One of the biggest decisions to make on a T-shirt design– on any design– is the font, also known as a typeface. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of fonts out there, and your job is to choose the best typeface for the job, arrange it in a way that is graphically pleasing, and conveys your message in the best way possible. This is no small feat.
We won’t be getting too deep into the art form known as typography, but whether you’re a long-time designer or a beginner, it’s important to know the fundamentals. I’m here to help, with 5 simple rules for using fonts in your T-shirt design.
Remember, these are rules and not laws. Nobody will arrest you if you make bad design decisions (just some ridicule). And some of the great designs out there break the rules. But you need to know the rules before you can properly break them.
Rule 1: Try out different fonts
This can get time-consuming, but it’s worth it. Most people will choose the first font they like, and that’s a mistake. Ask any designer and they’ll tell you that selecting the right font is a process, and it takes time to go through a variety of options.
I’d bet that a large percentage of font choices start with the letter A. The reason is that when you go to pick a font in most programs, the list is sorted alphabetically, and being a human means being lazy– no one wants to go through the whole list.
With so many fonts that start with the letter A (hmm I wonder why), it’s become easy to settle on a choice too early in the process. How else do you explain the popularity of Algerian?
Many people just go with the default font, and that’s a bigger mistake. In some programs, the default is Helvetica or Calibri or Times New Roman, which are good fonts, but overused. Helvetica is so ubiquitous they made a movie about it.
The same thing happens in our Design Studio, which defaults to Interstate Black. It’s not the worst font. It’s not the best, either. But is it any wonder that it’s the most used font (by far) in customer-created designs?
We have around 300 fonts in our library, and they are helpfully sorted into 24 categories, such as standard, college, decorative, groovy, brush, distress, retro, and so on. We have classic fonts, modern fonts, and fun fonts. We have a lot.
Going through all your options helps you avoid the most overused fonts. There are famous fonts, and there are infamous fonts. There are the most popular fonts and then there are the most hated fonts. And there are some great alternatives to the most overused (and hated) fonts in our Design Studio. Look for them.
Ask yourself: do you really want to use the same font as the vast majority of other people use?
Or do you want to stand out from the crowd with something special, or at least more appropriate? I think I know the answer. So switch between them, explore different looks, hone in on a set of possible choices, and take screenshots to decide later if that helps. Most importantly, take enough time to pick the perfect font for your design.
Rule 2: Make your message easily readable
It seems like that should go without saying, right? You would think. But all too often, designs are made with fonts that are hard to read. The exception to the rule here is if you’re using fonts strictly as design elements like you might see in a graphic design student’s senior project. But when you’re trying to get your message across, make sure people can read it.
Use display fonts sparingly
The usual suspects that make for difficult reading are what are called “display fonts” as opposed to “body fonts” or “text fonts”. Display fonts are designed specifically for headlines and titles, rather than blocks of text. They don’t often have italic, bold and bold italic versions or even lowercase characters.
However, they excel at what they are designed for– catching the eye.
Display fonts should be a larger size than the rest. If you use these types of fonts for small text or large areas of text, you’re gonna have a bad time. Instead, pair these fonts with a classic serif font or standard sans-serif and you will achieve readability– plus a nice graphic contrast.
Use decorative fonts sparingly
Another group of culprits is those found in the decorative, script and gothic categories. Any font that has complicated or fancy characters like curls and accents is going to be harder to read. And don’t get me started on novelty fonts, such as those based on movies or TV show logos. While they can be tempting choices, they are problematic for various reasons.
Remember, we’re going for easily readable; so somewhat readable is not good enough. You don’t want to make people work at trying to decipher your message. They will typically move on from your design and look at something else. People’s attention spans are so short and there are so many things vying for it that you have just a few seconds to capture it.
Avoid shouting at people
Another way to improve your readability is to avoid using all caps. Studies have shown that lowercase letters are easier to read than uppercase. Not to mention that nowadays, all caps implies shouting. NO ONE LIKES TO BE SHOUTED AT!
If that’s not enough, another reason to avoid all caps has to do with our main topic: fonts. Many fonts do not work when you use all caps. They are simply not meant to live next to each other. Uppercase letters are designed to be used at the beginning of words– and interact with the lowercase letters that should follow them. So let’s avoid all caps entirely, shall we?
Scale your fonts proportionately
While we’re at it, avoid stretching and distorting fonts – unless you really know what you’re doing. This is a common rookie mistake because people want the type to fill a certain amount of space on the garment, so they stretch and distort it. The problem is it makes the words harder to read, and it looks unprofessional.
Fonts are not meant to be stretched or distorted. Pick one that is taller or wider if that’s what you need.
Create a visual hierarchy
The number one thing you can do to make sure your message is easily readable is to create a visual hierarchy. Organize your message so it’s not overwhelming. When people see a wall of text, they might not bother reading it. Sounds silly, but it takes some mental work to look at a design and sort out what someone is trying to tell you.
Help them out and use your design to organize the information in an easily digestible way. Show them what you want them to read first, next and last. This can be done in multiple ways, and it’s best to use a combination of all of them:
- Order of the type
The first and most obvious way to create visual hierarchy. We all read left to right and top to bottom.
- Size of the type
The more info to show, the more levels of sizes you can have. The biggest is most important, and so on.
The higher the contrast, the more important, such as white on black and vice versa. Bold colors will attract the eye.
- Type treatment and effects
Outlines, underlines, shadows, textures, 3D effects. Use these sparingly (more on that later).
- Font choices
Choose fonts that contrast, compliment each other and create a cohesive design. So, how many to use?
