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Design Makeover Series #4: Real Examples of How To Improve T-shirt Designs

Imri Merritt

March 26, 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. Think Harder

This first example is a job that came over from a student group at Kutztown University’s Frederick Douglass Institute, who had a series of meetups throughout the year. So naturally, they needed T-shirts. (Everyone needs T-shirts.) But what is going on with this design? While the concept is there– Frederick Douglass as The Thinker– it clearly needs to be more thought out.

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:

• Everything is pixelated. Once again, the Art Dept’s most common problem. The image, the text, it’s all low resolution. You can tell by the jagged edges and the blurry features. It looks like The Thinker is growing an extra layer of hair all over.

• The top type slanted for no reason. The title is haphazardly placed, seemingly falling from the sky. Looks like it’s about to bonk Frederick in the head while he’s busy thinking. And, uh… speaking of Frederick’s head…

• The head is misplaced on the body. It’s almost a horror movie happening here: there’s just no way that head could be attached to that body. Guess his thoughts were so heavy he couldn’t hold his head up anymore.

• The typography could use some work. A bit of everything, from sizing to centering, to spacing, color, and proportions.

So how do we fix these problems?

For this one, I would need to start from scratch, because none of the components were usable– but of course, I wanted to keep the concept intact. Truth be told, sometimes it’s just faster to start from scratch rather than get into image repair.

The customer explained that Kutztown partnered with the National Parks Service on this program called “Arc To Equality”, and the “Think Tank” is a component of this program where students met to study and discuss issues of equality and social justice. He knew the design needed help. That I could do. So he agreed to a Design Makeover and I went to work on it.



So what exactly did I do?

1. Found much better, high-quality images of both Frederick Douglass and The Thinker.
2. Photoshopped his head onto the sculpture in a way that was anatomically plausible.
3. Adjusted the levels, contrast, and sharpness so that they looked like a single image.
4. Re-typeset all the text to give it a more professional and classy look that made more sense.
5. Added a gradient of green ink to the yellow type for an extra touch of visual interest.



Customer approved. Design time: 45 minutes.



2. Unfulfilled

Our next example comes from an Amazon fulfillment warehouse in New Jersey. They were ordering some baseball raglans with orange sleeves for a summer carnival event. Not sure what kind of carnival you could have at a fulfillment center, but ok. And yes, ABE8 is the name of it. Sounds more like a robot taking our jobs. Anyway, the design has some issues.

I’ll go through them one by one, but first: what do you think the issues are?



Here are the issues I noticed:

• The artwork is pixelated and low quality.  Fuzzy edges and jaggy text. Lots of makeovers are initiated because of low-quality art files. In other words, if the artwork was printable, it may never have had a makeover proposed in the first place.

• The text needs typesetting. The collegiate font going straight across the top and bottom would normally be fine, but in this case, it makes the bottom line too long, throwing off the balance and print size. Also, the top “ABE8” is redundant.

• The center thing is hard to read. Not sure what’s going on here. Some kind of wheel, the shape of New Jersey, and some kind of pipes in the background. Not a completely terrible design, but the low-quality art makes it all blob together.

So how do we fix it?

Another one starting from scratch. Nothing was usable. But the elements would be easy enough to recreate. I wasn’t able to speak directly to the customer, so I never found out what the background pipes were (a good guess was those roller thingies they use to send boxes across a warehouse). But I did get the go-ahead for a Design Makeover, and I was ready to deliver.


What did I do here?

• Cleaned up their image of the pipes/roller thingies and built the rest of the design on top of it.
• Removed the “ABE8” from the top line and split the “2018” across both sides of the center element.
• Took the words “SUMMER CARNIVAL” and arched them evenly on the top and bottom of the design.
• Recreated the inner elements, adding outlines to the New Jersey and wheel shapes for improved contrast.
• Typeset the inner text, making it thicker, with and outline, highlight, and additional gradient blend.
• Created this design to be circular shaped overall, for a better fit on the print area of a baseball raglan.


Customer approved. Design time: 45 minutes.



3. Hot or not?

Here’s one that came from a mom-and-pop bar and restaurant in York Haven PA, which is out by Harrisburg, according to Google maps. This was obviously put together quickly in our Design Studio and has just two elements, the type and the photo of the pepper– a cayenne pepper, according to Kane, our resident expert on everything hot. But is the design hot?

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



Here are the elements I flagged for improvement:

• The smoke is cropped off. It looks like the pepper is trapped in an invisible box. Not sure why it’s smoking, but that smoke would look much better if it were flowing up and around the text, or at least behind it. Speaking of the text…

• The text needs better typesetting. The slight arch adds a bit of style, but it’s not visually appealing. The apostrophe after kickin’ is backward and trying to escape. The three exclamation marks!!! And then there’s the font. Never use Papyrus.

• The tagline should be separate from the business name. You can do this by using different fonts or colors, but ideally, the business name would be a logo. Or at the very least a customized font, aka logotype.

So how do we fix these issues?

If you guessed that I needed to start from scratch, you are correct. After speaking with the customer, a lovely woman named Pamela, I learned it was the 15-year anniversary of their little bar/restaurant, and the shirts would be worn by employees but also sold to customers. So they needed to be extra kickin’ hot. She agreed to a Design Makeover and I went to work on it.



So what did I do?

• Found a high-resolution version of the cayenne pepper online and bought the stock photo.
• Added some additional smoke to go up behind the type and blended it in with the rest.
• Chose two fonts to use for the restaurant name and designed a custom logotype for them.
• Chose a third font– scripty and much different than the others– to use for the tagline.
• Added a highlight and shadow to all of the type to give it some dimension and pop.
• Photoshopped the pepper to be in front of the logotype to give it even more depth.

Finally, this is a 7-color “simulated process” print, so a great separation was needed. I was already using Light Gray for the smoke, but I wanted the gray type to stand out– how about metallic Silver? Oh yeah. Then I used a brighter red (just a bit towards the orange side of the spectrum) for the “15 years…” type, so it would stand out against the deeper red of the pepper. Here’s a print preview GIF showing the layers of halftones and the color order of the screens:


White Underbase, Fresh Green, Metallic Silver, Red 485c, Red 86 c, Light Gray, Highlight White


Who doesn’t love before and afters?

Customer approved. Design time: 60 minutes.


Quick afterword on this makeover. A week after receiving their initial order of 100 T-shirts, they put in a reorder for 600 more. And that is the best compliment anyone can give us. They loved the design, loved the print, and loved the customer service. They even posted a bunch of photos showing staff, friends, and family looking hot in their new tees.


Check out Kickin’ Kadilaks on their website and Facebook page.


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 1  and Part 2 and Part 3.

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.