The Secret to Perfectly Designing the Ultimate T-Shirt

8Creating your first T-shirt and promotional product design can be tricky. Many people think all that is involved is finding an interesting image on the internet and adding some text or a logo, but the truth is it isn’t that easy. This article will give you the information you need to create stunning, original designs in a way that will make your printer love you, and ensure that your final product is of the highest quality possible.

Raster versus Vector
Boring Technical Jargon Made Easy

Before the artistic design phase begins, you need to know some basic information about digital images, and the best file formats to use. As I said earlier, many people think images sourced right off the internet are all that is needed. This brings up two very important issues that need to be addressed before you can move any further. First, is the issue of legal rights to intellectual property, or copyrights, of images on the internet. In order to avoid costly legal ramifications later, one cannot simply save someone else’s picture and use it. Copyright is a legal protection created by the laws of a country that grants the creator of an original work exclusive rights to its use and distribution, and carries stiff penalties for infringement upon those rights by an unauthorized party. Just because a work is copyrighted, does not mean it cannot be used, but it does mean that if you plan to use it, you must obtain permission from the author and secure a license. If you are not an artistic type and need to use an image, it is best to use stock images from a stock image company like Shutterstock or Getty Images and purchase the correct license for use in your design. Be sure to purchase a royalty-free license that allows for resale, and unlimited use of that image. Royalty-free licenses mean that you pay one fee for the image and do not have to pay yearly residual royalties based on the amount of income generated from the image you purchased. The second issue with internet images is the problem of resolution. If you have ever saved a picture off the internet and tried to print it, only to find that it is blurry, pixilated, and general bad looking, you know what I mean. Computer screen resolution varies between 72 pixels per inch (or ppi) and 112 ppi, depending on computer brand and whether or not the display is HD or not. However, minimum resolution for printing is 300 dots per inch (or dpi) and extends higher for higher quality images. The higher the number of dots per inch, and therefore the smaller the dots, the more clear and smooth the final image will be. If you use a stock image or a clipart image, be sure that the dimensions of the image are equal to or greater than the 300 times the height and width in inches. (6 inch square would need to be 1800 pixels by 1800 pixels or larger. You can make images smaller and they will still be suitable, but you cannot make them larger.)

Generally, for digital direct to textile printers, 300 dpi is sufficient, however, there is also the matter of overall image resolution and dimensions, and raster versus vector file formats. This is a subject that often causes clients’ eyes to glaze over after about thirty seconds, but understanding these concepts is absolutely essential for success. Raster graphics are digital images that are comprised of square blocks (dots or pixels) of color within specific dimensions. A common example of a raster image is a digital photograph. By contrast, vector graphics are digital images which use geometric elements (points, lines, curves, and shapes) defined by mathematical expressions to represent an image. A common example of a vector graphic is a text font. Raster images are perfect for on-screen output as they can be more detailed in a set space, but have the disadvantage in the inability to be scaled. Due to their composition of individual dots, when a raster image is enlarged, it becomes blurry and the smooth lines become jagged, where as vector images, due to their mathematical composition, can be infinitely scaled and maintain their clarity. Unless your image is a very large photograph or raster image, as large as or larger than the final output dimensions, vector graphics are the best choice for screen printing and should be used whenever possible.

Concept and Design
Getting Ideas Out of Your Head and Onto Paper


1Now that you have the theoretical aspects decided, it’s time to start conceptualizing your design. Take your time on this step, because it is the foundation upon which the rest of your design rests. Take some time to consider what your want to say with your shirt, who will buy it, and what will appeal to your consumer the most. Once you’ve decided what to put on your shirt, think about the simplest way to convey the point succinctly. Flashy designs with lots of detail might sound like a cool idea in your head, but in reality, too many details and effects can become confusing and your message will become lost in an overly busy design. Additionally, too many small details are difficult to print and end up looking like strange blobs on your image, so keep it simple!

The Sketch

2It is now time to get your art on and start sketching out a rough draft. Nothing fancy, as the goal is to determine the layout and overall composition. Depending on your personal preference, you can do this part with pencil and paper, or if you are comfortable sketching with a mouse or have a pen tablet, you can do this all virtually in your favorite imaging software. I like to use a pen tablet and Photoshop for the sketching portion of this phase, and move my final sketch to Illustrator to create the final vector graphics. It’s a good idea to do all your sketching and designing at the actual size of the final output to avoid problems with fitting the design on the shirt later. Even if your first sketch is amazing in your opinion, sketch a few variations and show them to co-workers, friends, family, and preferably (if possible) to a few people who are within your target demographic. Be sure to choose people who will give you honest, constructive feedback, and try not to take suggestions and criticism too personally. You want your design to be as widely appealing as possible to ensure as many people as possible will want to buy your shirt. Some of the feedback you receive might sting your ego and pride a little, but as long as your critics are not being unnecessarily nasty, it will be worth it. It’s amazing how far a high profit return will go toward soothing the pain of their criticism. Expert designer Mike Ng stresses the importance of the sketch phase, and although his process is slightly different, he also recommends brainstorming variations on your chosen theme in his article on Creative Bloq.