Rule 3: Use three fonts or less
They say less is more, and that holds true for fonts. You can also apply the old adage: “One is lonely, two’s company, and three’s a crowd.” And let’s not forget, three is the magic number. After that, you lose control of your magical powers like Mickey Mouse as the wizard’s apprentice in Fantasia. No one wants that. So stick to three fonts maximum.
What happens when you use more than three is things start looking crazy and pieced together like a ransom note. It introduces confusion to your visual hierarchy. The reader’s brain has to work harder to figure out what’s going on, what to read first, what’s most important: too many fonts and your message gets lost or your branding loses its cohesion.
Let’s look at these painful examples.
Both of these are an absolute mess. Don’t do this.
On the other hand, most people pick one font and just stick with that– which is also a mistake. It makes it harder to create a visual hierarchy. Sure, you can set up different sizes, or if your one font has a whole “font-family” you can make use of (thin, regular, bold, black, italic, etc). Both of those things can help. But using one font is still boring.
Create a visual hierarchy with multiple fonts by using one bold or distinctive display font for the main part of your message, such as your title or business name. Then choose a secondary font that will be smaller and deliver more information. After that choose the third font for a tagline or less important information. For example, something that looks handwritten.
Take a look above at this example with a scuba diving company I made up. Starting on the left, using a single font of the same size is boring and relies on reading order for visual hierarchy. In the middle, six fonts is too many– it ruins the visual hierarchy by drawing attention unnecessarily. On the right, three fonts are just right. “Dave’s” and the tagline are the same font.
When using two fonts together, make sure they have a strong contrast. Just like with people, opposites attract. If you start with a distinctive font with a strong personality (let’s say a display or decorative font with a curvy hand-painted look), pair it with something more neutral and conservative for a balanced design. Mixing serif and sans-serif fonts will do this.
One of the fonts should be dominant to establish hierarchy. One should be more attention-grabbing in some way, while the other stands by. Think of it as a good comedy duo: there needs to be a straight man. If you have a typeface with a bold, extroverted personality, try combining it with something neutral, reserved, and not funny.
At the same time, your fonts shouldn’t clash. There are many, many fonts that should never go together– whether because they evoke different feelings, represent different themes, or just visually don’t get along. I could show you a bunch of examples, but really you should know this when you see it. Remember rule number 1: try a lot of different fonts.
Avoid pairing fonts that are too similar
While you want some cohesion in your design, choosing fonts that are too similar, or not enough contrast, can also be a problem. A reader might have trouble with the visual hierarchy because the fonts aren’t distinguishable enough from each other. And any differences could look more like a mistake.
Put them next to each other and squint your eyes. If you can’t tell the difference, they’re too close.
Rule 4: Choose fonts that are appropriate
Whether you realize it or not, fonts can mean a lot more than what the words say. Different fonts have different characters– no pun intended. They can evoke emotions, and make that important first impression. A font can instantly convey a feeling of what kind of company, brand, club, team, band, movie, the design is about.
A font tells people what they’re supposed to think and feel about what they’re reading, as they’re reading it.
This is where knowing your audience or target market comes in. It’s usually not hard to figure out, but it doesn’t hurt to do some research if you’re not sure. Who will be wearing these tees? Think about their taste and expectation but also what you want to communicate to them about your product, brand, campaign, etc.
Will your message resonate? Or will it send the wrong message?
Most importantly, will it make them want to wear the shirt?
To show you how much personality a font choice can convey, check this out:
By the way, People Like Us happens to be a real movie. Here’s the poster. The font doesn’t tell us a lot because it’s so straightforward. Judging by the overall poster design and tagline, I’d guess it’s a sincere, slightly upsetting but ultimately feel-good family drama that didn’t do too well because I’ve never heard of it.
Rule 5: Use effects sparingly
Are you noticing a theme here with the word sparingly? Type effects, similar to display fonts and decorative fonts, should be used for titles and larger type, not for everything and not for small type.
Remember, if everything is special, then nothing is.
That being said, there are some super cool things you can do with graphics programs, or in our Design Studio with some creativity. If you don’t have Photoshop, I recommend trying a free online tool such as Photopea. It does almost everything Photoshop can do. You may need to do a few searches to find the filters and plug-ins that can do your desired text effect.
With a few clicks, you can puff your text, cover it with animal print, dip it in chrome, warp it or light it on fire. Have fun! Just be careful: use it as the main, eye-catching title and stick to one or two effects, don’t go crazy. Things can get uggo real fast.
How to get free fonts
Now that you know these basic rules, perhaps you’re ready to embark on your own journey into the vast internet wilderness to find the perfect fonts for your design. There are plenty of sites that offer free font downloads. Here are a few of them:
Created as a directory of free fonts for use on websites or other web-based projects and applications. Includes hundreds of fonts that are all Open Source (which means they can be shared, modified, customized, etc.) and optimized for the web. They can also be downloaded to your computer for use on print projects.
One of the best resources for fonts that are both free and licensed for commercial use (every single one). Includes a great selection of hand-picked, high-quality fonts that are searchable by classification or tag (such as casual, retro, or distressed).
This site has an insane amount of free, public domain, and demo fonts available, but they are of varying quality since anyone can submit a font they’ve created. Many fonts are free only for personal use, so check that license agreement.
Currently over 7,000 free fonts available! Maybe they should have stopped at 1001. The site has a special section of free commercial-use fonts with a handy option to search by type/style/mood, decade, and even holidays and other events.
That’s all for now. I hope this article has been helpful and you’re ready to get started on yours.
About the Author
A graduate of the Multimedia program at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Imri Merritt is an industry veteran with over 10 years of graphic design and color separations experience in the screen printing industry.