Lesson No. 1 on how to design T-shirts: Focus on the graphics.

Favorite T-shirts fit great and tend to be very comfortable. But even bagged-out tees with pizza stains are worn for years. It’s all about the graphics. People of all ages love personalized apparel that shares a message or interest.

It’s easy to understand the growing enthusiasm for designing T-shirts. A customized T-shirt is a canvas for personal expression. Creating something unique to wear is fun and empowering. And we’re here to help.

Our team of graphic designers and expert printers know all about this stuff. We’re going to explain every step of the T-shirt design process. Whether you DIY or need our help, we’ll make sure you have the answers.

How to design T-shirts | Getting started

Let’s dive into this.

Step 1: Why design your own T-shirts?

custom design preview on a promotional t-shirt

It’s important to consider why you want to design your own shirts. Your answers will help you decide many things including the types of T-shirts you need and the design that will leave people in awe.

So, start by asking yourself why you’re doing this. Are you championing a social cause, branding your business, rallying your team or just trying to be trendy? Maybe you’d like to sell T-shirt merch or are commemorating an event.

Now is also a good time to think about the age and gender of those who will wear your custom T-shirts. Then decide when and where the shirts are likely to be worn. Will they be shown off at work, when volunteering in the community or while sweating at the gym? All these things are good to know — and keep for reference — before you start.

This is also a good time to ask these questions:

  • What is the theme for my T-shirts?
  • Will my design be funny, serious, artsy or strictly an awareness message?
  • Who am I targeting? Customers, employees, students, potential clients, friends, new members?

Study your target audience and decide what type of design will resonate with everyone. Identifying your audience will also help when choosing among short-sleeve tees, long-sleeve T-shirts or other types of apparel.

Step 2: What are your goals?

woman wearing a light blue customizable t-shirt outside an office building

Knowing what you want to accomplish with your shirts is half the battle. It will make decisions a lot easier as you go through the T-shirt design process. You’ll know what to make a priority, such as shirt styles and colors.

Here are the most popular reasons for designing T-shirts:

Branding and marketing

Branding a business or event is the biggest reason why people customize T-shirts, polo shirts and other types of apparel. The idea is to expose your name, logo or event information to as many people as possible. It’s a very affordable way to achieve brand recognition.

You can accomplish your marketing goals with custom T-shirts in many ways. They can be distributed as gifts to people on your staff. T-shirts with your logo or event name can also be handed out at schools or community events that you participate in or sponsor.


Schools, charitable organizations and others often sell customized T-shirts to raise money for a cause. It’s an excellent idea since everyone loves wearing comfy shirts!

To reach your financial goals you’ll need to stay on budget. That involves finding cheap, bulk T-shirts and the most affordable ways to design and print them.

Merchandise to sell

T-shirts with designs are big sellers just about everywhere. Souvenir shops, gift stores, concerts, tourist spots and other high-traffic zones are prime locations for sales of custom tees.

Do your research before setting up shop or a vendor booth. Find out what styles are trending in that area among your target audience. Compare prices of others who are selling tees nearby and strive for competitive prices.

Don’t forget to include your brand logo along with the design on your customized shirts so it’s clear who made them.

Teams and groups

Creating designs everyone likes is the biggest obstacle when making team or club shirts. But it can be a very rewarding experience when you see the final product!

Choose team colors or the best hues to match or accent your group’s logo and personality. Giving your crew a uniform look is a great way to boost solidarity and teamwork. It can also be a fantastic way to keep track of your group on vacations or school trips.

Step. 3: Create a budget

pen and calculator

Many of the decisions you make when designing T-shirts will be based on your budget. Knowing how much money you have to spend will help you calculate the number of shirts to order, as well as the type of material, brand and printing process.

If funds are tight you might want to scale back a few things such as imprint colors. Typically, the more ink colors you use, the higher the cost.

You also might consider cutting back on the number of shirts you plan to design. However, take into consideration that buying in bulk quantities can also be a big savings.

Will you be designing the shirt yourself? If so, super! But if you have zero design experience you might want to hire a graphic designer to bring your artwork vision to life. That will be another expense, but it could be worth it in the long run to get the design you want.

