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T-Shirt Design: Taking Artwork and Messaging to the Next Level

Published on: Oct 26, 2015

It seems anyone can make a t-shirt. Let’s rephrase that: anyone can put together text and graphics, upload it to a printing site, and have a custom t-shirt printed and delivered.

These companies are very well suited to their niche, and quality is generally very good. So how is it that it can be a bad move for business owners and event organizers who need custom-printed shirts?

Cutting Out the “Middle Man” of Design

Design-it-yourself sites give customers the freedom to create their own designs, which also cuts down on the cost. Win-win, right? Taking out the design step, however, is precisely why these sites don’t make sense for business use.

When you create business designs for t-shirts, it’s always tempting to save a few dollars by getting someone who’s handy with Photoshop to “put something together” for you. Perhaps it’s a friend or a junior employee who wants to show off what they can do. Unfortunately, this is rarely cost-effective. Making t-shirt designs whose main purpose is business messaging requires a special set of design skills. Good business design needs to be easy to read at a single glance.


Too often, companies create wonderful artwork and beautiful logos that don’t function as effective t-shirt designs. They’re visually confusing, or they don’t work at the scale of t-shirts. Great fliers or brochure covers rarely make great t-shirts, no matter how artistic they are.

The first step of your graphic design should be to develop t-shirt designs that communicate your brand and information effectively. Here are some of the key principles to keep in mind.

Messages must be easy to spot.

When you design something on a computer, you’re looking at it from a couple of feet away, and it fills your entire vision. When it’s on a person, you don’t want design that can only be seen from a specific distance in particular lighting from a certain angle. Details can get lost. The design needs to catch the eye as well as convey the required information. You’ll entice the reader in a few seconds – or not at all.

Inside a crowded convention center or a busy event, your design may be competing with hundreds of others for attention. If you are using coordinated t-shirts as a way-finding tool for your potential customers to get to your booth instead of your competitor’s, your focus should be smart minimalism and branding.

Simple is key.

The golden rule for business t-shirt design is to keep it as simple as possible. Don’t include any more text than you actually need, especially if it’s small print that can’t be read at a distance or which requires the viewer to spend time on details. Don’t overload the eye with complex artwork or unnecessary visual decoration. Just stick to the essentials. This is all the reader wants or needs.

Sacrifice the fancy background for something plain.

One of the most common mistakes is for text and background images to clash or wash each other out. It’s essential that the key items stand out clearly from the background. Forgo the fancy background images for plain white or solid color backgrounds. If you do use a background image, ensure it does not draw the eye away from the important text, and make sure the text is in a strongly contrasting color and high impact font.

Think hard about drop shadows.

Drop shadows help text and other items stand out. While this technique is effective in some forms of design, it is not recommended for small text or lots of text. Drop shadows can end up looking muddy, so when visual clarity and readability are important, consider drop shadows very carefully.

Stick to familiar fonts.

A strong, clear font is essential for readability. Fancy fonts can look great on some items, but when you’re designing for high-speed reading, a familiar, simple font is almost always preferable.

If you have a specific font that is part of your company’s branding, consider making it plain by removing embellishments such as drop shadows or multiple colors.

Get advice from pros

Design advice is part of our bread and butter. It ensures you end up with an effective t-shirt product that represents you and your company well. Don’t hesitate to ask questions and schedule a consultation for your business and convention apparel.