How to design a T-shirt: the ultimate guide

Estimated reading time: 17 minutes

It’s stained, it’s ripped, it’s full of holes… But you just can’t seem to throw it out. For a lot of us, our favorite T-shirts are a way to express who we are. (And for others, they’re free advertising!) But how to design a T-shirt that ticks all the boxes? You’ll find out below.

Do you have a killer T-shirt idea and suspect others will feel the same way? Are you looking for an alternative means of promoting your business or making some side income with merch? Do you want to commemorate a special event, like a family reunion or hen party?

Whatever your reasons, the fundamentals of T-shirt design remain the same; it’s what you do with them that counts.

In this Ultimate Guide to T-Shirt Design, we’ll run through each step of the design process, from the inception of an idea to getting your shirt mass-produced. No matter how much (or how little) experience you have, these T-shirt design tips will give you everything you need to know. So check out our video below or dive straight into the article. Either way, let’s get your T-shirt design underway!

How to design a T-shirt in 8 steps

  1. Figure out why you need a shirt
  2. Define your budget at quantity
  3. Know your printing options
  4. Brainstorm your design concept
  5. Find a designer
  6. Evaluate your design
  7. Get the right files
  8. Find a kick-ass printer

1. Figure out why you need a shirt

No matter your reason for designing a T-shirt, it’ll always involve a little bit of branding. If you’re using T-shirts for promotional purposes, branding is your main goal. Even if it’s strictly fashion, you’ll still need to weave consistent brand themes into all your products. For personal use – like commemorating an event, for example – you want to make sure your T-shirt design communicates clearly.

If you haven’t already, write out a list of the key themes, styles and personality traits you want your brand and shirts to convey. Is your brand playful or serious? Edgy or conservative? Luxurious or affordable? A focused T-shirt design can answer all of these questions at a glance.

t-shirt design with different color choices

What’s the Prince Adam version of the Brewmaster look like? T-shirt design by yuyunarts via 99designs by Vista.

Take a quick peek at the example above. What does it tell you about the Brewmasters company? For starters, they don’t take themselves too seriously, and the wooden instruments suggest a more traditional brewing style that hints at a classic taste. That’s a lot of information from an illustration.

To get the most effective design, move away from your personal preference and rely more on real, quantifiable data. Who are your target clients/customers? What brand traits do they want to do business with?

Below are four goals to help guide your T-shirt design process that define why you need a shirt and what you want it to do.

Promotional gifts

Your T-shirts are something you give away for free to keep your brand in the minds of prospective clients and customers. This could be something given away at conventions, conferences or other promotional events.

Internal company usage

Employees get shirts for solidarity, appreciation or perhaps even as a company uniform. The goals are similar to promotional gifts because there’s a strong need for branding.

Merchandise

Your T-shirts are a product you plan on selling, so make sure to factor in style, marketability and business strategy.

You’ll need to understand your shirt’s place in the market, so consider conducting research to discover the tastes of your customers. Your own personal tastes are a good start, but when it comes down to selling to the masses, quantifiable data always beats guesswork.

Event souvenirs

Special events need special souvenirs, and T-shirts are always a great option. This option shares many of the same goals as shirts for internal company usage, like solidarity and appreciation, but for a more casual, wider audience.

 

Regardless of their use, most T-shirts are promotional in some way. Even if you’re designing T-shirts as merchandise, include your brand logo so people know who made the shirt and if they want something similar. Your logo should have a strong, even dominant, presence on the shirt.

Apply the same design quality and cleverness as you would to a billboard advertisement. More than just clothes, T-shirts provide exposure every time a person wears them in public.

Once you’ve determined your goals, you can prioritise the different aspects of your T-shirt design. For example, fashion might be a high priority for merchandise tees but not for employee gifts. You want to tailor your design in a way that best suits your needs.

2. Define your budget and quantity

You’re anxious to get to the actual T-shirt design. We get it. But let’s settle on some details first so you can focus your design better: namely, your budget and quantity. How much you can spend and how many T-shirts you need will impact your design.

For example, budget and quantity will help determine how many colours you can use. The cost will also vary based on your preferred  method of printing for the T-shirt. If your budget is tight, conserving colours is a good way to save.

The number of shirts you need will also influence your printing method. Some methods are ideal for printing in bulk, while others have a higher cost per shirt and are better for small orders.

Before you begin to think about designing or printing, plan your budget and quantity accordingly.

3. Know your printing options

There are many things to consider when choosing the best T-shirt printing method. Cost, appearance, production time and materials are all important. The more you know about each method, the easier it will be to decide which one is best for you.

Screen printing

This is the gold standard for T-shirt printing. Your printer makes original screens of your design (one for each colour) so you can print in bulk.

