T-Shirt Design Tips: How to Avoid The 10 Most Common Mistakes
1/26/2021 by Imri Merritt
Everyone loves a great T-shirt design. I know I do. That’s why I’ve been in this business for 15 years (but who’s counting). So what makes for a great design? What makes a T-shirt that people will want to wear over and over again?
Some of the greatest designs are simple. But even the most simple designs need to do some things right– and avoid the most common mistakes– to achieve that greatness.
In this post, I’m going to outline the top ten things you should be thinking about as you design your printed masterpiece. Some of these might seem obvious, others could be news to you. Read on to find out.
There may be things in life where size does not matter. In T-shirt design, it matters a lot. And yet, most people tend to go with standard sizing most of the time.
Here’s the thing: size should be decided based on the nature of the design, and the properties of the garment to be printed. There should be some thought put into it.
Depending on the shape of your design, it can look much bigger than it should. For example, square or circular shapes tend to look better when they are sized smaller than standard, like in the image with two Jutins above.
Some people print out their design at home on regular paper and hold it up to their shirt to get an idea of how it will look, and I fully support doing this. I also support making a superhero costume out of household items while you’re at it.
Another thing to consider: Does one size does fit all? Depending on the size range of your garments, and the size of your order, you may want to consider using a reduced size print for the smaller items, such as ladies and youth.
One more thing to consider is the style of garments or items to be printed, which may have a limited print area. For example, hoodies with front pockets have a max height of 10″, and some toddler tees max out at only 6″wide.
Bottom line, size matters. It can make or break a design. Do you want a shirt that is the first to be chosen from a fresh load of laundry, or will it be the last one left in the drawer when the hamper is full?
When in doubt, ask your sales rep or the Art Department about what the ideal size of your print should be. We’re always happy to help you decide.
Print placement is sometimes conflated with location, but really it’s the specific measurement of where to print the design within the location.
Your design could be so amazing that it turns heads– but get the placement wrong, and heads will be turning for the wrong reason. A common mistake is the belly print, which is never flattering. In an upcoming post, I will discuss this unfortunate placement in detail.
If your design is in a standard print location such as full front or full back, our production team will make sure the placement is also standard and will work across your various garment types and sizes.
If you request an alternate placement, let us know the specifics and our art team will make sure your request is within the limits, show you the proof of how it will look, and relay those instructions to our Production Dept.
In two upcoming blog posts, I will go over the top standard print locations and suggest a bunch of alternative print locations that will set your design apart.
3. Typography & Fonts
Typography, in its most basic form, is the visual component of the written word. It’s not the text itself– but anytime text is printed or displayed, it involves some degree of typography.
When it comes to design, typography is the art of typesetting or arranging type in a way that makes sense, along with choosing typefaces (fonts), making sure the letter spacing and line spacing is correct, and the way it interacts with the graphic elements is aesthetically pleasing.
Your font choice can say a lot about the way your design is received, and convey certain ideas or evoke emotions that may not be intentional. From a lifetime of looking at logos, graphics and ads, we’ve all been conditioned to attribute certain characteristics to certain fonts.
For example, if your T-shirt design is for a family reunion, the font “Batman Forever” might not be the best way to convey that. Or if you’re going for a more corporate or professional look, you should probably avoid “Comic Sans”.
Real talk, you should always avoid Comic Sans.
Some standard fonts will work well for just about anything. Other fonts will only have specific uses in specific contexts. We get lots of designs where the font name starts with “A” or “B” which tells us that you didn’t spend a lot of time picking your font. Explore your options!
If you remember only one rule of typography, make it this one: never use more than three different fonts in a design. The type police will come after you.
Want a crash course in understanding typography? Practical Typography is a great little site packed with good information that can answer your most basic questions on this topic.
Composition is something you may remember from your high school art class. Every design has elements that are arranged in relation to each other, and this relation is what makes up the overall composition.
Oftentimes, what makes for a well-designed composition can be a matter of opinion. But there are basic composition rules that can improve a design dramatically when followed. There are lots of resources online if you would like to learn to improve your composition game.
