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Design Makeover Series 02: 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. A Walk In The Park

This art file was sent in for a T-shirt order, and I’m not sure where it came from. Possibly an old postcard. Maryhill State Park is a beautiful campground in Washington state, according to my Google search. What’s really cool about it is there’s a full-scale model of Stonehenge!

Too bad this graphic has some serious problems. I’ll go through them one by one, but first: what do you think could be improved?


Here are the problems I saw:

• It’s super blurry. It’s the view after you’ve had about 8 beers. And there’s no booze allowed in state parks, people. A print can only look as good as the original image, so if you start out blurry, you’ll definitely end up blurry on the T-shirt.

• It’s odd looking. Not sure how else to describe that. Muddled? The water and the sky kind of looks the same. The trees are bright but everything else looks shadowy. Wait, is it trees or broccoli? Hard to tell.

• The edges are all janky. My spell check says janky is good to use. Wasn’t sure. Anyway, the lines around the border are neither clean nor straight. And there are some random colors just hanging out along the top edge.

• The name of the park is missing. Maybe it floated down the river?

So how do we fix the problems?

If you guessed that the best way is to start from scratch, you are correct. I spoke with the customer to get a better idea of what she wanted and let her know that the art file provided was a non-starter.

The customer explained that she wanted the design to look like an old postcard, on a forest green T-shirt, with the park name prominent. That I could do! She agreed to a Design Makeover and I went to work on it.


So what exactly did I do?

• Searched for and found a photograph that would work.
• Cropped it for optimal visual appeal, with the subject offset.
• Adjusted the colors, sharpness, and contrast for a clear print.
• Chose a modern font with a retro style for the park name.
• Added a thin black outline to the border for a clean edge.
• Created a distressed outer edge for an aged postcard look.


You’re making vacation plans right now, aren’t you?

Customer approved. Design time: 60 minutes.


2. Semi Designed

Here’s one that I knew needed help as soon as I saw it. Although we get designs coming in like this all the time, it doesn’t have to be this way. With a few simple improvements, something like this can go from bad to badass.

The design has obvious issues. I’ll go through them one by one, but first: what do you think could be improved?

Here are the issues I found:

• Is there a truck behind all the type? It looks like there might be a truck. This is a typical design mistake. Overlapping things is good, completely covering the subject is not so good.

• The truck image is very poor quality. It’s low resolution, blurry, with pixelated edges and weird coloring. There seem to be big chunks missing in various places. I’m not sure this truck would get very far.

• The typography needs work. Notice how it reads “Trucking Salisbury NC” altogether. There should be some kind of visual distinction so the viewer knows that the city is not part of the business name.

You might remember from my first Design Makeover post that I’m not a fan of having a giant phone number printed (does anyone actually write it down?) so I’m listing that as an issue, even though we ended up keeping it on the customer’s request.

So how do we fix these issues?

Unlike some other designs in this series, I didn’t need to start from scratch on this one. I wanted to keep the customer’s logo, font choice, and the general concept intact. But he was happy to get a Design Makeover so I got it in gear and got to work.


So what did I do?

• Found a great, high-resolution version of the exact truck.
• Created a realistic shadow underneath the truck.
• Adjusted the colors, sharpness, and contrast for a clear print.
• Moved his logo up and behind the truck for a 3D effect.
• Moved the word “Trucking” up to be part of the business name.
• Filled the “Eller” type with black for better look and contrast.
• Moved the city and phone number down. Added the comma.
• Erased leftover edges around the image for a nice clean print.


From bad to b-b-b-b-bad… bad to the bone.

Customer approved. Design time: 30 minutes.


3. Wolverines!

This artwork was created in our Design Studio, and you can see the distress effect that was applied there. The design is pretty basic and could use some improvements. It also has one major problem. What do you think?


Here are my issues with it:

• This is an example of the dreaded belly print. A belly print is any design where the subject, focus, or “weight” of the design is lower than the chest. It’s not a flattering look on anyone. Unfortunately, it’s a common mistake. I explain it in depth and show you how to avoid it here.

• All the type is all stacked together and sized the same. For the reader, it’s not clear what is being emphasized, and it’s plain. Looks like it was just typed in and left like that. So rather than a design problem, it’s more like a lack of design. Which is a problem.

• The Wolverine graphic is low-resolution. You can see the pixelation and the patchiness in the colors. The soft edges don’t lend themselves well to printing, as blurs become halftone dots, which can make otherwise clean lines look jagged.

• The distressed effect is too big and chunky. It’s our default distress texture, which can work well on many designs, but here its a bit much. Looks like the shirt was attacked by an actual wolverine.

So how do we fix it?

This one needed a redesign from scratch. I checked with the customer to learn more about the event, and they were thrilled with the opportunity for a Design Makeover. I wanted to give them a T-shirt that could be worn more than once. So I got my head into the game and got to work.


What did I do here?

• Found a better, vector version of the Wolverine clipart.
• Adjusted the colors for clarity and improved visual impact.
• Picked a good font for “Wolverines” and applied typographic style.
• Moved everything up to the chest to avoid the belly print.
• Moved “Alumni Reunion” to the bottom and used a different font.
• Added a more subtle distress effect to the whole thing.

Finally, this is a 6-color screen printed order, so a great separation was needed. This kind of separation requires an advanced technique called simulated process, which uses halftones to achieve a wider array of colors than is actually used. Here’s a print preview GIF showing all the colors in the order of screens:


And the before-and-after. Can you tell I love before-and-afters?

Now they can show their Wolverine pride for years to come.

Customer approved. Design time: 45 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 nothin.

For more, check out the rest of the Design Makeover Series:  Part 1Part 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.