How to design t-shirts like a pro

How to design T-shirts like a pro

Maybe it was the cool T-shirt design you saw at that festival. Or the clever wordplay on the T-shirt the baristas all wear at your favorite neighborhood coffee shop. Chances are it didn’t take a design professional to make them stand out.

It’s simpler than ever to design a good T-shirt with confidence. A few tricks of the trade are all you need to make your own T-shirt like a pro.

You can’t make a memorable T-shirt without first answering three questions:

  • Why make it?
  • Who will wear it?
  • What’s your vibe?

1. Define why you’re designing this shirt

There’s no such thing as an all-purpose design, so start with your motivation. The graphic you’d create for your new bakery wouldn’t remotely resemble the one you’d whip up for your 20th high school reunion. A T-shirt you’d love to sell at a craft fair needs a different approach from one given to customers as a loyalty reward.

Be clear what you want your shirt to do. Is it merch for sale, an advertisement for a business, an event giveaway, a potential source of side income?

Make sure your T-shirt meet your needs.

2. Determine who will wear your shirt

Once you know your purpose, it’s easier to imagine the wearer. Is this an all-ages product? Adults only? Is the demographic even more specific (say, teens or millennials)? Do you need women’s, men’s, and unisex tees? Will there be a broad public market for the shirts, or is this an in-group project? Answering these questions helps you consider the look you’re going for and how adaptable it needs to be to accommodate a variety of sizes or styles.

A practical approach is to think of the ideal person you want to attract to your T-shirt design, then imagine the brands they lean toward and the clothes they like. What would they wear? And, perhaps just as important, what wouldn’t they be caught dead in?

3. Create the right vibe

Vibe can mean a lot of things, mostly reflective of the emotional associations a viewer may have with colors, images, and text. Does the shirt make the wearer look chic or chill? Do you want to inspire envy or nostalgia? Whether the flavor is playful or provocative, luxurious or approachable, never forget that the design is an extension of your brand. Instead of wearing your heart on your sleeve, you’re emblazoning your passion on the chests of everyone who wears your shirt. It’s important to know what message you’re sending.

Aesthetics play a big part in establishing that vibe. You might already have an aesthetic firmly in mind (say you’ve always loved a sporty motif or can’t live without rainbows). But if you need inspiration, check out the latest design trends from pros. Forecasters can give you the jump on everything from color palette (2019’s coral is 2020’s mint) to patterns (florals are still going strong) and beyond (minimalism is creeping back, and pocket prints haven’t gone anywhere).

4. Nail the basics of content, size, and position

Once you’ve answered those questions, you have to choose content: Are you going to use text only, art only, or a combination of the above? The text serves just about every purpose and can make a strong T-shirt by itself. Art (a graphic or a photo) by itself works best for items like merch or group events but can pair well with text when used wisely.

Don’t add so many elements to your design that the shirt becomes “noisy”—too many competing details to be clear. The viewer should quickly appreciate the message of the shirt and not have to decipher it.

Can’t decide which route to go down, content-wise? Think about the shirts you respond to the most. Or check out T-shirt trends on Instagram and Pinterest to see what other designers are coming up with.

5. Pick the perfect font

The two main categories of font style are serif (which adds a classic feel and reads well in smaller sizes) and sans serif (which is cleaner and more modern, especially in large format), but your options are pretty much endless from there. The main thing is to be sure your text is easy to read; some handwritten-style script fonts can obscure the message.

You’ll notice as you scout out other shirt designs that the best T-shirts most often use only one or two fonts. If using only one font, designers may add to its visual appeal by using italic or bold versions or varying the text sizes. Using two fonts allows for emphasis and visual variety while still offering coherence and maximum impact. Often, designers mix one serif and one sans serif font, which adds to the visual interest and allows them to emphasize distinct elements of the text.

6. Make color work for you

When choosing colors, it’s not all about your favorites. You need colors that feel complementary to each other, meaning that they offer sharp contrast. The most common complementary pairs are red-cyan, green-magenta, and blue-yellow. But glance through your wardrobe, and you’re likely to see other successful (and maybe some unsuccessful) pairings.

Naturally, if you want the starkest contrast, you can’t improve over white on black and vice versa. As a general rule, bright colors on a dark background work well for readability. The colors you choose need to be visible on the fabric of your choice. The coolest logo on earth will disappear if it’s navy on black.

7. Size your art for impact

For art, many of the same visual rules apply, but you’ll also want to consider how an image scales. Graphics and photo images are both affected by file size, specifically pixel density. Pull something off the web and it’s likely to be 72dpi (dots per inch)—too small to translate well when sized-up for printing. Aim for a ratio of at least 200dpi or better still if it’s 300dpi. If you save a high-resolution file as .png, .jpeg, or .ppt, most printers can work with it, and if you make a vector file (.pdf, .ai, and .es files), even better.

If you want to know how a logo or photo illustration will look when expanded to T-shirt size, print the image file out and use a photocopier to blow it up to the equivalent space you want it to occupy. [RJ1]

8. Position content with care

With the available real estate on the front of your T-shirt in mind, decide which orientation works best for art. Vertical art most naturally aligns with the “canvas” of a T-shirt, while landscape-oriented images can work as long as you allow enough white space (the area not occupied by graphic or text) on either side. How much is enough? Standard shirts run from 18-inches across (for a small) to 24-inches across (for xl). You want to leave five inches of white space on either side, meaning your graphic should be 10-14 inches wide at most.[RJ2]

Where your design falls on the shirt matters too. The top of your art should rise a few inches above the chest and end a few inches below. Unless you are creating a full-shirt graphic, you don’t want text and images sagging at the midsection. Uncertain about where your content should sit? Take your photocopied image and move it around on a practice shirt. (Making multiple sizes? Do versions for each.)

If you’re not sure you’re nailing it, talk to a design expert, or use an online design tool. Whether the design is entirely DIY or you get a little help, it always comes back to the same question: Is it legible at a glance?

9. Double-check file format, size, and colors before printing

Once you like what you see, it’s time to print. Hopefully, you’ve already done some homework. Does the intended printer have the colors you need? Do you like your choices of material? Are there published reviews from other customers who are happy with their T-shirts? If your answer to all three questions is yes, you’re ready to upload your file to a printer. Make sure they accept your file format and that they offer a chance to review the results.

Designing T-shirts doesn’t have to be hard. If you know what you want the shirt to accomplish, simply factoring in these practical concerns will be enough to translate the stuff of your imagination into wearable reality.

And just wait till you see your design “in the wild” for the first time! Behind the counter at the new donut shop…in the front row of a sold-out rock concert…in a photo album from your family reunion—wherever you see your handiwork, you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing you made that. Who says you’re not a pro after all?

We’d love to know how you got on. Share your product photos before and after applying these tips using the hashtag #vistaprint.

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