A typical mistake is elements that are too spaced out, or too bunched up. Or the entire design can be off-balance, drawing the eye to the wrong place. Or– and be especially careful here– the type could be read in the wrong order.
Yeah. So if you’re working with a variety of elements, put some time and effort into your composition. Show a few people and get feedback. Worry first, and you can be happy later.
5. Image Quality
This is one of the most common problems with our customer-submitted art files. Images are all too often “low resolution”. In other words, they don’t have enough pixel information to give us the quality and details that make for good print quality.
When you submit art files that are poor quality, typically we’ll let you know right away and ask if you have anything better. If not, there are some things we can do to fix a file. Other times there’s not much that can be done, so that crappy file could turn into an only-slightly-less crappy print.
Images from the web tend to be too small. They’re typically 72 dpi, and not at full size to be printed. Ideally, images should be 200 dpi or higher at full size.
Another problem with low-res images is they have been compressed, sometimes more than once, and have visible artifacts from that compression. Sometimes you can’t see these artifacts unless you zoom in.
If you submit a vector file, the resolution doesn’t matter because vector files scale to print perfectly to any size without losing quality. That’s why we love them the most. Vector files are typically PDF, EPS, AI, or SVG file types.
Other issues of image quality are photographs of photographs. Obviously, there will be some issues: blurriness, awkward cropping, graininess. Believe it or not, we sometimes receive a photo of a phone with a screenshot of a photo on a computer. Did you follow that? It’s like the Inception of submitted art files.
Ideally, photographs should be scanned at a high resolution for best results. We evaluate all submitted artwork for quality, so email it to us and we’ll let you know if it will work, if we can clean it up, or we need something better.
Color choices are some of the most important decisions; not only for design reasons but if you want screen printing, making sure the job fits your budget. More colors = more cost per item. Of course, you could always buy more shirts to decrease your cost per item. Spend more to save more. Sales logic.
With screen printing, in some cases, we can use a technique called halftones, which is essentially tiny dots that can make three or four colors look like many more. It’s like magic. There’s a lot more to it, and I will be getting into that in a future post. For now, ask your sales rep if your design qualifies for halftones.
You should be thinking about colors from the moment you start designing. Colors can actually have specific effects on people, read about the science! Advertisers are well aware of this fact, and you should be too.
You can choose from our wide selection of in-house ink colors available in the Design Studio, or if you need specific colors for your brand, we offer accurate Pantone color matching. Check out some examples on the RushOrderTees Ink Labs Instagram.
You might like to use Pantone’s official Color of the Year for 2019, “Living Coral, which we mixed here. And you might want to avoid using “Opaque Couché” …the world’s ugliest color (although this was decided by a marketing company in Australia, so don’t feel too bad if that’s your favorite color).
If your print method is DTG (direct-to-garment) rather than screen printing, then we are printing in “full color” and so the number of colors as it pertains to the budget is no longer a consideration. This makes it a great choice for full-color photographs. But the way the design looks due to color choices is always a consideration, aesthetically speaking.
It can be tempting to add lots of colors as a way to make the design more vivid, but this can backfire. Use too many colors and your design can start looking ugly, as there’s more chance for clashing.
There’s almost always going to be an ideal number of colors or a small range to choose from, depending on what you might need for an official logo or to properly represent an image. Try to achieve your design goals in the least amount of colors possible, and your shirt will probably be worn more often than if it had all the colors of the rainbow.
In another post, I’ll dive deeper into color theory, complementary colors, black and white, tonal ranges, and using “simulated process” to achieve a full-color look with a limited number of spot colors.
Try to achieve your design goals in the least amount of colors possible, and your shirt will probably be worn more often than if it had all the colors of the rainbow.
Contrast is a part of color choice, but it’s a very specific and important part to consider. What exactly is contrast? It’s the degree of visual difference between the darker and lighter parts of an image, or the way shades of colors correspond to each other.
The strongest contrast is always going to be black-on-white or vice versa. And of course, bright colors on a dark background are going to be high contrast.