If you are printing your own shirts, calculate the cost of ink. This will depend on the type of ink and printing method you choose such as screen printing or digital printing.

Step 4: Select a T-shirt type

wide range of customizable t-shirt styles

The style you choose for your tees needs to be appropriate for everyone who wears them. People come in all shapes and sizes! Will the style you like look good on everyone?

Also keep in mind where the shirts will be worn such as indoors, outdoors, during warm or cold seasons, at work or during special events.

Give yourself a little refresher on T-shirt terms before you start the design process. It helps to know the lingo before you start shopping.

Here are your basic options:

Short-sleeve T-shirts

Short-sleeve T-shirts are a good bargain and will work for most scenarios. They can be worn alone or beneath a jacket or sweatshirt in cooler temperatures. But you still have choices to make such as round or V-neck collars and types of materials.

Keep in mind that T-shirts with double needle stitching at the sleeves, bottom hem and collar are more durable. A popular choice is the Gildan® Heavy Cotton™ T-Shirt and the Gildan® Heavy Cotton™ Ladies’ T-Shirt.

Do your homework on the different fabrics for T-shirts. Cotton, polyester and blends all have pros and cons. All-cotton shirts such as the Gildan® Ultra Cotton® T-Shirt are known for their soft, silky feel.

Preshrunk fabrics are quite popular when ordering 100 percent cotton materials. Performance shirts also have great benefits for those who are fairly active.

Long-sleeve T-shirts

T-shirts with long sleeves are cozy additions to any wardrobe for winter weather, cool nights and early morning adventures.

Look for features such as taped necks and shoulders, which means a thin fabric has been used to cover the seams for a softer feel. Your group may also appreciate a more fitted look with rib-knit sleeve cuffs.

T-shirt alternatives

You’ll find plenty of apparel options to customize with your unique design. Some are more expensive than T-shirts but are great options for gifts. Here are the most popular:

Some of these apparel items are more difficult to print and require specific methods that can be more expensive.

Choose a perfect fit for your team

T-shirt manufacturers use different terms and standards for the styles they offer. Sizing and fit can be difficult to understand.

Here are the three most common T-shirt types to consider for your group:

different t-shirt fit styles graphic

Use a T-shirt order form to stay organized

Keeping track of who ordered what and in what sizes isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s best to use a T-shirt order form whether you’re gathering and logging the information by hand or online.

Use our free printable T-shirt order form to sail through this part of your project with ease.

Step 5: Create your design

woman working designing custom t-shirts for a customer

This might be the easiest part if you are creative and have good graphic design skills. If not, there are lots of software programs out there to help you create something fantastic! If that thought scares you, don’t be afraid to tap a design expert for help.

Browse for ideas on how to design your T-shirts

Even if you have a fairly good idea of the design you want for your T-shirts, it doesn’t hurt to look around.

Scan the Internet; see what’s trending. You can find a wide range of design ideas on Pinterest, Behance, Dribble and Instagram. Use search bars to find artwork that relates to your theme or topic.

Visit art displays and cruise through street art. Check out graphic design magazines and websites. See what your local library has on hand. Scroll through your favorite photography websites.

Talk to people who’ve already created designs for T-shirts or other apparel. Find out how they decided on a design. They might even give you valuable tips for the whole process!

Make a rough sketch

In today’s world of high tech this might sound crazy but draw your initial design idea on a piece of paper. Look at it closely. Ask for opinions.

It’s likely you’ll need/want to make changes. That’s normal. This design will be worn by others and you want it to be perfect. Don’t be afraid to trash the entire thing and start over.

Decide: DIY or pro?

This is a crossroads of sorts for you. It’s time to create your design concept in a software program that will work for printing. If you feel comfortable with that, go for it!

But if terms like Pantone and Adobe Illustrator send you into a panic, it might be best to contact a professional designer. This could cramp your budget a bit, but it might be worth it in the long run. A pro will likely produce better results and get the job finished quicker.

Be sure the professional you hire understands exactly what you’re trying to accomplish. It’s important they know your vision, who will be wearing the shirts and the message you want to relay.

What are the best free programs to design T-shirts?

You’ll find quite a few free programs for creating your T-shirt design. Some are easier to use than others.

