How to Design T-shirts: The Complete Guide
What goes into designing a t shirt? With endless possibilities -- ranging from what's included in the design all the way to where the design is placed -- the process can feel overwhelming. We want to guide you through that process, taking you from having a cool idea all the way to having those finished shirts in your hands. And each step of the way, we'll explain the best practices to ensure your t shirts will be something you want to show off.
"Do I even need custom t shirts?"
The first question you're probably considering is whether you need custom tees at all.
The short answer is... it depends. There are a lot of great reasons to want a custom t-shirt, ranging from the personal to the professional. And this usage will determine the perfect t-shirt design for your needs. That's why your design process should begin with clearly identifying what you hope to accomplish.
If you own a business, custom tees can be used for uniforms, to raise awareness, and/or promotion (like giveaways).
Charities, political groups, activists, and others might use them to raise awareness, promote an event, or help with fundraising.
Friends and family members might use a t-shirt to announce (or commemorate) a special event, like a birthday, reunion, or Bar Mitzvah.
And if you're an artist or aspire to become a fashion mogul, your goal might be selling t-shirts online.
Of course, all of these needs will met by different designs. Although there is one-size-fits-all apparel, there's no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to t shirt design.
Start by identifying your goal(s)
Before you decide anything else, you should start by sitting down and figuring out what you're trying to accomplish (which may require some market research). This goal should inform every step of your design process.
Again, there are many reasons to create a custom t shirt, which can lead to very different designs. What you might create as a company uniform will look different from a t-shirt promoting a charity which won't look the same as one celebrating a birthday.
Think about it like a bullseye. You might have a general category of customers, but you can usually narrow down your target audience until you reach a specific niche.
Let's say you run a pet supplies company. In theory, your customers are pet owners. However, you might not have much to offer turtle owners and I'm sure your crocodile supplies are limited. So, instead of trying to appeal to all pet owners, you want to focus on specific pet types (like dogs, cats, or maybe even hamsters) and possibly narrow things down further by interest (such as dog toys).
If your pet store offers dog grooming and it's a service you're trying to grow, a shirt design featuring a gecko probably isn't the best choice. Instead, you'll likely want an image of a dog with some of your services listed underneath. If other pet products are a large part of your business, you might include some of those animals in the graphic. However, if dog grooming is your largest service, you could instead get hyper-focused with your graphic and choose an image of a dog being bathed.
Look at the example of a pet services t-shirt in the image above. Is there any ambiguity about the service this company offers? Even if you only caught a glimpse of the design, you'd know what the company is about (and, if the employee had a dog with them, they'd be the perfect walking billboard).
Likewise, if you're trying to help a candidate running for mayor, a shirt targeting all voters is going to be less helpful than one designed to appeal to voters living in that particular city or town. And, if it's for a primary, you specifically need to appeal to registered members of that candidate's political party living within their district.
When promoting an event, your most important information will include the date (or specific time) and location. However, if it's a private celebration (like a family reunion), you might only list the month or year (since the shirt design is commemorating the event instead of promoting it).
These are just a few examples of the considerations that should go into figuring out your own t-shirt design.
When it comes to shirt design, always remember a message designed to appeal to everybody will generally appeal to nobody.
Screen printing or digital?
When it comes to printing methods, the two most popular options are screen printing and digital printing (also called direct-to-garment printing, or DTG printing for short).
Thankfully, this isn't a choice you have to worry about -- Bolt Printing will always pick the option that's best for your project (by looking at your order quantity, the colors used in the design, and other factors).
Prior to digital printing, the options for printing a small number of tees weren't great. Customers were mostly limited to things like heat-transferred vinyl graphics, which don't last nearly as printed tees -- after a certain number of washes, you'd start to see cracks as it broke down. Then digital printing came along with what amounts to a print-on-demand service.
While you might hear people insist digital printing is the future, it has the same issues as other print-on-demand services -- namely, cost. Screen printing is substantially cheaper when buying in bulk.
