10 pro tips for better T-shirt designs

T-shirt design
(Image credit: Florencia Viadana at Unsplash)

T-shirt design is a hugely popular outlet for creatives. Whether you're an illustrator, graphic designer or typographer, putting your designs onto T-shirts can be fun, and a great way to sell your designs online).

However, the process can be daunting if you're new to it. Here, we'll walk you through our top tips for successful custom T-shirt design, from what to consider with the design itself to the practicalities of printing your designs onto T-shirts.

If you need some drawing tips to help you make your design, make sure you see our how to Draw article.) 

10 pro tips for better T-shirt designs

01. Take some time to explore your concept

T-shirt design: Electric Zombie illustrated T-shirt design

This Electric Zombie tee by Derek Deal has a lot of colour and loads of detail

Don't rush the design process. Sketch your T-shirt design out, go for a walk, create a few variations, have something to eat, do a full brainstorming process and sleep on it. And then do it all over again. If the design comes to you straight away, great, but take the time to explore other creative options just in case.

02. Imagine your design on a T-shirt

Anyone who's worked in both print and web knows that there's a vast difference between how a design looks on screen and the printed piece. Don't be afraid to mock up your T-shirt design on a photo of a model. Print it out if necessary and place it on an actual tee. Make sure you view your artwork at the actual size before you take it further.

03. Detail is king, but keep things simple

T-shirt design: man and woman wearing Johnny Cupcakes T-shirts with Hello Kitty-themed illustrations

These classic Johnny Cupcakes T-shirts showcase limited colour palettes and strong concepts

Everyone appreciates great drawing ability and attention to detail. There's nothing better than seeing a really well-executed masterpiece on a tee that you can study for hours.

But, equally, some of the most classic T-shirt designs are the simplest – and get the message across through their sheer simplicity. Anywhere in the middle and you may struggle to deliver a successful design.

04. Consider your market

T-shirt design: male and female T-shirt designs

T-shirt designs by artists on Society 6

This is an important one. Think about who your T-shirt is for. Are you designing for men or women; young or old? At the end of the day, you're designing a product that you want people to wear. 

Like a good brand designer would do, try to put down a written description of the exact person you want to attract to your T-shirt design – who they are, what they like, what other brands they like and go from there.

05. Be careful with humour

If you're going for a humorous T-shirt design, you want to make sure it doesn't come across as a cheap, low-cost joke shirt. The most successful T-shirts to use humour do so in a subtle, clever way – even in the case of the loudest and most in-your-face designs.

A lot of humorous tees grow tired quickly, but done correctly and with an original idea, humour can turn heads and raise a smile. Brad McGinty tends to strike a good balance in his designs.

06. Choose the right colours

T-shirt design: close up of a skeleton on a T-shirt

Try choosing complementary colours in your design

Use the T-shirt colour effectively and try choosing complementary colours. If you're using Adobe Illustrator, turn on Global Colours. This can be an absolute lifesaver and will save you so much time. (You can get Adobe Creative Cloud here.)

You can also use Halftones to make the most of the restricted colours you're allowed to use.

07. Prepare your artwork properly

Use Pantone Colours for screen-printing – your printer will love you for it. They'll also love you if you outline any text and expand any strokes you may have. There are plenty of good tutorials out there, both for Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop to take the time to get familiar with the process and you're print will be happy working with you.

08. Source a good printer

T-shirt design: T-shirt being printed

It's important to learn about what type of T-shirt you want to print on

You can have your design finished and properly artworked, but your tee will only ever be as good as your printer. Try a reputable company like White Duck in the UK or Hey Monkey in the US. You could also give your local screenprinter a call. But it's important to take time to learn about the type of tee you want to print on.

The weight, sizes, labelling options, cost and so on all affect the end product that you'll produce. This takes a while to learn about, and it will require speaking to various companies, but one stick with one rule: deal with a company that wants to treat your tee as an end retail product and will handle your work with care. Screenprinting is an art.

09. Get educated

T-shirt design: a book called 'Vintage T-shirts'

To have a good understanding of anything, you need to study and understand its context

To have a good understanding of anything, you need to study it and understand its context. Tees have emerged from every subculture phenomenon that has ever existed, whether it's music, skateboarding, street art, sport or general pop culture.

Do some reading, find out about T-shirt history and learn to appreciate it. Even designs that you don't like yourself can provide inspiration and insight into what people like to wear. One good book for reference is Vintage T-shirts by Lisa Kidner.

10. Stay ahead of the game

It's fine to take inspiration from the latest trends, but to keep one step ahead you want to avoid copying them. Chances are that by the time any given T-shirt's been produced, its designers are already moving onto something else. Keep abreast of what's happening in fashion and elsewhere in pop culture, but try to forge your own path. 

This article was first posted on Creative Bloq in 09/2012.

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Web and print designer Mike Ng runs an Asian-inspired arts brand called SOYU, and also writes and help run the design portal Thunder Chunky.