manual. Hopefully it will be more useful and less tedious than that!

Part 1: The creative part

We’ve come up with 8 design tips that are especially important to keep in mind when designing for t-shirts. Some of them are more or less unique to this type of design and thus easy to overlook. Let’s get going.

T-shirt design by blandine*
T-shirt design by blandine*

1. Who is your intended audience?  

This obviously only applies if you are designing for a client rather than yourself. Yet surprisingly, even experienced designers often confuse the two situations, especially when something like clothing, which depends much on personal taste, is concerned.

Rather than projecting your own style preferences onto the client, think about who the intended wearer is, and what they would go for. You can retain your personal aesthetic or style while tweaking the visual tone.

2. Never lose sight of scale

That is to say, the size of your design, but with more of an emphasis on how that size relates to its surroundings: in this case, a t-shirt to be worn on a person’s body. Your level of detail, or even your shape, might look cool on a computer screen, but weird when reduced (or inflated, as the case may be) to fit the standard 18 inch x 18 inch screen printing plate.

The best thing to do is print out your design periodically and actually hold it up against your own body, to make sure everything looks right.

3. Keep color and detail simple, but not boring

That’s sort of a cop out suggestion, but nevertheless true. Especially with screen printing, the more colors you use, the more expense and risk of error you take on at the printer. So it’s best to keep it simple—three colors plus halftones is usually a good rule of thumb—but not so much that your design is monochrome and boring.

The same goes for the level of detail you apply. A lot of complexity might look good in a sharp digital format, but spells disaster when translated into ink on fabric. Generally simple, thick lines are the safest in this domain, though you might not want to get too dull or corporate either.

T-shirt design by Budi A

4. Don’t forget to think about what color the t-shirt will be

This can, and probably should, impact your entire color scheme.

5. Check your depth

On the more artistic side of the design register—that is to say, outside the world of apps—composition often involves creating the pleasing illusion of depth.

However, this can be a delicate issue when you’re designing for a soft fabric capable of folding and interrupting the visual cues needed to produce that sensation. As a general rule, for t-shirts you want to flatten things out somewhat more than you otherwise would, but without sacrificing richness.

6. Check your balance

Your compositional balance, that is. This refers to the distribution of visually “weighted” components across a design in a way that does not tip the scales too far in any one direction. It is generally a good idea to maintain such a balanced quality. However, in certain situations you can get away with an edgy imbalance. T-shirt design, however, probably isn’t one of them, because that edginess is going to affect the wearer, making him or her look awkward or lopsided.

7. Is it funny?

No one says it has to be—especially if we’re talking about a corporate promotional tee or something along those lines. That said, people generally wear tee shirts in more casual, relaxed circumstances, and humor is well suited to that. If not laugh-out-loud funny, a good rule of thumb is to strive for a buoyant, light-hearted mood.

8. Go back to the world before computers

That’s not to say that you should be designing by hand. That would be a pretty bad idea,  since vectors and outlines are key to keeping things simple for your printer (we’ll talk more about this in the next section). Rather, exemplary graphic design compositions made before the aid of computers can be a great source of inspiration that keys your mind to the fundamentals and encourages you to avoid lazy digital short-cuts. 

This bit of advice applies to basically any form of design, but can be especially useful with t-shirts, where kinks often arise in the translation from a digital interface to a very physical end product.

Part 2: The technical part

This section will focus on preparing your design for a printer and acquiring the vocabulary needed to coordinate with them. We’ve divided it into five sections, with key words you should know in bold.

1. Printing processes

There are basically two ways to apply an image to a t-shirt (or mug, poster, what have you). One of them is digital. This process is capable of transferring an extremely detailed image in all of its complexity—even a photograph. It generally only makes sense for small runs, though, because it relatively expensive to do well.

For larger runs, your best bet is screen printing. In this process, an image is broken down into layers, each of a single color. These are then transferred to screens, inked, and applied to a surface—your hypothetical t-shirt—one after the other, to reproduce the original image. It is simple, cheap, and results in strikingly bold, albeit somewhat simplified, images. However, the layered process does introduce certain complexities which we will discuss in the next section.