The design itself can have a lot to do with the overall contrast, as far as the content and what colors have the most surface area or are the most dominant. A crazy, eye-catching image along with saturated colors will go along way towards increasing the contrast against a neutral background.
Achieving the highest contrast possible is not always the goal. Many people like the subtle look of a low-contrast print. I’m a big fan myself. But it can be a fine line between low-contrast and no-contrast, so it’s important to be careful. This example design shows the difference.
We sometimes print black shirts with black ink when the customer wants a very subtle look, but this is rare. If you are trying to set up something like that, make sure to let us know that it’s your intention, so your order doesn’t get flagged for correction.
Some typical contrast mistakes we see: Navy on black shirts, Light Gray ink on sport gray shirts, and Ice Gray ink on white shirts. All of these are considered low contrast and we don’t recommend these combinations.
Inversion is something fairly common that needs to be done, usually when printing white ink on black garments. Unless you’re some kind of goth art band, you probably don’t want your photo looking like an x-ray.
Sometimes it not easy to tell when something should or should not be inverted. If a skull is black but the eyes are white, it’s negative needs to be switched to a positive image, which often requires a white outline to be added.
Using our Design Studio, it can sometimes be tricky to know which way to go. When in doubt, add a note describing what you’re going for, or better yet, contact a project specialist who can help guide you towards the best result.
I’ll be posting an extended article on the topic, so look for that coming up.
Everyone knows the adage K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple, Stupid) and it applies to T-shirt design as much as anything else. I think “stupid” was added just to complete the acronym.
The human eye can only process a certain amount of information at once, graphics or otherwise, and with a T-shirt design you not only have limited viewing time, but you’re usually a moving target. So keep it simple!
Sometimes people get a little carried away with trying to be creative or original, by stacking things on top of each other, using weird angles and composition, and generally creating a chaotic mess with their design.
Other times, its the nature of the design or the number of colors that are adding to the complexity. You don’t want to make people work hard to figure out what is on your shirt.
If you’re having trouble knowing when to say when, our experienced design team can help. We can give you some advice or even help you optimize your design, which sometimes means simplifying it. We are experts at “K.I.S.S.”ing.
10. Borders, Masks & Edges
Many designs that we print feature one or more photographs. A photo just sitting on a shirt with plain edges can look boring or even cheap and unprofessional. An easy solution to this is to “put a border on it”!
There are lots of options when it comes to borders and edges. The most simple is a thin white or black border, which can instantly improve the appearance. But maybe you don’t want it to be square– in that case, you can use the “mask” feature in our Design Studio, which gives you a variety of shapes to choose from.
Alternatively, you could go with more of a frame, which is a thicker border, sometimes with beveled edges or fancy details, like in the example below.
Consider your subject. If it’s an anniversary design, you might want a fancy frame. If it’s a tough mudder competition, you might want distressed edges.
A “knock out” is where the background is erased entirely or cut out from the background, leaving the focus entirely on the subject. This can make a huge difference, especially if there are unwanted elements in the background.
If you don’t have Photoshop or another image editing tool, and you’re interested in any of these treatments, put in a special request with your order describing what you want and our Art Department will take care of the rest.
If you want to give it a go yourself, there’s a free image editor online called Photopea that works just like Photoshop. Check it out.
That’s all for now. Hopefully, you have a better idea of the common mistakes to avoid, and you’re ready to create an awesome t-shirt.
About the Author
Imri Merritt Imri (pronounced em-rye), also known as “M”, joined RushOrderTees in the spring of 2015, bringing over 10 years of graphic design and color separations experience in the screen printing industry. Over the next three years, he helped transform the Art Department, improving the overall quality, efficiency, and customer service of the team, while making some beautiful T-shirts along the way. A graduate of the Multimedia program at University of the Arts in Philadelphia, he has explored various creative pursuits, including art and design, marketing, DJing, and even producing comedy shows. He brings his well-rounded skill set and forward-thinking approach to every project he's involved with at Printfly / Rush Order Tees. He is a contributing writer for Impressions Magazine, Printwear Magazine, and ASI Central. He loves roller coasters, music, and fried pickles.