Pros: Reliable standard for printing. Affordable and high quality. Ideal for large orders over 20.

Cons: A new screen is required for every new colour or design revision (which gets costly). Colourful designs end up being expensive.

Vinyl graphics

Another method of heated transfer is vinyl printing, which uses more durable vinyl instead of just ink.

Pros: Extremely durable and high quality. Ideal for when you want your design to stand out (literally).

Cons: Additional colours cost more, so complicated designs get expensive. Not great for large orders.

Direct-to-garment (or print-on-demand)

A newer option, direct-to-garment (DTG) printing, uses inkjet printing that prints directly on fabric.

Pros: Highly customisable designs with maximum detail and extensive colour choices.

Cons: Use for small batches or perhaps a single sample. The more you print, the less viable it becomes. Doesn’t work well on dark-coloured garments.

Take a look at our guide to T-shirt printing for more information.

4. Brainstorm your design concept

Here comes the fun stuff… Now you get to start figuring out what’s actually going on with your T-shirt! Make sure you don’t jump to this step first. The more time and effort you put into preparing for this, the better.

Your design could go in a million different directions. As you’re brainstorming, here are some tips to help focus your creativity.

T-shirt types

All this talk about T-shirts, and it’s easy to forget that there are lots of different types of shirts. 

How to design a t-shirt step: choosing t-shirt type

Think about your audience and intended goals before deciding on the right type of T-shirt. A revealing crop top might not be the best promotion for a law firm.

As you start sketching out T-shirt design ideas, make sure they will translate to the actual size. When designing your T-shirt, use an 46 x 46 cm canvas and physically place your designs on a shirt. That doesn’t mean you have to fill the whole space (like if you’re keeping it minimal with a small logo), but a realistically sized canvas will help you get the right proportions for your T-shirt.

Once you have your design, consider how it will look on larger and smaller shirt sizes. If you choose a screen printing process, different sizes may require different screens, which means additional costs.

Style and imagery

Colorful dinosaur t shirt

T-shirt design by Prim via 99designs by Vista.

At this stage, you have to rely on your creative and artistic instincts to communicate the messages you want to say. Don’t forget these questions we talked about before:

  • What is your brand?
  • Who is your market?
  • Why are you designing a shirt in the first place?

Put all of that together, and you’re ready to start designing a T-shirt that’s perfect for your needs.

For example, take a look at the dinosaur T-shirt design above. This is a kid’s merchandise brand, so the style is cute and cartoony, appealing to its market.

Compare that to the winning entry for the Pumpkin T-shirt design below. This German hardcore music festival is definitely not marketed to kids. That opens up the designs to be edgier, which suits the clientele of the festival.

The Forgotten Path t shirt

T-shirt design by DiditRed via 99designs by Vista.

Of course, there are more options than being terrifying or sugary sweet. The design below shows us how to design a professional, risk-free T-shirt without being boring. The brand’s logo is front and center, but the look and feel are spiced up, so it seems more fashionable than a standard business T-shirt design.

Datafiniti t shirt

Datafinity t-shirt design by Alex Lalov via 99designs by Vista.

Also, remember that your design is being displayed on bodies. Lumpy, bumpy bodies that aren’t always as symmetrical as we’d like. Think about flat, uncomplicated designs since there’s no telling where the nooks and crannies will land on your image.

For similar reasons, you should also avoid detailed imagery, such as subtle colour gradients and intricate linework. Always err on the side of simplicity.

Sioux t shirt

Designer Monkeii uses a 2D image and two colours that match the background well—all without sacrificing the artistic quality via 99designs by Vista.

T-shirt typography

The fonts you choose say a lot about your brand. Serif fonts or script fonts look more classic. Sans-serif fonts make a design more modern. T-shirts offer an opportunity to play with fun, crazy display fonts, but do keep readability in mind. If the words on your shirt are important to communicate your message, make sure they don’t get overshadowed by swirly, grungy, loopy typography. We’ve put together a resource with the best fonts for T-shirts to help you make the right choice and enhance the impact of your design.

Colour in T-shirt design

The element of design that is best at instantly communicating personality is color. Each shade, hue and tint evokes an emotion, acting as a shortcut for you to portray something about your brand at just a glance.

T-shirt designs have two sets of colours to keep in mind: the fabric colour(s) and the print colour(s). To make sure that these two complement each other, always use your fabric colour as the background of your design ideas. (Also note that a coloured canvas can have an impact on what inks look like, so make sure you talk to your printer about that!)

Pantone colors vs. CMYK printing

Pantone colours vs. CMYK printing

 

Because of the way T-shirt inks work, printing colours can get a little tricky. The least expensive way to print your design will be to approximate the colours. Just know that your “teal” might not match your printer’s “teal.”