Other differences between digital (direct to garment) and screen printing
However, that's not to say the only difference between these two printing options is the minimum order quantity and price. Digital can work better for certain kinds of designs (like putting a photograph on a t shirt or if a design involves a lot of colors). However, digital doesn't always print perfectly, so you should expect a certain amount of variation.
While your color choices are a bit more limited with screen printing, you still have access to multiple colors and -- more importantly -- a screen print can give you more vibrant colors. You'll also see greater consistency across tees. And you're able to print on a wider variety of t-shirt types.
Do you have a logo?
Not all t-shirt designs will include a logo. If you're creating a shirt to celebrate a special event, for instance, you'll probably just select a graphic. However, if you're using your t-shirt to build a brand, you'll want to use a logo.
If you own a business, are in charge of a charity, or anything else with a long-term presence, you should consider building a consistent brand identity. This way when people see your name or logo, they're more likely to have a positive opinion of your organization. And when you regularly use your logo, people will start to recognize it at a glance.
A logo tends to be a good idea for businesses of any size, but it's often not considered a priority. If you've gone up until now without a logo, this might be a good time to create one.
Creating a logo
If you're creating a logo from scratch -- and have the budget for it -- you may consider hiring a graphic designer. However, you don't need a background in graphic design or even artistic skills to create a perfectly serviceable logo. (Which is a good thing, since not everybody can afford a professional designer! Nor does everybody want to master Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator.)
Keep in mind while many logos include a graphic, others are just text (or have a very simple image). For example, a logo for a law firm will usually look pretty subdued because they're going for a specific kind of brand identity. Their logo will look very different from that of an ice cream shop, for instance.
If you decide to use a graphic, you should consider keeping it simple -- something that can be easily recognized at a glance. Many of the world's most iconic businesses have extremely simple logos, such as the Nike Swoosh or McDonald's Golden Arches.
Ideally, the graphic should pertain to either your business's industry or its name. If you own a deli, the image of a sandwich would tell potential customers exactly what you do. If you own a pet care business, you'll probably want to go with an animal.
For more logo design tips, be sure to check out our guide.
Choosing a graphic
If you don't have a logo -- or if you have an all-text logo -- you're probably going to want to choose a graphic for your t-shirt design. While not all t-shirts need a graphic (since fonts and a catchy slogan are sometimes enough), they tend to be an eye-catching addition to a design.
Not sure where to look for artwork? There are a number of free resources as well as paid options, including professional designers. You can check Pixabay, Flickr, or any other number of other sites. (Additionally, Bolt Printing has a great collection of clip art in its design studio. If you were planning on making t shirts with that design tool anyway, it makes sense to find a graphic in there -- especially since you'll know the image works on a shirt.)
Keep in it can take time to find the right files for your t-shirt design. If possible, you'll want to go with a graphic in the vector format (also known as vector graphics), such as an eps file.
For an in-depth "ultimate guide" covering graphic decisions and the differences between file types, be sure to check out our blog entry on finding free t shirt graphics. Otherwise, just be aware that a graphic's file type can sometimes make the difference between a good t-shirt and a bad one.
In general, you should look for something that specifically relates to your goal -- after all, the graphic is part of your overall message and can be an all-important supporting feature. When your image tells the viewer a little of what you're about, they're more likely to pay attention when the subject interests them.
What to look for in a graphic
A graphic that looks great on a screen doesn't always look great on a t shirt. Typically, you'll want to use a simple image, something that the viewer can process in a second or two (because that might be the entire time they see it).
Things to watch out for include:
Lots of detail (since it can be hard for a viewer to figure out)
Thin, intricate, or small details (which are difficult to see from a distance and don't always work well on a t shirt)
Tiny elements (also difficult to see from a distance)
Too many colors (which can make a graphic harder to process)
Basically, if somebody has to stop and stare at your shirt before they can figure out your message, it's probably not an effective t shirt design.
