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Blog / Beginner's handbook / 12 Essential T-Shirt Design Tips for Your Print-on-Demand Business

Beginner's handbook

12 Essential T-Shirt Design Tips for Your Print-on-Demand Business

12 Essential T-Shirt Design Tips for Your Print-on-Demand Business
Zoe Amora Iranzo-Lauriņa

By Zoe Amora Iranzo-Lauriņa

15 min read

Selling t-shirts online is an exciting venture that can turn into a fruitful hobby or full-fledged business. Whether you’re designing t-shirts for a special event or building your own brand, these t-shirt design tips apply to everyone.

No matter your t-shirt-selling intentions, you want your t-shirt designs to evoke positive emotions and encourage people to wear them repeatedly. So, you need a solid t-shirt design idea that appeals to your target audience.

But how can you effectively and economically bring these designs to life without a huge upfront investment? Enter the print-on-demand business model. With print-on-demand, you can create an unlimited amount of designs and product mockups to display on your online store without any upfront costs. You only pay once a customer places an order. You get to test as many designs as you want and focus on marketing your custom t-shirts.

Today, we’ll delve deeper into the world of t-shirt design, exploring the most common mistakes and the best tips for elevating your designs from basic to exceptional.

1. Research t-shirt designs

a collage of images of t-shirts

Source: Etsy

The most common mistake people make in t-shirt design (or any other product design, for that matter) is getting ahead of themselves. Before tackling the t-shirt design process, you must spend time on market research. 

Below, we’ve compiled  a list of effective questions to assist you in your brainstorming process and help you create superb designs. 

Why do you want to design t-shirts? What is your cause?

Think of your purpose. Maybe you want to raise awareness about autism or mental health, or you’re an avid sports fan and want to sell t-shirts to other sports enthusiasts. Or perhaps you’re looking to start your own clothing brand.

a white shirt with a puzzle piece and a brain

Source: King Tee Shops

Defining your purpose is crucial whether you’re designing a company t-shirt, a tank top for surfers, or anything in between. You’ll want to consider your intentions to ensure your design elements align with your message.

What emotions do you want your t-shirt design to evoke?

Generally, you want your t-shirt design to evoke positive emotions—love, unity, pride, confidence, empowerment, inspiration, excitement, or relaxation—just to name a few. You could also go for humorous designs using sarcasm or irony. Or play on feelings of nostalgia with vintage t-shirt designs.

The emotion you target will influence your t-shirt design. For example, bold fonts and colorful graphics scream excitement or empowerment, while pastel tones and nature themes breathe relaxation and tranquility. We’ll dive deeper into fonts, graphic elements, and colors in a bit.

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Who would wear your t-shirt designs?

Consider your target audience and what types of t-shirt designs they’d wear with confidence. Is it a company t-shirt or a statement shirt? Are you making t-shirts for pun lovers? Do your research, using helpful tools like Google Trends and Statista. We’ve compiled a list of 32 useful market research tools for your business to simplify the process.

a woman wearing a blue shirt

Source: Philosopher’s Shirt

Maybe you want to go for retro t-shirt designs that appeal to the masses or narrow down your niche to George Orwell fans. These print-on-demand niches are a good place to start.

When would people wear your custom t-shirts?

When designing your custom t-shirts, it’s important to consider the situations where your potential customers would feel comfortable wearing them. Will they wear them to a birthday party, a networking event, on vacation, a family dinner, or while running errands?

a man standing in front of a metal structure

Source: Instagram

You don’t have to tick all the boxes, but the more situations you can cater to, the better your chances of selling your t-shirt design. Check out these 56 t-shirt design ideas to spark your creativity.

Now that you’ve spent enough time brainstorming, let’s tackle the best tips for t-shirt design success.

2. Use high-quality graphics

What happens if you use a low-quality image to create your t-shirt design? You’ll end up with a low-quality print that looks cheap and unappealing (unless you apply a distressed effect to make the image roughed up on purpose).

a penguin with different sizes and shapes

Source: Printful

Using high-quality graphics for your t-shirt design is crucial to creating crisp and gorgeous prints that meet your customers’ expectations. Before bringing your t-shirt design to life, check out Printful’s print guidelines for image resolution, file size, type, and more.

  • Accepted print file formats: PNG, JPEG.