Exact colour matches are possible with Pantone colour values or custom-blended CMYK inks—but they’re more expensive. Pantone colour values use predefined, exact ink tones that your printers can purchase. CMYK printing creates virtually any colour by combining Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Key (black) inks. Check with your printer to determine what’s available.

Specialty printing techniques

Like any other printing medium, T-shirts have their own set of unique ink options.

  • Plastisol — The standard ink used in screen-printing
  • Foil — Shiny and reflective
  • Novelty — Glitter, hologram or even a fuzzy feel
  • High-density — For a dimensional appearance that pops out from the shirt
  • Gel — Like high-density, but with a “wetter” look
  • Water-based — No feeling at all; ingrained in the fabric

5. Find a designer

Got design skills? Get cracking! If you don’t, don’t worry. There are tons of pros out there ready to turn your design concept into a reality.

The DIY route

The main advantage of designing a T-shirt yourself is the price. If your budget is tight, the decision has already been made for you. Design freedom is a huge advantage, but don’t forget that professionals know the technical concerns of T-shirt design (plus a whole lot more). If you broke out into a cold sweat when we mentioned acronyms like CMYK, you might sleep better handing this off to a pro.

Hiring a pro

Rather than teaching yourself marketing, branding and graphic design, why not pay someone who knows all of them already?

t shirt designs

Designs by Budi A, dudeowl, and Natalia Maca via 99designs by Vista.

Collaborating with a freelancer can be tricky but also a lot of fun. Do your best to find a designer that thinks like you and understands what you’re looking for. Consider the designer’s personality, design style and expertise. With one of VistaPrint’s design services, you can hire a professional designer or work with multiple designers by starting a design contest.

Once you’ve found your designer(s), you have to communicate your vision clearly. Tell them about your design ideas, messaging and intended audience. Include details about colours, logos, visual style, T-shirt type and printing specifications. Send them images of designs that match the style you’re looking for. Give them everything they need to know so you can get the perfect T-shirt design. We’ve also compiled additional tips on how to work with a designer to ensure a collaborative and successful creative process.

6. Evaluate your design

As you evaluate your design, think about how it aligns with your goals. And don’t forget your marketing and technical requirements. Will your design fit on a tank top? Is the amount of colour within your budget? Is the messaging right? Communicate your feedback clearly to your designer to make sure your next version looks even better.

Then, make sure to run it by your team or people who don’t have any connection to what you’re doing. Even if it’s just your neighbour across the street, people not closely associated with your T-shirt design will notice things you never did.

Consider asking them:

  • What is the one key message you get when you look at this shirt?
  • Who is this shirt for?

Their answers to these questions will help you determine if the T-shirt is communicating what you want it to. If not, go back to the drawing board and figure out what you can change.

7. Get the right files from your designer

You’ve got the perfect T-shirt design! Now go back to that information you got from your printer and check to make sure you have the right files.

You probably need the following:

  • Your T-shirt design in vector format. This will likely be an Adobe Illustrator (AI), PDF or EPS file. You’ll need one for each different T-shirt design you create.
  • Colour codes. If your printer does custom colours, make sure you have the Pantone or CMYK colour codes so that everything turns out looking like you want.

8. Find a kick-ass printer

Once your design’s ready, it’s printing time! Find one that offers the method you need at a price you can afford. Of course, extra features and discounts to sweeten the deal are great, too. Sifting through printing options to find the best one for your particular project usually requires experience and time, but we’re going to fast-track it for you!

Nerd t shirt

Our designers create awesome stuff for us, too! T-shirt design by Asael Varas via 99designs by Vista.

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  • Find out if the printer has an in-house art department. Not only does this mean the printer does in-house prints, but it usually means they can help out if you have any questions.
  • Request samples of finished shirts, not design images. Most printing companies love visitors! Stop by their shop to see and touch their shirts. Remember: a printer’s job is to translate design to an actual print, and only a finished product reveals that.
  • Start building a working relationship with a printer you can grow with. Find a printer that prints six or more colours. Even if you don’t need that many for your first project, you might need them later.
  • If you’re doing a larger order, make sure your printer offers pre-press proofs. You won’t know for sure how the design fits on the shirts until you see a sample.
  • Beware of hidden charges, particularly with screens, films or Pantone colour matching. Just like any other industry, there are a few surprises. Go over all the charges before payment to make sure they’re being upfront.

Time to design an amazing T-shirt

Every year T-shirt design and printing are becoming more and more accessible. There is something every business can take advantage of… as long as they know what they’re doing. We hope this guide on how to design a T-shirt gave you everything you need to break into the world of making T-shirts.

Author: Matt Ellis

This article was originally published in 2017. It has been updated with new examples and information.