The perfect font for your t-shirt design?
With so many awesome-looking fonts out there, choosing just one can be a struggle... but you're usually better off sticking with a single font. The simpler your fonts, the easier it'll be for people to read the message on your t shirt.
One of the really cool things about fonts is that they can carry a design by themselves. Each of the examples above doesn't include a graphic and yet nothing feels missing. However, while it's tempting to go with a mix of graphics for a dazzling effect, you can easily overwhelm the viewer or make the message too hard to read.
Consider the first example (on the left), which has four different fonts. When you're staring at it on a screen, the design looks great. However, you'd probably need to stare at it for a few seconds to make sense of everything, which is why it's not a great t shirt design.
[For a full breakdown on how fonts should be used, be sure to check out our font guide.]
As for which font will work best in your design, you'll want to play around with them to see how they interact with your other design elements.
Quick font tip
That's so funny! (Or not)
While we're still on the subject of fonts, it's worth considering the text using those fonts. As such, I wanted to briefly touch on the use of humor in t-shirt designs.
Humor, as I'm sure you're well-aware, is largely subjective. What amuses one audience may offend another. If you're targeting a specific demographic, you can focus your humor on what might appeal to that group (without worrying as much about how everybody else might take it -- provided that it's not so wildly offensive as to provoke outrage). But if you're trying to appeal to a broader audience, you might be better off going with something inoffensively humorous.
Is a shirt asking "Got Shirts?" likely to offend anybody? Probably not. Considering it spoofs the popular "Got Milk?" ads (and would be perfect for a t shirt business), it might get a chuckle from people who've seen the original ads parodied time and time again (or enjoyed the old commercials), but it's unlikely to rub anybody the wrong way because it's not vulgar, it doesn't poke fun at anybody, and isn't even slightly edgy.
Be cautious with edgy humor
While "Got Shirts?" probably won't offend anybody, some people might find a joke about neutering pets to be in poor taste. However, the use of humor in this case is eye-catching, memorable, and instantly drives the point home.
Use the pop culture, Luke
Pop culture references are often fun, although you'll want to select something with a wide appeal.
In short, humor can be an incredible way to attract attention, deliver a message, and make your t shirt design memorable. However, you'll want to check whether your intended audience finds the joke funny and, in some cases, balance the value provided by the humor against the potential for offending somebody. (And you should make sure the humor is consistent with your brand identity.)
[Note: When using pop culture in your design, be careful to not cross the line into copyright infringement.]
Picking a shirt style and material
Here's something people usually overlook -- the actual shirt that a t shirt design goes on.
Believe it or not, but there's more than one type of t shirt. In addition to the obvious design options, you'll also need to consider the fabric choice.
The best -- and most budget-friendly -- t shirt type, 100% cotton shirts have a few additional options. Unless noted as being "ring-spun," assume that a cotton shirt is knitted with fabric using an "open-end" or "carded" yarn.
**Ring-spun cotton means the the fabric was knitted with ring-spun yarn (which is made by a spinning technique that stretches the yarn between the spindles). It's both softer and a bit more expensive than normal cotton.
(Note: Ring-spun cotton tends to be a retail style. If you're planning on selling t-shirts -- or even starting a t-shirt business (either an online store or a t-shirt store) -- this will probably be the fabric you want.)
**Combed ring-spun cotton is a step up from regular ring-spun yarn. During this process, cotton fibers are spun then combed through to remove impurities, making it softer and lighter (and also a bit more expensive). This type of fabric is most-often used for retail-style shirts.
Knitted from a yarn that's half 100% cotton and half polyester, 50/50 blends are a little lighter (and can feel more breathable and softer). This fabric is preferred for custom shirts used as uniforms (ie, a polo shirt with a logo or custom t-shirts) because it's easy to care for and less prone to wrinkling. It's most commonly used by community sports leagues/teams and small businesses such as landscaping companies, construction companies, trade service companies, and restaurants.
