Whether you’re an aspiring fashion designer chasing the next big trend, a musician looking to sell more merch, or a non-profit hoping to raise money for a cause, the same design fundamentals can allow artists of any level to land on a successful t-shirt idea. Here, we’ll touch on eight factors to consider as you design your next t-shirt, including understanding your product’s purpose, researching your market, applying color theory, and considering the power of words. We’ll also touch on branding, seeking new inspiration, and mapping out usable t-shirt space. Read on for eight tips, tricks, and rules that will help you design a t-shirt that leaves an impression—and appeals to the widest slice of customers possible.
1. Aim to Delight
When you design your t-shirt, resolve to create an ongoing emotional relationship between your customer and the design. Over time, a great t-shirt can become a wardrobe staple, earning loyalty and trust for the apparel brand that designed it. But the first time a customer sees your t-shirt, you’ll need to appeal to them with joy, surprise, or humor.
Consider each element of your shirt as if you’re designing it for a specialized task. Will your design be appropriate on the street, in a club, on casual Friday at work, or at a brunch with the parents? While a single shirt doesn’t need to be appropriate for all occasions, it should be able to see its owner through multiple kinds of social situations and please the consumer long after the initial purchase. Consider what makes that t-shirt you’ve had for years so special to you. Is it the design? Is it the message? Look for the little details that delight, and consider how you can apply them in a new way.
2. Do Your Research
As you move forward with your t-shirt design, you’ll need to research your competition, your consumer, and your vendor. First, look around at other t-shirt designs in your industry: Are your ideas too closely aligned with what’s already out there? Study what other brands are doing, and apply what you learn from their successes to your work—without copying the elements of their designs.
Next, consider what your audience wants. Are you noticing that the most popular t-shirts for your target market tend to have a small amount of text on the front pocket, with a larger logo and message on the back of the tee? Are your customers looking for fitted or oversized tees? Would a hoodie sell better than a crewneck? When in doubt, start with a small inventory, and grow your business as you determine what sells.
Once you have an idea of what you’re looking for, research potential vendors. There are a multitude of factors to keep in mind. “First of all, you’ve got to make sure it’s the right price,” says Aaron Draplin, designer and founder of Draplin Design Company. “What are their minimums? What is their timing?” Draplin is an expert on designing all kinds of merch—pins, tees, totes, and more. In his Skillshare Original Design Great Stuff: How to Make Merch with Draplin, he emphasizes the importance of finding a vendor that aligns with you on quality, price, selection, and good business practices. To land on the right partner, be prepared with price comparisons, quantity needs, and a willingness to negotiate.
Design Top-Notch Merch
Aaron Draplin shares how to choose your design, find the right vendor, and make stuff that people actually want to buy.
3. Design Something You Would Wear
When considering different t-shirt ideas, some new designers try to appeal to a market that doesn’t actually interest them. Maybe you’re apolitical, but you think t-shirts with political slogans might be a hot seller. Or perhaps you’re considering a line of purple t-shirts based around Pantone’s new color—even though you hate the shade yourself. Unless you have a long history in fashion design, this approach will most likely fail.
“A great t-shirt is really two things done well: One is concept, and the other one is execution,” says Jeff Staple in his Skillshare Original, The Definitive Guide to T-Shirt Design and Manufacturing. Landing on the right concept is all about knowing what message you want to convey. “Have a great story,” Staple suggests. “This all happens in your mind and in a sketchbook. Whether it’s just promoting your brand or something more high-brow, conceptual, or political, have that message baked in your head.” Focus on designing something that you would love to wear or would buy for someone you know. Designing something with a message you believe in will infuse the final product with your passion.
The Fundamentals of T-Shirt Design
Jeff Staple shares how to design a graphic tee that stands the test of time.
4. Understand Your Usable Space
As you decide how to bring a t-shirt design idea to life, you’ll want to consider all the different options you have for your blank canvas. You can choose to place your designs on a regular short-sleeved t-shirt, a long-sleeved t-shirt, a tank, a sweatshirt, or a hoodie. You can put the design on the back and front, cover the entire shirt with graphics, or have one tiny element on a collar. The options are endless—and you don’t have to be confined to the traditional spaces you’re used to seeing illustrated on a tee.
Still, the typical design options include vertical (full-torso) or horizontal (chest-centric) designs, and you’ll want to be careful with the placement of designs in available space. Horizontal designs should not begin above or below the bust line. Vertical designs should place lighter colors towards the bust line, and darker colors below—light colors low on the design might add visual weight to the hip area. Pay attention to the way shapes and colors change the look and fit of your final product and make adjustments moving forward.