Here are a few of the most popular software programs for designing T-shirts:

  • Adobe Express
  • Canva
  • Printful
  • Inkscape

Most of these have the same services available such as design templates to customize.

Talk to others who have used these or similar software programs and get their opinions. Visit a few websites, check out their templates and read customer reviews. Make sure the one you choose is free and there aren’t any hidden costs.

Step 6: Use colors with visual appeal

color choices for t-shirts

Colors are a big factor when designing T-shirts. They spark emotion and can help carry your theme.

You’ll need to decide the color of your bulk T-shirts and the color(s) you want for your “imprint,” which is industry jargon for design or text.

A few color choice tips:

  • Stick with the brand colors found in your logo or the theme of your company or organization. That’s what gives you brand recognition and builds trust. If you plan to print your business name and logo on the shirts, select a contrasting color for the shirts to promote cohesion.
  • It’s difficult to see pastel-colored imprints on lighter-colored tees. That’s also true for dark designs on dark-colored tees. Your T-shirt color and imprint need to complement each other.
  • The most popular T-shirt colors at Totally Promotional are black, sport gray/ash, dark heather and navy.
  • If possible, select colors that work for everyone in your group or target audience.

Before we get to the printing processes, you might want to learn about CMYK and PMS color options. This can help you decide how to choose specific colors to match your brand and budget.

It can be more expensive to use Pantone Matching System color values or specific blends of CMYK inks. But they can produce exact colors. On the other hand, choosing approximate colors is cheaper but they may look a tad different when printed on your T-shirts.

Step 7: Selecting a font

different font style elements

The list of fonts available today just keeps growing and can be overwhelming. If you already have a logo or an established design in a specific font, stick with it. That’s how people recognize you.

Although there are four basic types of fonts — serif, sans serif, script and display — there are literally thousands of styles out there. Each expresses a meaning. Some give off a fun or playful vibe. Others produce a more contemporary, somber or business-like tone.

Bold and simple fonts are often best for clarity when designing custom T-shirts. But in the end, you must decide which font suits you, your business, and/or your purpose for designing tees.

Keep typography in mind. If your font isn’t easy to read, what’s the point? Those who see it, won’t get your message. They may even disregard your efforts and view your design in a negative way.

Need some help? Learn how to choose a font that best suits you and your audience. You can find free fonts at many online sites including Dafont, Font Space and Google Fonts.

Step 8: Review your design

review your design and choose the best option

You’ve looked at your design over and over from different angles and are pleased. That’s great! But it’s best to get other opinions from outside sources who will give honest feedback. Send your design via social channels or shareable links to multiple people for input.

A design might look great in a software program but can take on an entirely different look when printed. If possible, have your design printed on a shirt or a similar fabric to get a better feel for the end result.

What makes a good design?

Ask yourself a few important questions at this stage:

  • Does this design achieve my goals?
  • Will it relay the message I’m trying to create?
  • Will others enjoy wearing a T-shirt with this design?
  • Is it boring? Could it use extra graphics or text?
  • Is the design at least 220 PPI? If not, details might not have clarity.
  • Are the colors and details of the artwork balanced?
  • Will this design look good in the location I want it printed?

Be sure to follow copyright laws if using quotes or inspirational sayings on your shirts. Also ensure that everyone who wears the tees will be comfortable with the design or message.

Step 9: Design size and placement

graphic for imprint areas and sizes for custom t-shirts

The five most popular locations to print on a T-shirt are the full front, left chest, full back, left sleeve and right sleeve.

T-shirt imprint areas follow a standard height and width measurement to look proportional. This gives your logo or message the best exposure without appearing too large or too small for the shirt.

To help you decide, here are the standard design measurements and placements for custom T-shirts at Totally Promotional:

Full front/full back (centered) design size

  • Adult: 12″ x 12″
  • Youth: 9.5″ x 9.5″

Full front/full back (centered) design placement

  • Adult: 3-3.5″ down from the collar
  • Youth: 2-3″ down from the collar

Left chest/pocket design size

  • Adult: 3″ x 3″

Left chest/pocket design placement

  • 5.5-8″ down from the shoulder’s left seam
  • 4-6″ from the center

Left/right sleeve design size

  • Adult: 3.5″ x 3.5″

Left/right sleeve design placement

  • Adult: 1″ above the hem

Where does your design belong?

man wearing a yellow customizable t-shirt

You can place a design or text just about anywhere on a T-shirt. However, some designs such as corporate logos or fun sayings make a bigger impact when printed in specific locations.

