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Design Makeover Series #5: Real Examples of How To Improve T-shirt Designs

Imri Merritt

March 29, 2021

Many of us have been there: struggling with a design that you can’t get to look right. Maybe you’ve sat down to use our Design Studio and found yourself drawing a blank, or not knowing how to improve what you already have. T-shirt design can be a challenge, and even those of us who do it for a living can get stuck. But sometimes all you need is a little inspiration.

In this series, I’ll be showing examples of actual designs that came into the Art Department, and although they would print (anything will print), they could use some graphics help. At the customer’s request, I gave them each a Design Makeover. It’s like Pimp My Ride, but without installing a fish tank in your car.

So let’s go through a few Design Makeovers for some tips and tricks to improve T-shirt designs.


1. Lab Life

My first example comes from a lab technician who orders shirts for her entire staff every year, usually with a funny or cute saying having to do with science or working in a lab. She told me they always come up with a bunch of ideas and then take a vote for the favorite design. You could say it’s peer-reviewed.

Unfortunately, the image file for this particular year didn’t pass our test. The tees she ordered were sport gray and she wanted this printed in one color. I’m going to list the problems with this, but first– what do you see that needs to be fixed?



Here are the problems I saw:

• The image quality is very low. Everything is pixelated, to the point where a lot of the details are unrecognizable. What are the little floaty things? It could be red blood cells and bacteria. Or it could be jelly beans and earthworms. Who knows.

• The background is black. Sure, we could print it, but having a big black square on your shirt is not a good look (see left side below). And the low image resolution makes removing the background difficult and would leave uggo halos (on the right).



• The visual weight of the items is inconsistent.  Between the big lab coat and the thin molecules (or whatever), the shape is uneven and distracting. Squint your eyes and you’ll notice there’s a hole in the heart. So sad. Nobody wants that.

That’s about it for this one. And I should say that this job is on the borderline: it could be called a Design Recreate rather than a Design Makeover. But in our internal parlance, a Recreate would involve diligently recreating each element. To save my sanity and avoid spending all day on it, I asked if she was okay with using different elements while keeping the theme.

She said go for it, so I put on my safety goggles and rubber gloves, and started experimenting.



What exactly did I do?

• Recreated the whole thing from scratch, using both clip art from our collection and creating some of the items myself.
• Paid special attention to the visual weight of the elements (blur your eyes and you see the whole heart shape).
• Kept everything outlines– nothing filled. This makes the print lighter and more flexible, plus keeping the consistency.



Customer approved. Design time: 90 minutes.


2. Roentgen is Rad

My second example comes from a student group from the CHCP in Texas who wanted to commemorate “Rad Tech Week” with some rad T-shirts. Rad Tech Week is short for the National Radiologic Technical Week, which celebrates the discovery of the x-ray by Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen in 1895, and brings together two of my favorite things: science and parties.

Röntgen’s discovery was so important they named a unit of measure after him. The Roentgen, which measures the exposure of X-rays and gamma rays, is defined as the electric charge freed by such radiation in a specified volume of air divided by the mass of that air. I’m not going to pretend that I didn’t have to look that up on Wikipedia.

Unfortunately, the art file they submitted wasn’t usable. The image quality was low, and it had a white background going on black shirts. They seemed to be aware of this because they were asking for a recreate before I even spoke with them. They agreed to a Design Makeover, so I put on my hazmat suit, opened up Photoshop and Google and got to work.



What exactly did I do?

• Recreated the art with a pubic domain image of Roentgen, a stock photo of a man in suit, and clip art radiation symbol.
• Typeset the words in Illustrator and created the frame around the character to match the original artwork.
• Photoshopped everything together to make it look seamless, using the eraser, levels, curves, dodge and burn.
• Added the grainy texture to give it the distressed look, and added glow effects to give him radioactive powers.

Customer approved. Design time: 60 minutes.


3. Bagels & Brew & belly

Did you think they were all going to be science-themed? This one involves a place where lab technicians go for breakfast: a New York bagel place. This mom ‘n’ pop shop in Queens was ready to take their business to the next level, but mom and pop were probably too busy making bagels and coffee to properly design a T-shirt. Below is the artwork they created.

I’ll go through the various things that need work, but before I do: what do you see that could use improvement?



Here are the problems I flagged:

• It’s the dreaded belly print. This happens when the main subject or weight of the design is placed below the chest area. The only thing worse than a belly print is if the image is round. And food. Bagels are meant to go in the belly, not on it.

• The bagel photo is low quality. It has jagged edges, parts missing, and is pixelated– not yummy. Whoever removed the background selected too much, cutting into the edges of the bagel. The only thing cutting into a bagel should be a knife.

• The font choice is not appropriate. It’s a little comical, a little fancy, and a lot wrong. It’s also not the easiest to read, and the all-caps doesn’t help. A font like this might look okay large, maybe just as a title– of a kids’ TV show.

• The typesetting in non-existant. Typography is the art of arranging and setting type in a way that is aesthetically pleasing, conveys the message, and in this case, promotes the brand. Their layout is what it looks like when no effort is made. Just typed in. There’s no change of font, or of size, and the only visual hierarchy is the default way a stack of text is read.

So how do we fix these issues?

Clearly, I would want to start from scratch. After speaking with the owners, I learned that these were not just promotional tees– they were to be merch. This changes the equation, design-wise. They will be not only asking people to promote their brand by wearing the shirt, but they’ll also be making them pay to do it. Superfans aside, this requires a different approach.

So they agreed to a Design Makeover, I put on my apron, poured some coffee and got down to business. Bagel business.



So what did I do?

• Found a high-quality stock photo of a yummy looking bagel– the kind with everything on it. What are those called?
• Used Photoshop to replace the bagel hole with a heart shape to signify love, like the famous I (heart) New York design.
• Chose the same font as the original design, and made the layout as close as possible, ensuring the reference was clear.
• Added the business name in smaller type, making sure the brand was promoted and confirming the design is a parody.
• Moved their tag line to the back: “#1 Bagel In New York” along with the street address, phone number, and website.
• Created a color separation for screen printing with the sim process technique. We achieved this print with four colors.

What I wanted to do was give them a fun, memorable, and visually pleasing T-shirt that they could be proud to sell to their customers, and something that everyone would like to wear– not just their die-hard fans. By associating them with the iconic ad campaign, I wanted to suggest two things: their love for bagels and their love for New York. And yes, they loved the tees.



Customer approved. Design time: 60 minutes.


Ready to start your own design creation? If you’re interested in a Design Makeover from our Art Dept, just send in your files and let your sales rep know what you want, and they will get you a quote right away. We do basic image repairs for free, but if you need custom design work, there is a minimal art fee based on the time spent.

You might be surprised how affordable it is– and fast. They don’t call us RushOrderTees for nothing.

If you enjoyed this, check out The Design Makeover Series Part 1Part 2Part 3 – and Part 4.

Happy designing!


Imri Merritt

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.