  • Accepted embroidery file formats: PDF, PNG (While JPG is accepted, it’s not recommended. Design elements in JPG images always have a background, which can make the design look bad. Plus, using JPG increases the embroidery stitch count, making it easy to exceed the limit).

  • Maximum size of the print area: For embroidery, the large center placement area on t-shirts is 10″ × 16″. For DTG designs, the front placement area is from 10″ × 12″ to 12″ × 16″.

  • Print file resolution (DPI): the print file resolution should be at least 150 DPI, and no higher than 300—going beyond 300 DPI won’t improve the print quality, just increase the file size.

  • Color profile: the final version of your print file should be saved in the sRGB color profile sRGB IEC61966-2.1. You can set the color profile in the image editing software you’re using.  

  • Acceptable content: your design has to follow Printful’s Acceptable Content Guidelines. If your design is deemed to be hateful, illegal, or in violation of any intellectual property rights, our team reserves the right to block it.

Pro tip: Use vector graphics to ensure your t-shirt design remains high quality when scaled up or down. Check out the wide range of vector images our partner offers to inspire your t-shirt design ideas.

3. Design for the garment

a person wearing a white shirt

Source: Printful

When bringing your t-shirt design idea to life, consider if someone would actually want to wear it. A design that looks great on a personalized mug or phone case may not suit a t-shirt.

There are specific rules that apply solely to t-shirt designs. You should, for instance, ensure your designs are eye-catching and easy to understand without being too salesy. Remember, you’re not designing a billboard.

a yellow shirt and jeans on a white surface

Source: Etsy

Most of the time it’s a good idea to remove the image background. If you simply take an image and print it on a t-shirt, it’ll look like a giant sticker. You can remove the background on most graphic design apps like Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, Canva, or Inkscape, or use our background removal tool. Save your file as a transparent PNG.

To see how your t-shirt design looks in real life, print it out in its true size and place it on a t-shirt you wear. Or have someone model it for you. This simple trick can help you see where you need to make any changes and improvements to the final t-shirt design.

4. Focus on typography

If your custom t-shirt design includes text, make sure people can easily read it. Play around with font styles and choose ones that are appropriate for your design theme. Your font choice will inevitably convey a message to your audience.

a person wearing a t-shirt

Source: Etsy

Throughout years of looking at advertisements, logos, and graphic designs, we’ve all been conditioned to associate different fonts with certain characteristics. That’s why choosing the right font for your theme is crucial to creating an excellent t-shirt design. For example, academic fonts like Times New Roman, Helvetica, or Arial would work well with graduation-themed or philosophical t-shirt design ideas.

Playful fonts like Aloja or Nafta fit kid’s t-shirts or light-hearted themes, but for a timeless design, you’ll want a simple font like Graduate or Special Elite. Check out our list of the best t-shirt fonts for more inspo.

Make sure the letter spacing and line spacing are correct. That is, you create visually pleasing text that is legible from a distance. In order to achieve this result, it’s important to follow a few general guidelines.

  • For letter spacing, you can use “optical kerning” or “auto” kerning in your design software to automatically adjust the space between letters.

  • Line spacing depends on the size of the font, but a good rule is to set it at 120–130% of the font size. For example, if your font is 12 points, the line spacing should be 14–15 points.

  • Ensure the words harmoniously interact with the graphic elements. Create a mockup of the t-shirt to see how it looks in real life.

a purple shirt with white text

Source: Amazon

To make your text visually appealing and easy to read, follow these basic typography and font tips:

  • Bold the most important words and place them near the top

  • Use textures and drop shadows sparingly (or not at all)

  • Use fonts with different styles to add visual interest, but limit yourself to 3 font types at most 

  • Avoid using large block lettering—save those for advertisements

  • Make sure the main hero stands out and isn’t overridden by other design elements

  • Avoid superimposing text on busy images, as this can make it difficult to read

  • Remember that line breaks influence how your message is read

Now that we’ve covered typography and fonts, what about the colors?

5. Be careful with colors and contrast

If you’re new to graphic design, it’s worth learning the basics of color psychology and understanding how color theory works. Research shows that 92.6% of customers prioritize visual factors when purchasing products. Choosing the right colors is especially important in ecommerce since your visuals are everything. a maroon shirt with white text on it

Source: Bonfire

Each color has a different effect on our psyche, so make sure your choice aligns with your desired message. Do these colors evoke a sense of luxury or do they scream “I’m affordable”? Do they emit peace or calls to action?

