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Design Makeover Series 01: Real Examples of How to Improve a T-shirt Design

Imri Merritt

November 11, 2019

Many of us have been there: up late at night working on a design that you just can’t get to look right. Or maybe you have sat in front of our Design Studio and found yourself drawing a blank deciding on what direction to go in the first place.

Design can be a challenge. Whether it’s placing an image, choosing fonts, or rearranging a layout, even those of us who do it for a living can get stuck. And 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 fine, 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 these Design Makeovers and hopefully it will help you learn some tips and tricks to improve your T-shirt designing skills.

To see larger versions of these images, right-click or control-click and select “Open Image in New Tab” from the pull-down menu.

1. Dougie Fresher

First up, we have this design that came in for a fundraising event, and it has some issues. I’ll go through them one by one, but first: what do you think could be improved?


Here are the issues I found:

Did someone turn off the lights? Overall it’s dark, drab and low contrast, causing some elements to blend together, such as his hand holding the martini glass. And his face is mostly in shadow.

Those black blobby things– what are they? Ink splats I presume, but why? The bottom one looks kind of like it’s trying to be a golf club, to go with the golf ball. But it’s not quite there.

Speaking of that ball, why would the volleyball be the same size as the golf ball? I’ve heard of mini golf, but mini volleyball? It adds confusion for no reason.

The font choice “Algerian” doesn’t go well with this design. Or any design. Recently, Yards abandoned it. The font is awkwardly fancy (it’s in the “decorative” category) and has tiny lines that don’t print well.

The image is “squashed”. It happens when you don’t scale proportionally. In other words, changing a dimension (height or width) individually. Squashing people makes their heads look fatter.

So how do we fix these issues?

What I did instead of fixing the existing design was to start from scratch. I spoke with the customer to request the original image of Dougie and learn more about the event. They told me that it’s supposed to be fun– so I had some fun with the design.


What exactly did I do?

• Added brightness, colors, and proper skin tone.
• Corrected proportions so he’s not squashed.
• Used a fun modern font and applied a unique angled arch.
• Got some new clip art balls and made their sizes relative.
• Changed the color of drink for stronger contrast.
• Got rid of the uggo ink blobs. No offense to ink blobs.
• Added a blue background splash to tie it all together.


Now with more freshness.

Customer approved. Design time: 45 minutes.


2. From Beast to Beauty

There’s a small town in South Dakota where you can visit a Native American Reservation and kiss a buffalo. Ain’t that America? They deserve a good T-shirt. But this ain’t it.

What do you think?


What did I see that could be improved?

Basically, it’s too basic. Type, image, type. Plain, standard font (it’s literally the default font from our Design Studio) and every word is the same size. Looks like it took about 2 minutes (and probably did).

• The title of the business “Merrival Buffalo Ranch” should not have a random line break– it should be all one line. Or, you could do the top line “Merrival” (the name) and bottom line “Buffalo Ranch” (what it is), but the word “at” shouldn’t share the line with “Merrival”. This is a good rule to follow in general.

The photo is blurry and low contrast, which isn’t doing this image any favors. Hard to know what’s happening here. It’s also not cropped well and has no border. Just looks slapped onto the shirt. Who remembers iron-ons? Those had borders at least.

• The phone number is way too big. I’ve always had a thing against phone numbers on a T-shirt. First of all, if you want the person wearing your T-shirt to look like a walking billboard, the way to do that would be putting a giant phone number on it. Second, does anyone ever write down a phone number they see on a T-shirt? I wonder.

These are not as much design issues as not having a design in the first place.

This customer wanted to keep their overall cost low, so we kept it one color: black ink on a white shirt. Nothing wrong with that. But they were interested in getting a Design Makeover. So that’s what we gave them.

What exactly did I do?

• Chose a font that worked for the subject and gave it some variety of size and style. The prominence of “Kiss A Buffalo” works like a headline to grab attention. The location, and yes, phone number are still there, just smaller.

• Adjusted the photograph to be sharper and have better contrast. Used Photoshop tools strategically in some areas. You can actually tell what’s happening. Doesn’t explain why it’s happening; I’ll leave that for you.

• Cropped the photo to frame the subjects and added a fancy border. A running joke in the Art Department was I would always say “Put a border on it.” The reason I always said that is because you should.

• Added a “distressed” texture to the type and edges. A distress effect is one that gives an aged, worn look, which I feel works for this design. For more details about that and how to use it, read my recent post all about it.


Buffalo breath?

Customer approved. Design time: 30 minutes.


3. Lightning Round

AP Lightning is a US Military installation used by Task Force Southeast to train 203rd Corps of the Afghan National Army and the 303rd Afghanistan National Police Zone Headquarters. That’s right: these T-shirts would be heading into a war zone.

Over here in the comfort of our Philadelphia headquarters, we had a much easier battle: a Design Makeover.


What this customer submitted was the digital equivalent of a napkin drawing. Charming, but not intended to be printed like as is. We get orders coming in this way fairly often, and we encourage you to submit your artwork in whatever form works best for you. Including napkin drawings.

The concept is great, and the customer was excited to make improvements, so it was a perfect candidate for a Design Makeover.

So how did I go about this?

Essentially I needed to rebuild the design with all new parts. The resolution of this image is way too low: 72 DPI, and not even at full size. Ideally, we want it to be 300 DPI at full size.

So my first job was to find all the elements we needed at a higher resolution. We use a combination of resources for this: stock photo web sites, clip art web sites, and our own extensive clip art library.

What exactly was I looking for? The main parts.

• The Laurel wreath: a symbol of victory or achievement dating back to ancient Greece. This particular wreath would need custom ribbons going through it.

• The battle-worn Spartan helmet and shield: I knew I could find these popular and iconic images on stock photo web sites.

• The military logos: Also easy to find. Often times there are high-quality versions of these on their Wikipedia pages.

And what exactly would I be creating myself? Everything else.

• The custom ribbons going around the Laurel wreath.
• The banner running along the bottom of the design.
• The typography, including the Greek type on the banner.
• The Photoshop layering, effects and color separation.

It was a heated battle, and in the end, we were victorious.


A few extra design elements that I added:

• A 3-dimensional look for the custom ribbons on the side.
• Bold, arched type hugging the top of the Laurel wreath.
• A glow around the helmet and shield for better contrast.
• Minimal shading and highlights on all the created elements.
• Inverted arch for the banner across the bottom.
• A distress texture for a battle-worn look.

Once the design is completed it’s time to do the color separation. This particular job was to be printed with 7 colors. A separation of this kind is called “simulated process” and uses halftones. It can be tricky and time-consuming so we’ll save that for another post.

Like a cooking show, I’ll jump ahead to the finished product.

This is a print preview of the colors going down in the order of the screens: white underbase, yellow, red, green, blue, gold, black, highlight white:


Despite the delays of communicating with someone on the other side of the world, the job was done on schedule, the customer was a breeze to work with, and she absolutely loved the result.

I asked her to tell her unit that we thank them for their service. She told me they thank us for ours!


On to the next design battle.

Customer approved. Design time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.


If you are interested in a Design Makeover from our Art Dept, let your sales rep know, send in your files, and they will get you a quote right away. We do basic image repairs for free, but if you need custom design work done there is a minimal art fee based on the time spent.

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

If you enjoyed this, check out The Design Makeover Series Part 2 and Part 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.