How to Design a T-Shirt Graphic from Start to Finish

How to Design a T-Shirt Graphic From Start to Finish

Creating a custom apparel brand with your own designs can be exciting, however, the process is a bit more complex than using a drag-and-drop art file. For successful prints that will help your business turn a profit, you’ll need custom designs that will help your pieces stand out.

To help bring your creative visions to life, we’ll walk you through how to design a t-shirt graphic from start to finish—beginning with ideating the design.

Ideating the Design

When you begin a brainstorming session for a new design, there are three key questions you should always ask yourself:

What is the goal of the design?

There are generally four goals for graphic t-shirts:

  • Promotional refers to t-shirts you give away for brand awareness
  • Internal usage is anything you create for yourself and your team, like a company uniform
  • Merchandise is anything you’re creating to sell to your target market
  • Event souvenirs can be anything from commemorating a family reunion to a walk/run in your community

Understanding the goal will help determine the details, such as if something needs to include your logo, be more informational, seen from far away, etc.

Who is your target audience?

Take some time to figure out who your target audience is. Think about their likes and dislikes, and what’s popular with that demographic. Having ideas of things you like is a great start, but if your goal is ultimately to sell merchandise you’ll need to remove some personal bias.

What is your budget?

Knowing your budget will help determine how many colors you can place in a design, and what styles of t-shirts you can afford. Designs with multiple colors will cost more, especially with larger orders. It’s better to know this ahead of time, so you don’t have to re-do your artwork or end up overspending.

After you’ve taken these questions into consideration, you can use it to help you create a mood board. Think about brands and styles you’re fond of in combination with what your target audience likes. Draw inspiration from what’s going on around you, and then use the mood board to begin sketching some loose ideas. Once you’ve decided on one, you can start thinking about a color scheme.

Picking a Color Scheme

T-shirt graphics have two color schemes: the color of the shirt and the color of the artwork. When planning your design, make sure the fabric and artwork color aren’t the exact same, otherwise, you won’t be able to see it. For optimal outcomes, there are three basic color pairings to be aware of:

  • Monochromatic or Tonal—includes using a variation of a single color (Ex: Picking an ink shade lighter or darker than the t-shirt fabric)
  • Complementary—these colors are opposite each other on the color wheel creating a dramatic pop (Ex: Blue and orange)
  • Analogous—these colors are located next to each other on the color wheel creating a low-contrast design (Ex: Blue and green)

Keep in mind the color used in your design may not be an exact color match to the ink you order or that your screen printer has. Exact color matches are more expensive and made possible by using a Pantone book or custom CMYK inks. Now that you have your design idea and a color scheme, we can move on to physically creating the design!

Pro Tip: Using a color calculator can help you familiarize with the three color pairings above.

Creating the Design

When it’s time to physically create the design, there are many tools you can use—the most common are Illustrator, Photoshop or GIMP.

Illustrator is the best option because it’s a vector-based software, meaning you can easily resize or change the design without sacrificing quality. Photoshop is a pixel-based software, so every time a design is resized it reduces the quality. However, if you’re simply editing an image for print, photoshop may be a better choice. GIMP is a like a free version of Photoshop, but doesn’t include as many capabilities.

If you have absolutely no knowledge of how to use Illustrator or Photoshop, it may be worth hiring a freelance graphic designer or company while you learn. They’ll be able to turn your information and color scheme into a high-quality, printable design your clients will love.

Pro Tip: For screen printing, the design should be the exact size you want it printed on the shirt with a resolution of at least 300 dpi. For a thorough layout of how to prep your artwork for print, we recommend looking at Threadbird.

Ready to see your designs come to life? Happy printing!

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