Finishing the Image

3Your final concept now chosen, the hardest part is past, and it’s time to tackle the most time and labor intensive portion of the project , fleshing out your rough sketch into a final design with all the finishing touches on it. Take some time to get your lines straight, your curves just right, and effectively use your colors. Speaking of color, be sure to use the Pantone Color Matching system for all things color; your printer will love you for it. Just Creative founder Jacob Cass reiterates the importance of using Pantone colors, as well as several other good tips in his article “6 Great tips On How To Prepare Artwork for T-Shirt Printing”. A common problem in the printing industry was related to the variations in color from one ink manufacturer to the next, from one monitor to another, and from printer to printer. To prevent this, Pantone created a standardized color matching system. While the Pantone Matching System (PMS) is not the only standardized color matching system, it is the most widely used. Most reputable printers have Pantone color chip book with various ink types and media, like coated hard enamel, uncoated enamel, matte finish, and textile ink, which you can use to choose your color palette. Each shade has a number and an alphabetic suffix, with the number indicating the color itself, a6nd the suffix in7dicating the media or stock. Many ink companies actually produce ink colors to Pantone specifications to guarantee color uniformity even when using multiple printers.
Try your design on different backgrounds and shirt shaped templates.model A3
model A3

Font Selection
What You Say is as Important as How You Say It

One final bit of advice I would like to offer deals with text and type setting. That insane font you found online sure looks cool, but is it really the best font for what you are trying to do? Many uninitiated designers don’t realize the importance of choosing the proper font for the message, opting instead for flashy eye candy. When selecting a font for your shirt (or for any type of design, really), ask yourself if the visual aesthetic fits with the message. Certainly you wouldn’t choose a common, boring font like the default in your personal computer’s word processing software, but is that jagged, heavy metal inspired font the best choice for your company work shirts?cleanersDoes that silly curly font convey the gravity of your no-kill animal rescue center?rescueAll fonts have an intrinsic mood, subtle connotation, and character, so the font you choose is as important as the words they display. If fonts were spoken word, you could think of the font as the vocal inflection you use to say the words. Anyone who has ever had an argument arise out of miscommunication knows HOW you say something is as important as WHAT you said, so be sure your font matches your message. You can also save yourself and your printer from unnecessary frustration by converting your font to curves (some software calls it outlines) for the final version of the file. You will want to keep a version of the design with the text as a font in the event that you want to make changes, but if your printer does not have that specific font installed on his or her computer, the software will substitute the font and render all your hard work wasted.

These are just a few of the things you should do to create the perfect design. If you’re interested in what not to do, or how to avoid common mistakes that make a shirt unappealing and result in low sales numbers, UCreative has a very good article on what not to do.kissed

What’s the most effective or coolest shirt that you bought or wanted to buy and what made it appealing to you?
I recently bought this shirt for my wife, who is married to a drummer (that would be me!) and we both got a kick out of the subtle humor.


Published by: QuartzMerchandizing

Quartz Merchandizing is your one stop shop for promotional products such as screen printed T shirts, drink coozies, hats, embroidered patches, die stamped enamel hat/lapel pins, vinyl decals, and anything else upon which you need your logo printed. Founded by a husband and wife team of artist/graphic designers, Quartz Merchandizing has the ability to do it all; From concept to final product, we can do everything in house, including all design work. With the highest quality substrates at competitive pricing, you can be sure that you're getting the best quality for your money, often at a lower cost than our competitors charge for inferior products. We cater to music related businesses and bands, and we can drop ship your merch order to a venue and/or hotel while you're out on tour. If you are not a band, don't worry! We've got you covered too! For more information and a quote, contact us via email, comment on a blog post, find us on Facebook and Twitter, or just pick up the phone and give us a call!

Categories Designing and Color usage3 Comments

3 thoughts on “The Secret to Perfectly Designing the Ultimate T-Shirt”

  1. Thanks for the information! I have no experience with T-shirt printing & found it really interesting to learn what’s involved in creating a design. One of my favorites is a shirt of my husband’s for San Antonio Express News. The front of it says “I get it every weekend…” with their logo on the back. It’s simple, but draws people’s attention. It’s pretty cheesy, but I like it!


    1. Thanks for reading, I’m pleased that it was helpful and you liked it!
      Innuendo advertising shirts are always a good seller. They’ve got subtle humor and as we all know, sex always sells.
      I used to have a shirt that said, “Drummers do it at a steady rhythm” ..and another that said, “DJs do it with 12 inches” and had an LP on it.
      They are kindof cheesy, but they always evoke a smile or chuckle and people tend to buy them up, so we’re not the only ones who like them!


    2. What a great blog post. I think the problem with creating the ultimate T-shirt is that you have to be a creative person to come up with something that you would be proud to wear in public. I’m always running into a copyright roadblock when I want to customize something. And it’s not just limited to t-shirts, either. Zippo lighters have a customizable lighter option but they are strict with copyright enforcement. Guess who doesn’t own a cool light? This guy!


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