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Design Makeover Series 03: Real Examples of How To Improve a T-shirt Design

Imri Merritt

November 11, 2019

Many of us have been there: working on a design that you just can’t get to look right. Or maybe you’ve sat down to use our Design Studio and found yourself drawing a blank, or not knowing how to improve what you have. Design can be a challenge, and even those of us who do it for a living can get stuck. 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.

Let’s go through a few Design Makeovers for some tips and tricks to improve your T-shirt designing skills.

1. If It Walks Like A Duck

Here’s an art file that came through for a fairly large order. It’s for some kind of event in Tennessee where disgruntled ducks face off in the woods (I’m totally guessing here). This particular duck looks really angry. Aren’t they known for letting things roll off their backs? Anyway, the design needs help and so does the image quality. I’ll go through the various things that are wrong, but before I do: what do you see that needs to be fixed?



Here are the problems I saw:

• The duck is pixelated. The resolution of the duck is different than the background and text, you can tell by the fuzz and jaggy edges. The trees and text are not much better.

• The type is all over the place. Left justified, right justified, who cares, right? Why not both? Why not some in the center? Turns out, there are good reasons for not doing this.

• The proportions are off. The duck (subject) is too small and the trees (background) are overtaking it. The trees look like a state park logo, but we’ll put that aside for now.

• There’s a random gray bar. Ok, it’s not so random. It comes with a piece of clip art when you get it with Google image search rather than paying a stock photo company. Tsk tsk.

So how do we fix the problems?

This is one where I had to start from scratch (although it could be in the category of a design “repair” in the sense that I would need to go get all the same stuff– just reassemble it in a way that works). The customer explained to me that this is a running group for elementary kids who race for a mile in the grass. So that’s fun. She said she just wanted it to “look cool and tough”. That I could do. So she agreed to a Design Makeover and I went to work on it.



So what exactly did I do?

1. Purchased the high-quality duck image from a clip art site.
2. Increased the size of the subject relative to the background.
3. Aligned all the type in a way that looked good and made sense.
4. Bumped up the colors on the duck and changed the “X” to match.
5. Added a thin white outline to further contrast the duck edges.
6. Added a subtle gradient to the green type.


Customer approved. Design time: 30 minutes.



2. Elf comes up short

It was a cold day in late November, and this artwork came across my desk. The candycane frame had me feeling the Christmas spirit, but after a closer look, turns out both the image and the design belong on the naughty list. I’ll go through the reasons why, but first: what do you think needs to be improved?


Here are the issues I found:

• Low resolution, lots of artifacts. Poor quality image top to bottom. You can see jagged edges and digital artifacts from high compression. I can barely read the type on the bottom. Ok, some of it I can’t read at all.

• This is clearly the poster or flyer design. Why would you want to have the ticket price on the T-shirt? (Hint: you don’t). The design of the T-shirt (or any merch) should be different than that of the promotional material.

• It’s boring. Not to be a Grinch, but overall the design is blah. Plain blue background, the title looks like it’s just standing out in the slushy snow on some street corner at night and is missing a boot.

So how do we fix these issues?

If you guessed that I needed to start from scratch, you are correct. After some Googling, I found some various better versions of this Elf Jr. The Musical graphic floating around, and copyright was not an issue because this is for a school (educational purposes). I spoke with the customer and they were open to an improved look, they just wanted to keep the candycane frame. Sure, why not. So they agreed to a Design Makeover, and I went to work.


So what did I do?

• Found a high-resolution version of the type and the boot.
• Added a North-Pole-like background landscape for depth.
• Added some snow and sun sparkles for a magical feel.
• Recreated the top type with a festive font, omitting ticket cost.
• Recreated “JR” and the bottom type so it’s clear and legible.
• Created a candy cane frame with stripes pointing upwards.


Customer approved. Design time: 60 minutes.


3. Mo’s What Shack?

What’s blue when you cook them and red when you eat them? It’s the Chesapeake Blue Crab. Maryland is known as the capital of these delicious creatures, but this artwork came from a place called Mo’s in Virginia (close enough). When it comes to blue crabs, people cannot get enough of them. And the nice folks over at Mo’s stopped cooking them long enough to put in a T-shirt order. Unfortunately, their artwork was not as high-quality as their crabs are. I’ll go through the issues one by one and spend a little time talking about the back design too, but first: what do you think could be improved?




Here are the problems I saw:

• The artwork is pixelated and low quality. This is par for the course, and there’s a reason this is an issue is always the top of the list: if this wasn’t a problem in the first place, we might not even do a makeover.

• The design makes it read “RAB SHACK”. It’s not clear the crab claws are supposed to form a “C” and I would put this in the category of a fatal flaw. If people can’t get the name right or know what you do, the design failed.

• The print is tiny and too low. A minor problem, but still a problem. Usually, people make their designs too big, but this is a rare case of too small– and too low. This is the easiest thing in the world to fix.

• The back is just a bunch of info. No image, nothing to grab the reader, and some redundant words for good measure. Waste of ink. I’ve always been skeptical if anyone has ever copied this kind of info from a T-shirt.

So how do we fix it?

Once again I started from scratch, but I wanted to keep the same idea, just make it work in the way it was intended to. So I checked with the customer, and they told me that some of these tees would be giveaways, but some would actually be for retail. So they were thrilled with the opportunity for a Design Makeover. I wanted to give them a T-shirt that could be worn with pride and that didn’t leave anyone scratching their head. So I jumped in with both feet and got crabbin. Err… crackin.


What did I do here?

• Found a better version of the same blue crab image they used.
• Adjusted the colors and sharpness for clarity and improved visual impact.
• Positioned the claw “C” where the type “C” would have been.
• Moved “RAB” over to make room for the claw “C”.
• Added a shadow in the crab to give it some 3D depth.
• Added a distressed effect to the type for fun.


Finally, this is a 5-color “simulated process” print, so a great separation was needed. The look of these crabs is unique but it can also vary between crabs. I wanted to capture the blue but also the greenish/brown. So I used a White underbase, a subtle Cardinal Red with a Light Lime Green on top, plus Navy. Here’s a print preview GIF showing the order of screens:


Now let’s take a look at the back print I made for them, which was a brand new design from scratch.


What did I do for the back?

• Used the same crab image to tie into the front, but positioned it differently.
• This gave me the chance to make “Mo’s” really big and use the full name.
• All the redundant words and letters were omitted, condensing the info.
• Added a “call to action” (VISIT US ONLINE) to imply value.
• Used title case for the web page and Facebook page (it’s easier to read).

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

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 1  and Part 2 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.