Custom t-shirts do it all—they promote businesses, engage fans, unite teams, raise awareness for social causes, make events feel extra special, fuel side hustles, help people express themselves…the list goes on and on. 

Whether you want to make a few t-shirts for your friends or start a clothing line, the process for designing them and getting them printed is the same. There are key things to consider and specific steps to follow. So buckle up and get ready to bring your vision to life! 

A t-shirt mockup is open in Adobe Photoshop, featuring a green “Johnny Cupcakes” design on a black t-shirt. 
Still from Skillshare class Hey, Cool Shirt: Designing Effective T-shirt Graphics by Christopher Delorenzo

What to Consider Before Designing T-shirts

Before you dive into the design process, spend some time thinking about your goals and how much money you have to spend on production. This will help inform the many creative and logistical decisions you’ll have to make down the road. 

Establish a Purpose and Define Your Target Audience 

Start by asking yourself the following questions:

  • Why do you need custom t-shirts?
  • What goal are you hoping to achieve by creating them?
  • Who will be wearing or buying them?
  • What feeling or message do you want the t-shirts to convey?
  • What design elements can help accomplish this? 

Your answers to these will be very different from one project to another. For example, if you’re making t-shirts to help promote your business, their design should align with your brand and appeal to your potential customers. On the other hand, if you’re designing t-shirts for your intramural sports team, there’s no need to appeal to customers, but you’d need a design that tells your story and reflects your team spirit. 

Decide On a Quantity and Set a Budget 

The next important questions to answer are:

  • How many t-shirts do you need printed?
  • How much are you willing to spend?

These will influence your choice of printer and printing method, t-shirt style and material and even the number of colors your design will have. 

The cost of printing t-shirts can vary greatly, and you’ll face a number of decisions along the way that may seem small on their own, but can quickly add up. To avoid overspending, set a budget at the beginning of your planning process and stick to it. 

Creating a T-shirt Design in 5 Steps

Now comes the fun part: coming up with a design and watching it go from something you envision in your head to something people can proudly wear! 

Step 1: Gather Inspiration and Brainstorm Design Ideas

Keeping in mind what you’d like your t-shirt to convey and accomplish, start thinking about the design concept and specific elements you want to incorporate. Graphic t-shirts typically feature some sort of illustration, typography or a combination of both. Promotional and event-related t-shirts should include logos, slogans and event details. 

Browse sites like Instagram, Pinterest, Dribbble and Behance for inspiration. It can even be helpful to create a mood board and gather potential fonts, colors and illustration styles.

From there, you can start sketching your ideas and creating rough prototypes. But don’t get too far into the design process—your decisions in the next few steps may limit what you will ultimately be able to print. For example, keep an open mind about how many colors you’ll end up using or how complex your finished design will be. 

Step 2: Research Printing Methods

You have a number of options when it comes to getting your design printed onto t-shirts. The right option for you will depend on your budget, the number of t-shirts you need printed, the color and material of your t-shirts and the complexity of your design. 

1. Screen Printing

Ink is applied to the t-shirt through a custom-made mesh screen that acts like a stencil, only allowing ink through certain areas. A separate screen needs to be made for each color in the design, so the setup costs tend to be high. 

Best suited for:

  • Simple designs with fewer colors
  • Large orders (most printers have a minimum order quantity)
  • Various fabrics and t-shirt colors

2. Direct-to-Garment (DTG) 

Designs are printed directly onto pretreated fabric using an inkjet printer. There are no setup costs, making it a cost-effective option for small batches. 

Best suited for:

  • Complex, colorful designs
  • Small orders 
  • 100% cotton fabrics or blends made with mostly cotton
  • Any t-shirt color

3. Direct-to-Film (DTF)

Designs are printed onto a plastic film and then transferred onto t-shirts using a heat press. The design doesn’t penetrate the fabric, but rather sits on top of it. While this results in bright, vivid colors, it also means you’ll be able to feel the plastic film on the t-shirt. 

Best suited for:

  • Complex, colorful designs where high resolution is important 
  • Orders of any size
  • Various fabrics and t-shirt colors

4. Dye Sublimation

Designs are printed onto special heat transfer paper. When heat is applied, the ink turns into a gas and infuses with the fabric, before turning back into a solid state. 

Best suited for:

  • Complex, colorful designs (note: if you have white in your design, it won’t be printed, so you’ll need to print on a white t-shirt and leave those areas blank) 
  • Orders of any size (though it tends to be more expensive than other methods) 
  • 100% polyester fabrics
  • White or light-colored t-shirts—since the ink infuses with the fabric, darker fabric colors will alter the ink colors

5. Heat Transfer Vinyl

The design is cut from a sheet of vinyl using a cutting machine, then applied to the t-shirt using a heat press. Every color needs to be done separately, so this method is typically used for text-based designs or simple illustrations with one or two colors. 

This is a popular DIY t-shirt printing method, since cutting machines and heat transfer vinyl are very accessible to the average consumer. 

Best suited for:

  • Text-based designs and simple illustrations with 1-2 colors 
  • Small orders
  • Various fabrics and t-shirt colors

Step 3: Find a Great Printer

You don’t necessarily need to have your printing method figured out before you can start contacting potential printing companies. In fact, it’s best to get a few quotes and really understand the differences in cost before you make that decision. 

Pricing aside, look for a printer that has a dedicated art department, so they can help troubleshoot any problems with your design file and make sure it looks its best. They should also be able to send you t-shirt samples and proofs of what the finished product will look like.

If you’re planning to sell t-shirts and want a completely hands-off experience, you can look into print-on-demand services. They take care of printing, storing inventory and even shipping the product to customers. 

Step 4: Choose the Right T-shirt

Most printing companies will source their own t-shirts and prefer that you use them. They may have a small selection of colors and styles to choose from. 

If you have something very particular in mind or you found a great wholesale deal somewhere else, most printers will let you bring in your own blank t-shirts, too. Just remember to talk to them about the t-shirt material and color to make sure it’s compatible with their printing method. 

Step 5: Create and Upload Your Design

By now you should have a clear idea of how detailed your t-shirt design can be and how many colors it can have. So It’s finally time to turn your sketches into a digital design file and get it ready for printing. 

Top T-shirt Design Tools

If you don’t have much experience with illustration or your design is primarily text-based, opt for a simple tool like Canva or Adobe Express. They both offer a variety of fonts, design elements and templates you can choose from. 

For a more hands-on approach and unlimited creative control, consider using Adobe Illustrator or Adobe Photoshop. These are considered industry standards, so much so that printing services often ask for designs to be uploaded as .AI or .PSD files. 

Uploading Your Design

Your printer will provide you with specific guidelines on things like file type, file size and color mode. Be sure to follow these carefully and ask them for help if you’re unsure about anything. 

Create Unique Custom T-shirt Designs

If you need a little more guidance with the creative aspect, consider taking a class on t-shirt design. You’ll be able to follow the process from start to finish and get to know popular design tools in more detail. 

Your ideas deserve to be seen! Try designing your own custom t-shirts and bring joy to not only those who wear them, but everyone around them, as well! And why stop at t-shirts? Custom hoodies, anyone? 

Written by:

Sayana Lam