It’s also crucial to consider how the design’s colors interact with each other and with the color of the t-shirt you’re printing on. Check out our Color Matching Guide for Print-on-Demand to ensure your t-shirt design ideas are solid. We also have a list of the most popular t-shirt colors to sell this year.

When it comes to contrast, the higher it is, the more visible your design will be. The lower the contrast, the more subtle your t-shirt design will look. As a general rule, light colors pop more on dark backgrounds and vice versa. Black on white or white on black will have the highest contrast.

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6. Don’t copy anyone

First, you’ll save yourself the headache of possible legal disputes from copyright infringement. Learn more about copyrights and trademarks in printing.

But also, you should aim to create unique t-shirt designs because people appreciate authenticity. Plus, copying other trending t-shirt designs just means you’ll be competing for the same market with already established t-shirt designers.

Why would someone buy your almost identical design when other ones have more reviews and sales?

You can follow the same theme as trending t-shirt designs, but add your own unique twist. Look at these bestselling t-rex t-shirt designs (one of a t-rex skeleton stealing pumpkins and the other of a fun kids’ tee with a t-rex reveal).

a collage of images of a man and a woman and a child

Source: Etsy

Stay up to date with what’s happening in the fashion world, follow the latest trends, and try your best to jump on a new trend early in the game. For inspiration, check out these bestselling t-shirt designs: do’s and don’ts.

7. Find the best design placement

In t-shirt printing, finding the best design placement is key. The most popular areas for t-shirt designs are the front, back, or sleeve. When brainstorming t-shirt design ideas, consider factors like your target audience, artistic vision, and budget. Keep in mind that adding a design to the back or sleeve of the t-shirt will increase the production cost, which will ultimately result in a higher price for your customers.

a woman wearing a black shirt with a ghost on it

Source: Etsy

The most common design options are vertical (full-torso) or horizontal (chest-centric). Remember to be careful with design placement in the available space. Horizontal designs should not start above or below the bust line. Vertical designs should use lighter colors near the bust line and darker colors below—light colors near the hips may add visual weight.

Pay attention to how shapes and colors affect the look and fit of your final product and make changes as needed. A poorly placed t-shirt design doesn’t look flattering at all.

Find out more in our t-shirt logo placement guide.

Pro tip: It’s important to ensure your design is within the print area, otherwise, part of it will be cut off. With Printful’s Design Maker, you won’t have to worry about this since it shows you exactly where you can place your designs.

8. Pick the most suitable fulfillment method for your design

There are many t-shirt printing techniques out there—each suitable for certain types of designs and effects. Let’s dive into the options we offer at Printful to find the best fulfillment method for your custom t-shirt design.

DTG printing

a woman smiling with a white shirt with green plants on it

Source: Printful

DTG (direct-to-garment) is a printing method that sprays ink directly onto the garment. The ink then penetrates the fibers of the fabric, similar to printing on paper. DTG printers offer a wide range of colors, allowing for highly detailed designs and photorealistic images with minimal limitations.

One limitation of DTG printing is handling transparencies. Design elements that aren’t fully opaque often don’t reproduce accurately. When printers try to fill in these semi-transparent areas, the ink tends to spread, leading to noticeable gaps in the final print on the fabric. Use solid colors or simulate semi-transparency by halftoning.

For best results, we suggest creating graphics in the sRGB color profile which aligns closely with the DTG printer color range. You can work with detailed designs and color patterns as much as you wish.

Embroidery

a person wearing a white shirt

Source: Printful

Whether your design is a logo, a meaningful symbol, or a cute illustration, custom embroidery t-shirts are as stylish, elegant, and timeless. Embroidery is also more durable and feels more luxurious than prints.

A general rule for embroidery designs is to keep them small and simple. For large embroidery designs, you want to choose a thick t-shirt and keep the stitch count low to avoid scrunching around your design.

We offer unlimited colors for embroidery designs on a selection of products so you can let your imagination run wild. Learn how to make embroidery designs in this guide. Embroidery designs have their own print file specifications, so make sure to check out this tutorial on how to create embroidery designs with the Design Maker.

Sublimation

a man in a gym

Source: Printful

Sublimation printing is a digital printing process that uses heat and pressure to transfer dye onto different materials. We also call it the all-over print method because it allows you to cover an item seam-to-seam. If you don’t want to confine your design to a limited printing area, sublimation eliminates this type of constraint. 

