How to Perfect a T-Shirt Design

As a designer, we can all relate to the moment when an idea hits you for the ultimate t-shirt design. It’s like an epiphany that takes on a life of its own—but is it perfect? Well, not yet.

You know your idea is pure gold and you can practically see the t-shirt being sold at retail stores. However, having the vision is only the beginning in a long process of taking a design concept to a finished product.

A project like this involves a lot of steps and iterations as the design starts to breathe and grow. It is crucial to get feedback from your family, friends, and design peers at each stage of the process so your design can be its best. This feedback can be as simple as confirmation of a good idea to the more critical, with suggestions or changes to the composition.

Getting Started

So what can you do to make sure your t-shirt design is the best it can possibly be? The best starting point and the most obvious is taking the concept and putting it to paper or screen, whichever you are most comfortable. This part begins the WIP (work-in-progress) phase, that allows you to share and refine the design throughout the multiple stages of its creation.

There are quite a few different mediums you can begin with during the rough draft phase. A sketch on paper without regard to colors or a quick mock-up in Illustrator will suffice at this point because sometimes starting is the hardest part. In the age of social media with sharing in mind, it will be important to get some kind of version in a digital format so you can spread it around for feedback. Even tweeting a scanned image of a rough sketch can give you an immense amount of feedback on the direction you should be going in next.

Yema Yema Sketching

Getting Feedback

The first subset of people that you will want to show should be family and close friends because the likelihood of a positive response is higher. This will give your design the momentum it needs; just don’t get too high, you haven’t exactly thrown yourself to the wolves yet. This group might even respond best to a printed version on paper because you will have more of a chance to explain your concept as they look at it.

After receiving the feedback, review the most repeated suggestions or questions. These questions may provide insight that you hadn’t considered at this point or all share the same confusion over the message you were trying to convey. If you feel good, based on their reactions, this might be the refinement point where you begin adding color to the design and really bringing it to life; then again it may not be the right time, you don’t have to rush that part.

Feedback From Online Friends

The next set of people to share the design with are going to be online friends through social networks. This can be done on Facebook and Twitter where you should receive a portion of responses that are more critical than the first group. A lot of the responses here are going to be based purely on one’s style and preference. Obviously the source of the critique needs to be taken into account before any major changes are made. Don’t let this group’s feedback discourage you no matter how harsh the comments—they may lack the vision to see the finished product.

Hydro74 Twitter WIP

When sharing on Facebook or Twitter, it is common to use Instagram or another photo sharing app to add a little polish to your presentation. Other social outlets for sharing could be Tumblr or Flickr because they allow commenting and can distribute your WIP to the masses quickly and easily. Pay close attention to the comments you receive and be available to respond to keep the conversation going. These are also good places to ask specific questions about decisions you have been going back and forth on.

After your design has received its fair share of criticism and praise from the groups of people that aren’t directly involved in the design industry, it is time to put some finishing touches on it. This includes the part where you create a digital mock-up of the design on a t-shirt. You can find premium t-shirt templates at places like Go Media, Deviant Art, Flickr, and Vecteezy.

Having the digital mock-up will allow you to post your design to the portfolio on your website, your Facebook page, or other online gallery sites you frequent. These sites are great platforms to promote your design socially, building up a demand before it is actually printed. The number of views and comments in the design’s final digital resting place will give you a good idea of how many to print or help you determine the sale price for the design by itself.

Feedback From Design Peers

There are a few communities online where the t-shirt designers hang out. They frequent sites like Mintees or Band Job obsessively and are willing to sing your praise or shred you apart. Regardless, you walk away knowing exactly how they feel about your design—this is the part of the process where you have to put your big boy pants on and get ready for brutal honesty (remember, the comments you receive on these design sites are coming from designers that do this for a living). They eat, sleep, and breathe t-shirt design and can help you get a perspective or understanding that you cannot get elsewhere.

Nuke Mutant Mintees

So let’s say that by following all or part of these tips you’ve come to the point where you know people will like your design. It’s been tweaked and revised until it’s perfect and a number of people want to know when and where they can buy it. That’s just perfect, right? Well, there’s still one more very important consideration to take into account. Is your design actually printable?

Feedback From Printers

A design can look amazing in your portfolio on an electronic mock-up. However, that doesn’t mean that it necessarily translates to something that can be printed on an actual, physical shirt. Some designs, such as allover designs or over-sized designs, may be tough for most screen printers to handle. Another potential problem is having too many ink colors or color gradients in your design or generally trying to incorporate a design technique that looks great on the mock up but is difficult to accurately and reliably do on the printed shirt itself. These are things that may not be possible and may change the overall look once printed.

Occasionally you may also create a design that the screen printers can print but it may have so many colors, locations, or other complicating factors that it becomes an extremely expensive design to print. There’s also the risk that while the printer may be able to do it, it may not come out looking as good on the actual shirt as it did on the mock-up. That is because electronic mock ups are inherently different from actual t-shirt fabric. Remember, the best looking t-shirt design in the world is worthless if a printer can’t accurately print a quality looking t-shirt with it.

Sealing the Deal

That is why it can be essential to get an actual screen printer involved in the design process. Having a screen printer you know and trust, often from having worked together on other projects or through the recommendations of other designers, is a great way to get early feedback on how printable your design is. The screen printer can also make suggestions for how to resolve potential printing problems and may even become another source to give you good advice about the design itself. After all, they print t-shirts all day and are likely to have a pretty good feel for what is popular and successful as well.

Unfortunately there will always be some degree of uncertainty in the process, but taking the steps outlined above can go a long way toward laying a strong foundation for your t-shirt design project. At least at this point you will know that you’ve done everything you can to give your t-shirt idea all the benefits and opportunities that it deserves.