Use this helpful guide to determine the best location to print your inspirational quote or other design on short-sleeve T-shirts:

Full front (centered)

  • Text such as quotes, sayings and phrases
  • Large art images
  • Large, detailed photos
  • Logos with large or busy artwork

How to center an imprint on a T-shirt: Fold your shirt in half lengthwise. Be sure to line up the shoulder seams and bottom hem. Fold the shirt down from the top so the crease aligns with the bottom of the arm pits. Press with an iron. When unfolded, the center of the T-shirt will appear as the intersection of the two crease lines.

Left chest or pocket

  • Logos
  • School mascots
  • Short phrases

Full back (centered)

  • Large art images
  • Long quotes or sayings
  • Large, detailed photos
  • Logos with large or busy artwork

Left/right sleeves

  • Simple logos with/without brief text in small font
  • Small artwork
  • Short phrases
  • Symbols or abbreviations

Step 10: Partner with your printer

women working in a production facility printing t-shirts

If you have your own printing equipment, you likely know the process well. But if you’re hiring a professional printer, here are a few tips:

  • Ask for samples of the printer’s work. Read customer reviews.
  • Does the printer provide free proofs to approve before starting your project?
  • Furnish the Pantone or CMYK color codes you want if your printer does custom color printing.
  • Make sure your design file formats match what the printer needs. This could be PDF, EPS, Adobe Illustrator, InDesign or others.
  • Will your printer convert RGB files to CMYK to enhance your colors or is that your responsibility?
  • Are there ink options to consider?
  • Does your printer give discounts for bulk printing? Doesn’t hurt to ask.
  • Get a full quote from your printer before proceeding with the project.
  • Is there a customer service department to field questions?

Print processes for T-shirt designs

Most T-shirts today are customized by using screen printing and digital printing methods.

Screen printing

The screen-printing process uses a customized screen or stencil to produce a design. The number of screens needed depends on the number of colors required for the design. A special ink is pushed through the screen and onto the surface of the T-shirt.

Pros: Works well on most fabrics with simple designs. It’s more economical when printing large quantities.

Cons: Can be more costly for smaller orders and isn’t the best for detailed designs.

Digital printing

Digital printing, often referred to as direct-to-garment printing, takes images directly from computer files. Digital printing machines use water-based inks that bond directly to the T-shirt and are sealed by heat.

Pros: You get a soft finish since the ink is embedded into the fabric. It creates high-quality images and is best for designs with lots of detail.

Cons: It can be more costly for large quantities. Print limitations are notable on certain fabrics.

About our T-shirt design and printing services

collection of customizable t-shirts in different colors

Creating your own design, ordering T-shirts and printing them is an adventure! But not everyone is up to the task. It’s easy to get frustrated; time and unexpected costs can dampen the experience.

That’s why we’re here. Our team at Totally Promotional has been bulk printing items for more than 30 years. It’s our “thing” and we’re very good at it.

Start by selecting one of our high-quality, custom T-shirts. We have brand-names and others that are economically priced to fit every budget.

Wait until you see our color selection! Shop more than three dozen product and imprint colors to match your logo or event. Want a simple one-color design? How about an eye-catching full-color T-shirt design? We have that, too.

You’ll also find lots of material options such as DryBlend® and other moisture-wicking fabrics for active lifestyles.

Did I mention free delivery? Yep, we offer that on every order of custom T-shirts. Our prices are hard to beat.

Just a few clicks during the checkout process and your T-shirts will be on their way to you. No worries about what size your design needs to be for placement unless you tell us otherwise. We know how to give your artwork the best visibility.

Browse our logo T-shirts now and take advantage of our experience in the T-shirt printing business.

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Shelley Grieshop is a former newspaper journalist who earned more than a dozen Associated Press awards for her in-depth research and writing skills. In May 2016, she joined Totally Promotional as a creative writer. She currently writes company blogs about branding, marketing, logos, wedding planning and much more. One of her life goals is to teach people when to use hyphens and apostrophes.

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