Find out more about sublimation printing here.

Learn the difference between screen printing and DTG, and why screen printing doesn’t work with the print-on-demand business model.

9. Add custom branding

a grey and purple garment top

Source: Printful

If you’re looking to take your t-shirt design to the next level, add custom branding. This becomes particularly important if you’re building your own brand.

Your brand is what convinces customers to choose you over competitors and keeps them coming back. It represents your company’s reputation, values, and beliefs. It’s a reflection of who you are.

At Printful, we offer multiple branding options for your custom t-shirts. You can include a personalized packing slip, customize your order tracking page, print inside or outside labels on your clothing, and more.

Find out more about our custom branding tools here.

10. Keep it simple, but put in the work

You want people to be able to understand your design from a glance. Customers won’t care how much time you spent on the design, but whether it looks refined and polished. If they could’ve made it themselves, then why would they buy it?

a t-shirt with a koala and a cup of tea

Source: Etsy

Creating appealing t-shirt designs requires striking a delicate balance between simplicity and detail. It’s important to ensure that your shirt’s design is easily legible, so your audience doesn’t have to strain their eyes to understand it. To achieve this, focus on a single main image or idea and eliminate anything that distracts from it or isn’t essential to convey your message.

Check out our step-by-step guide on creating a t-shirt design to get started. If you’re not confident in your design skills, you can always hire a pro to do it for you. To help you, we’ve listed 7 ways to find a designer to create your t-shirt designs.

11. Always order samples

There’s nothing worse than discovering your design flopped… from a customer’s feedback.

a man and woman posing for a picture

Source: Awkward Family Photos

Before you list your t-shirts online, order samples and make sure you’re satisfied with how your design looks in real life. You can also use Printful’s Mockup Generator to see how your t-shirts look in real life without any costs. 

But remember, the colors you see on the screen, while nearly identical to the real world, will differ slightly. Find out more in our Important Facts About T-Shirt Printing.

Ordering samples is also important to ensure you’re happy with the t-shirt quality. We’ve compiled a list of the best t-shirts for printing to help you narrow down your top picks.

With Printful’s sample program, you’ll get 20% off a set number of  product samples each month.

12. Keep creating

If you look at the top sellers on Etsy, for example, you’ll notice they’ve listed 100s if not 1000s of items. It probably took them several misses before they created a design that went viral. Don’t get discouraged if your first t-shirt design doesn’t sell—keep creating until you find a theme that clicks with your niche audience.

a screenshot of a website

Source: Etsy

To become a good visual designer, stay on top of trending products and t-shirt designs and  frequently update your store. Don’t become too attached to one design. Learn from other artists, and seek inspiration in nature and unexpected places.

Nadia the Artist recommends adjusting your offering to seasonal changes to boost sales year-round. To keep up with all the festivities, download our free ecommerce holiday calendar.

a white shirt and jeans and shoes

Source: Nadia the Artist

You can also add other items to your store like personalized mugs or baseball caps that match your tees. Design some warm sweatshirts and beanies for Christmas or some all-over print swimsuits for summer. Check out our list of bestselling print-on-demand products for inspiration.

Remember, with the print-on-demand business model, you can add as many product mockups to your online store as you want. Without any upfront costs.

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Forge your path to success

T-shirt design and printing are becoming more accessible each year thanks to low-cost and flexible business models like print-on-demand. Now that you know the essential tips for bringing your t-shirt design ideas to life, it’s time to get the ball rolling.

You can use this knowledge to create a vibrant fashion brand. Or simply sell a few tees as a side hustle. It’s your choice.

Remember to hone in on a specific niche, but remain flexible and explore various design styles. You might just do a 180 and become a trendsetter. Anything is possible.

We can’t wait to see your next t-shirt design idea come to life!

author

By Zoe Amora Iranzo-Lauriņa on Nov 6, 2023

Zoe Amora Iranzo-Lauriņa

Guest author

Zoe is a creative writer, multilingual translator, and certified yoga instructor with a passion for learning, traveling, and global cuisine. When she's not typing away at her PC, you can find her teaching yoga in the park, reading on the couch with her cat, or plunging in the Mediterranean.

Zoe is a creative writer, multilingual translator, and certified yoga instructor with a passion for learning, traveling, and global cuisine. When she's not typing away at her PC, you can find her teaching yoga in the park, reading on the couch with her cat, or plunging in the Mediterranean.