5. Consider Color
As you continue to gain experience in design, your understanding of how to use colors together will grow. Work long enough, and your natural color sense will start to feel like a superpower. Buy a color wheel for a few dollars and keep it handy.
When you create a t-shirt, color is critically important. The more ink colors you use, the more expensive the shirt will be to produce—that’s why most commercial t-shirts are created with just two or three colors. Whenever possible, start with a shirt in a color that can also be part of the design: To put a tree on a t-shirt, for example, a green fabric will allow you to define the leaves with black ink and play off the green that’s already there.
When possible, choose Pantone colors. These hues are standardized and can be replicated by any printer. “I use the Pantone color bridge coated series, which is one of the best to use for t-shirt colors,” says Christopher Delorenzo in his Skillshare Original, Hey, Cool Shirt: Designing Effective T-shirt Graphics. “That’s what all the printers go by, so that is essential if you have your own brand. If you’re making posters or if you’re making t-shirts, it’s the universal color language for printers.” If your t-shirt becomes wildly popular and you want to have 10,000 made from a different provider, using Pantone colors will ensure that the 10,000 t-shirts you receive aren’t the wrong shade of blue. Provide the Pantone number to the printer, and it should be just right.
The T-Shirt Design Process
From research and sketching to choosing color and typefaces, designer Christopher Delorenzo walks students through the t-shirt production process.
6. Use Your Words
Many classic t-shirts have no illustrations—they are simply typography. “Type t-shirts are some of the most powerful t-shirts,” Staple says. “They really stand the test of time.” Typography can be very powerful in its simplicity: When you think about t-shirt design ideas featuring words, you must keep the message short and very clear. Someone seeing the shirt should be able to read it at a glance. Your choice of font and colors determine readability.
That doesn’t mean you need to settle for a boring typeface. You can manipulate the font however you like, decorating the negative space inside letters like “o” or making a letter “t” into a small illustrated tree. “Negative space can be your best friend,” says Delorenzo, who often manipulates fonts in this way. “Finding opportunities to use negative space is very important.”
7. Keep Creating
Most successful t-shirt businesses aren’t built on just one great idea. A designer must work regularly to add new designs and update old ones. There are many ways to keep expanding on your core concepts to create your catalog. Consider these ideas:
Develop a central character and put that character in a wide variety of settings. Maybe you create a happy-go-lucky cartoon hedgehog you call Pointy. Pointy is adorable and you create a series of t-shirts related to his adventures. Each new design is an opportunity to attract a new audience, and fans of your character may start collecting the full series.
Develop a logo or typography message and change its size and surroundings. Develop a real or imagined business or logo and create a series of t-shirts where the logo fluctuates in size and color. You can also vary your offerings by printing the same design on various colors and types of T-shirts—or dying t-shirts yourself before adding your design.
Tailor your shirts to the seasons. From holidays to sporting events to film releases and even random events like Shark Week, there’s always a seasonal theme to inspire a shirt. Some sellers even report that customers purchase holiday merchandise year-round: If someone loves your Halloween t-shirt, they just might buy it in April.
8. Brand Your Tees
If you are creating a line of t-shirts for your own brand, every design should relate to your company. Even if each design is very different, decide on an element that identifies and establishes your brand. You may want to use a small logo on a sleeve, an embroidered element on the hemline, or perhaps your signature on each image.
Repeat your brand identifier again and again. If you can, brand yourself, too. Make yourself a key component of your brand’s social media expression. Wear your shirts and take photos with friends and family wearing your shirts. Create positive relationships with buyers through friendly contacts, occasional discounts, and giveaways to personalities and contacts who you know will wear the shirts and spread the word.
Conclusion: Keep Seeking Inspiration
The best visual designers pour all kinds of ideas into their creative funnels, so don’t allow your vision to become attached to one way of looking at things. Look at nature, pay attention to other artists, and seek out design inspiration in every corner of your world. Step outside your comfort zone, too. If your passion is dark edgy streetwear, spend some time exploring art deco jewelry or traditional Japanese watercolor painting. Go to museums, street fairs, trade days, and comic-book conventions. Consider taking some classes in a totally new area of design.
Once you explore and understand the fundamentals of t-shirt design, you can use your evolving skills and widening perspective to build a dynamic fashion brand—or just sell a few fun tees for a cause. The choice is yours.