2. Separations

T-shirt printing separations
An example of screen printing separations using illustrator (via Tuts+)

This refers to the separation of an image into various single-color layers, which are then deposited on a surface in succession to reconstitute the whole. In order to make the separating process as simple as possible, you definitely want to design in a digital program in which shapes can be separated into digital layers.

You’ll also want to use a vector program so your shapes and layers can be retained even if you need to change the scale of your design.

Except for certain circumstances which we will discuss below, you do not want your layers to overlap, since this could result in unwanted color blending. To avoid this, in Adobe Illustrator, use the trim function in the pathfinder palette. This will get rid of all parts of your design that are “unseen” due to overlap. Separate your design into color layers from there.

When it comes to text, always outline your letters rather than leaving them as a font. This is because your printer might not have the same font collection as you. If you do not outline your font and your printer doesn’t have the one  you used, this could derail the process—or worse, the printer might just choose another font for you that you or your client doesn’t want. In general, always keep in mind that the printer’s output hardware/software might be different from the one you used to create your design, resulting in possible incompatibilities if you do not cover your bases.

3. Registration

Screen-printing is not always a perfectly precise process. A common issue is the minor misalignment of layers in the ink application process, which is known as an off registration. That made Andy Warhol’s prints interesting, but it’s probably not what you want in yours. There are various techniques that are used to make sure that the layers register properly.

The most common is to create a trap. This is when you widen the area of shapes in your lower layers by a slight amount—say, 1 millimeter—in order to bridge any possible gaps that may occur between them and the next layer, assuming the two are supposed to be flush. If you are familiar with bleed, it is a very similar idea.

Another way to avoid gaps is to simply print one color directly on top of another. This is called overprinting, and can be useful when dealing with thin lines that can be lost if you were to use trap. Keep in mind, however, that, depending on the type of ink used, overprinting can result in a darker, blended color. This can be bad if that is not what you want, or good if you are purposely trying to introduce a darker element, such as a shadow, without adding an actual new color. Those can get expensive!

The final approach, called knockout, is simply to not use any trap or overprint and hope for the best, relying on the precision of the printer to align the layers perfectly. Generally it’s not a great idea.

Many printers are happy to help you with the above, and will even go into your design file to create the necessary traps and overprint areas. Others may ask you to prepare the files for printing yourself, or else pay a fee. If this is the case and you want a step-by-step Illustrator tutorial, we recommend this post from Smashing Magazine.

4. Color

Most print shops will thank you for using Pantone color swatches (via Flickr)

As a rule of thumb, use Pantone coded colors, known in many design programs as spot colors. Almost all print shops will thank you for using this precise, universally standardized system.

However, keep in mind that some more old fashioned print shops might not use Pantone, and may charge a fee for matching your Pantone requests to their own color swatch. In this case, either ask for their swatch in advance to decide on your colors, or be willing to request generic colors like “orange” and let the print shop make the calls.

You should never have any CMYK colors in your design. Print shops will either refuse to print CMYK elements, resulting in blank spots in your design, or will interpret CMYK elements as multiple overlapping colors, all of which they will charge you for.

5. Materials

Finally, it’s important to think about the actual physical media of your t-shirt—the shirt itself and the inks you use to print on it.

T-shirt designs are often grouped into three size categories: standard designs are less than 18 inches x 18 inches, so can easily fit into the center of most shirts; oversized designs are bigger than that, covering the majority of the shirt but not crossing onto the sleeves, collar or hem; finally, all-over designs, like their name implies, do cross over to all areas of a shirt. Keep in mind that seams and collars can be ink traps, as well as interruptions of your design. Similarly, sleeves will change the direction of a design depending on the position of the wearer’s arms. So if you’re going to design an all-over shirt, your design should be abstract and not affected by such variables.

Ink, like the shirt fabric itself, comes in a staggering number of varieties, so make sure to survey the options that your shirt supplier and printer provides. Some specialty inks include foil (shiny), high density (dimensional, textured appearance), gel (thick and rubbery), and water-based (no feel at all).

That does it for our guide to t-shirt design and printing. If there’s anything we left out, please let us know in the comments!

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