The basics of printing techniques

If you’re looking to print on t-shirts (or any other merch for that matter), in most cases you’ll be faced with two options: screen printing or direct to garment (DTG). The two most common methods of garment printing, each has its benefits. Screen printing, one of the oldest (and most popular) methods, involves blocking out areas on a fine mesh screen to create an image. DTG is more modern: it uses a modified inkjet printer to apply garment inks, with these then heat set with a tunnel dryer.

Of course, our production team at ICON will advise you on what’s most appropriate whenever you make an order with us, but it’s always helpful to know the ins and outs. With that in mind, we walk you through some of the important things to consider when you’re weighing up how to get your designs printed – from design considerations to the all important cost of production.

How many t-shirts are you printing?

If you’re doing a small run of t-shirts, direct to garment might be your best bet. Screen printing has high set up costs, and so it can cost a lot more if you’re only printing a few. However, if it’s a bigger order, then screen printing might be best value. In most cases, screen printing becomes the cheaper choice on orders over 100 units. But cost isn’t the only factor: it might be that your design is far better suited to one of the two methods, in which case it might be worth paying the extra – or rethinking your design.

How intricate is your design?

Generally speaking, screen printing is better suited to graphic heavy, simple designs which use fewer colours. This is because the screen printing process requires that each different colour adds another step to the process, making it more expensive and time consuming. If you’re looking to use lots of colours or print something extremely detailed, then DTG could yield better results.


Are you printing a photo?

This all depends on the kind of photo you’re printing, and how big an order you’re placing. If it’s a small order, DTG is almost certainly the best choice, as it’ll be cheaper and preserve more of the photo’s details. If it’s a larger order, then it would be worth considering screen printing, even despite the fact that there will be an artworking cost to separate the photo into layers. It’s especially likely to work if the photo is black and white, as this might be possible to do with only two layers.

What kind of garments are you printing on?

We’d always recommend choosing better quality garments – unsurprisingly, this will yield better results for your prints (as well as ensure a longer lasting product). This is a consideration that’s especially important with DTG, where it’s important to use garments that are at least 80% cotton, otherwise the process simply won’t work. If you’re thinking of using garments made of recycled material, this is something to keep an eye out for, as they’re often a mixture of cotton and synthetic fabrics such as polyester.


If you decide to opt for DTG, one thing to bear in mind is the appearance of the colours. There are two different colour modes which designs are printed in: RGB and CMYK. The latter is used for DTG printing, and it produces colours that appear more dull than with RGB. This is something to bear in mind when looking at proofs: the colours of the finished product won’t look as bright as those on your computer screen.

Planning to create custom printed merch? Want to discuss which printing method would be best for your t-shirt? At ICON Printing we offer fast turnaround printing on t-shirts and an array of other merch, counting clients from Boiler Room to WeWork, the Tate to Niketown. Get a quote in 2 minutes online.