A fabric created by blending three different types of thread, tri-blend shirts offer the durability of polyester, the comfort of cotton, and the drape of rayon. This material is even softer, lighter, and more comfortable than combed ring-spun cotton shirts (and is more expensive).
This 100% polyester material is designed to wick moisture away from the body and is mostly used for athletic shirts.
But what does all that mean?!
If you're feeling a bit overwhelmed by the range of options you hadn't even considered (or maybe didn't know existed), here's the simple version:
For most uses, you'll just want to go with 100% cotton because it's the most cost-effective choice (and therefore the best option for giveaways).
If your shirt design is being used as a uniform, you might consider a 50/50 blend because the care instructions are easier.
Planning on starting a t-shirt business? You should consider either ring-spun cotton or combed ring-spun cotton.
Choosing your garment color
The garment selection process doesn't end with picking a fabric. You also have to choose the fabric color.
Most successful t shirts stick to a handful of garment colors. For example, think about how many t shirts you've seen -- which t-shirt colors were the most common? Odds are you've probably seen a lot of black tees (whereas something like a light blue is less common).
There are a few factors that might influence your color choice. The first is your t shirt design. If you have a logo that's usually depicted in one color, you'll probably want to keep that color for brand consistency. Likewise, you could have your heart set on a shirt design in a particular color. Either way, this will influence your garment's color choice because a black logo on a black shirt will stand out as about as much as a polar bear in a blizzard. Instead, you should use black ink (or darker ink colors) on a light shirt.
How color use helps a t-shirt design stand out (or sometimes doesn't)
Are you familiar with color theory? Color is a surprisingly complicated subject. However, designing a t shirt doesn't require mastering that subject -- you just need to keep a few simple things in mind when designing an amazing t shirt.
A color combination can make the difference between a t-shirt design being seen and completely missed. Although some color combos look cool -- especially on a screen -- the colors might be too close to really stand out.
Consider the above examples. On the left, you have the Eye of Providence in black on a gray background. Although it looks great, even on a computer or cellphone screen you might have some difficulty making out the design -- so just imagine how much of a harder time you'd have if it was on a shirt... and then compound that by having to see it at a distance, possibly while either you and/or the wearer was walking.
However, if you take that same design and change the color -- in this case from black to white -- suddenly it's very easy to understand. (Well, as easy as the Eye of Providence is for people to understand.)
The Color Wheel
If you're looking to use color to create an eye-catching design, it always helps to consult the color wheel.
The color wheel is a concept developed by Isaac Newton in 1666 AD to show the different colors of light and their relationships to each other. These relationships can take a number of forms.
A monochromatic color scheme uses shades of the same basic color. Because they're just different shades of a color, they won't offer a strong contrast.
Analogous colors (sometimes called adjacent colors) are the colors close to each other on the color wheel. They can provide a bit of contrast without looking too loud.
Examples include red and orange, orange and yellow, blue and purple, and purple and pink.
Complementary colors are colors opposite each other on the color wheel. These will often provide the strongest contrast.
Examples include orange and blue (used by the NY Mets and Knicks), red and green, and yellow and purple (used by the LA Lakers).
Keep in mind that colors don't have to be complementary to offer a strong contrast -- there just needs to be a certain amount of separation on the color wheel. Red and yellow, for example, offer a very strong contrast (think of the McDonald's logo -- the Golden Arches tend to have a red background behind them).
A rather important side-note about one particular complementary color combination
You might've noticed the previous selection didn't include an example for red and green... and it has nothing to do with the colors' association with Christmas.
Roughly 8% of men and 0.5% of women worldwide suffer from red-green color blindness.
This can sometimes present a major issue for people who suffer from color-blindness, such as when a sports team in green jerseys plays against a sports team in red jerseys (one notable example was when the NY Jets in all-green uniforms played against Buffalo Bills in all-red outfits).
In fact, if your t shirts are using a red-green color combination, there's a chance a portion of the population will miss your message completely.
