How to design a killer t-shirt

Since at least the 1960s, people have been using the humble t-shirt to convey big messages. Political slogans, band logos, witty phrases, and company branding all get plastered over these simple pieces of cotton and lycra.

Whether we head to Camden Market for a Led Zeppelin or Ramones t-shirt, go for the classic “My boyfriend went to London and all I got was this lousy…” t-shirt, or buy into artist Jeremy Deller’s anti-Brexit range, what we wear across our chests can communicate a lot about what’s in our brains. And if you are designing t-shirts for your brand, you need to think carefully about what your customer wants their clothes to say.

You might take inspiration from Katherine Hamnett, whose famous political t-shirts are printed in big block letters, visible from meters away. Or you could go for something more subtle — a t-shirt design doesn’t have to be in-your-face to have impact. A well-designed logo, good-quality printing, and the right colours can convey a lot. Here are a few things to consider as you start designing.

1. Pick a message

Really think about what you are creating the t-shirt for. If it’s branding for your company, make sure your logo, slogan and message are going to come across clearly. If you are creating fashion t-shirts, take the opportunity to play with fonts, colours and designs, but remember that you are still trying to put out a message. People shouldn’t have to look at a t-shirt for more than a few seconds to understand your message.

2. Know your customers

Research your customers. Which other brands do they wear? Which fonts, colours, images, and t-shirt styles do those companies use, and how do they market themselves? Your t-shirt needs to chime with the values of the brands that your customers already buy into, while offering them something they can’t buy already.

4. Choose a visual concept

The possibilities are almost endless when it comes to t-shirt design. Typography, illustration style, fabric and colour should all blend together to produce a clear and stylish design. A few things to consider: light slogans tend to stand out best best on dark fabrics, and vice versa. Serif or cursive fonts give a classic feel, while sans serif or block letters are more contemporary. Large illustrations work best on pure cotton t-shirts that will not stretch and distort when worn on the body.

5. Know your budget

Work out how much it will cost you to print each t-shirt. Screen printing is a pretty low-cost option that produces highly pigmented, long-lasting designs at a reasonable cost. Bear in mind that each colour requires a new printing screen, so the fewer the colours you use, the lower the cost. Direct to Garment (DTG) printing is a newer technology that allows photographs and illustrations to be reproduced in super high quality. It’s more expensive than screen printing, but can be done more quickly, so is a great option if you are doing a last-minute design. 

6. Refine your idea

Start sketching, or build a Pinterest board for inspiration, then take a break, sleep on it, and reconsider. It could take a while, but this part of the process is really important, and it should be fun! Come up with two or three designs before making your final decision, and if you have the opportunity and budget, work on them with a graphic designer.

Get your t-shirts printed

Get samples made so you can see how the finished product will look and make any last changes. This is particularly important if you’re trying the same design in different colours, or on different t-shirt fits. Now you’ve got your dream design, go ahead and get it printed!

Need t-shirts printed for your brand, band, business or fashion line? At ICON Printing we offer fast turnaround printing and embroidery with a wide-ranging catalogue from t-shirts to caps to bagsGet a quote in 2 minutes online.