While I'm not suggesting you should never combine red and green, it's something that needs to be considered when designing a t shirt. If you intend to use your design to create awareness for your brand, it could present an issue. However, if you're using the colors in a design meant to commemorate a holiday party, that's probably not going to pose as much of a problem.
Image and text layout
Once you've settled on what you want on your shirt and the colors, it's time to decide how that information will be laid out.
Your layout is an important part of your overall message because what you choose to prioritize will get the most attention. These considerations range from the size of your graphic in relation to your text, your font size in one part of your text compared to other parts, and the placement of these elements.
Start by deciding what information is important. If your t-shirt is promoting a business or charity, obviously the name should be in there. However, where it's placed can vary. If you're promoting a fundraiser for that charity, the name of the event might get top billing.
Each of the three examples above takes a slightly different approach to the layout. What stands out to you about each one?
All three are effective for different reasons, but they have one thing in common: they keep things simple by limiting the number of design elements.
Where (and when) t-shirt designs go bad
A great custom t shirt requires a logical, easy-to-follow design. People sometimes get in trouble when they try to be a little too clever or innovative with their design.
The example on the left features a non-linear design with a lot of empty space and small elements, making it difficult to read. If you only had 3-5 seconds to look at that shirt, how much about you notice? I'm guessing probably not much -- in fact, it might take 5 seconds just to make sense of it!
Is the example on the right a little boring? Maybe, but it's extremely easy to comprehend even at a glance. The company name is in big, bold letters. The promise right below it is a little smaller because it's less important than the name. You have a good-sized graphic to grab people's attention. And finally you have the phone number. It's a very functional design. (And, I should note, the garment color works. Green is a good choice for a lawn care company.)
T-shirt or TMI shirt?
Most t-shirts promoting a business contain a little information about the company... but other shirts have way, way, WAY too much information about that company.
Yes, you can include too many details. And when your information is overwhelming, the viewer struggles to process anything.
The original t shirt design (on the left) doesn't need all that information. This is a t shirt, not a business card or website.
The revised image on the right mercifully trims the t-shirt design down to its important parts: the company's name, a graphic (possibly a logo) that clearly lets the viewer know their industry (and won't be mistaken for any other industry), a few details about the business itself, the phone number, and the company's website.
De-cluttering a design
Sometimes when somebody gets really creative and tries to flex their artistic skills, they go a little overboard with the design. The result can look a little cluttered. Above are two t-shirt designs for a zoo's tiger exhibit. Which of these options more clearly delivers its message?
The design on the left uses multiple fonts and has an overly busy graphic. At first glance, do you spot the tiger? Or is it camouflaged by the forest? The longer it takes for somebody to make sense of the graphic, the less time they have to read the text.
Because the second design jumps out at the viewer, their eyes can process it quicker, ensuring they'll get to the surrounding information sooner. And, since the text is a single font, it's faster to read.
The final question might be where your t-shirt design will go. There are multiple print locations on t-shirts, including the front, back, sides, and sleeves.
Most of the time, you'll probably want to stick with the front of the shirt since it's the most prominent print location -- or, in other words, your prime real estate. People are most likely to notice a design when it's on the front of a shirt, although the back is also a visible print location.
Keep in mind that using a lot of print locations can increase the production time and -- perhaps more importantly -- the price. If you're looking to print on a budget, you'll likely want to stick to the front.
Ready to start creating your own design?
Now that you understand more about design fundamentals, you might feel ready to design your own t shirt.
However, even if you're not ready today, I'd suggest checking out our online design studio. It's an incredible design tool with a wealth of stock images that should give you an idea of everything that's possible. And, since we even have the option to save your design for later, so there's nothing to lose by experimenting. (Of course, if you're less adventurous, we also offer a number of free templates!)
And if you found this crash course on t shirt design helpful, you may consider checking out our other blog articles where many of these t shirt design tips are discussed in detail.