How To Design a Shirt: Guide to Materials, Printing, Colors

three white tshrits on a blue background

Since the first version of the plain white tee was brought to market by the P. Hanes Knitting Company as part of a two-piece underwear set in 1901, the t-shirt market has exploded. These days, it’s possible to design your own shirt from the comfort of your home.

Learn the tenets of shirt design, including how to craft a great t-shirt design for your audience, how to select the right material, and which printing methods offer the best mix of cost and quality.

How to design a shirt

Follow these steps to start making t-shirts.

  1. Identify your target market
  2. Research design trends
  3. Select the material
  4. Create your graphic design
  5. Get feedback
  6. Choose a printing option

1. Identify your target market

Finding a niche is key to launching a successful online t-shirt business and can help you stay focused as you expand your operation. Ask yourself, who is your target audience? Define your buyer personas based on factors like age range, profession, personal values, and income level. Consider your audience’s lifestyle as well. When and where might they wear this shirt? These aspects can help inform your design, cut, and selection of materials.

2. Research design trends

Incorporating current design trends into your shirts can help you differentiate your products from those of your competitors. Zazzle and SnorgTees are two online stores that offer insight into what t-shirt designs are popular. You can review their bestseller categories to see what people are buying. Take note of common themes like darker colors, bold graphics, small logos, and other small details to determine which trends you’d like to weave into your design.

3. Select the material

Consider some of the most common t-shirt materials:

  • 100% cotton. Cotton fabrics are soft, breathable, comfortable, and relatively inexpensive.
  • 100% polyester. A synthetic fabric, polyester is durable, resistant to wrinkles and shrinking, and relatively inexpensive, making it a popular choice for athletic wear.
  • Polyester and cotton blends. These blends offer the best of cotton and polyester fabrics, which is why they tend to be more expensive than 100% cotton or polyester fabrics.
  • Tri-blend. A blend of cotton, polyester, and rayon, tri-blends are soft and comfortable. Similar to other blends, tri-blend fabrics are more expensive than pure cotton or polyester.
  • Hemp. Made from the fibers of hemp plants, pure hemp fabric can be more eco-friendly and durable than other options, but also more expensive.
  • Bamboo. Similar to hemp fabric, pure bamboo fabric is an eco-friendly option that comes with a steeper price tag.

4. Create your graphic design

Decide whether you’d like to produce the design yourself or hire a designer. If you’re going the DIY route, you can make use of user-friendly, free design tools like Canva to design your shirt. More advanced tools, like Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, come with a price tag but provide more capabilities. Alternatively, you can find designers of varying skill sets, rates, and experience on Behance and Dribbble.

5. Get feedback

Before your design hits the printers, get feedback to gauge the potential response to your design and validate if it will connect with your target audience. Ask trusted friends, family, or peers to check your work for spelling errors, confusing design elements, or anything else that strikes them as off.

6. Choose a printing option

Each of these can produce a high-quality shirt, but they have different price points and have unique processes:

  • Screen printing. Also known as silk screen printing, this method involves pushing ink through a stencil, or screen, onto the fabric. This method is high-quality, popular, and relatively cost-effective compared to other techniques.
  • Plastisol transfers. Plastisol transfers use heat and pressure to transfer your design from a carrier sheet onto a t-shirt. You can use this method with a wide range of fabrics, and it makes for a durable shirt; however, it tends to be more expensive than screen printing.
  • Dye sublimation. Somewhat similar to plastisol transfers, dye sublimation involves using heat and pressure to transfer your design onto a shirt—only the ink is absorbed into the fabric instead of sitting on top. Dye sublimation is ideal for producing high-quality, full-color prints on polyester fabrics, but it tends to be more expensive than other options.
  • Direct to garment (DTG). DTG printing is a cutting-edge method that prints directly on textiles, making it the most expensive option. It works particularly well with lighter colors and intricate designs.
  • Print on demand. Print on demand is a fulfillment model that makes the manufacturing, printing, packaging, and shipping of t-shirts possible without having to hold your own inventory. Shopify’s print-on-demand services allow you to sell shirts without keeping, organizing, and monitoring an inventory or worrying about shipping. Create designs and an online store all in one place.

T-shirt design tips

Ultimately, your design is what will get people to buy your shirt. Consider these tips to guide your own t-shirt design process.

  • Keep it simple. Find a balance between creativity and simplicity to avoid cluttering your shirt with text and graphics.
  • Limit the number of colors you use. For ecommerce shirt businesses, color ink will dictate cost, and too many colors can obscure your design.
  • Employ color theory. Color theory, or color psychology, is the idea that certain colors can influence moods, and the same goes for t-shirt colors. Blue can inspire trust and security, for example, while red can connote a sense of urgency.
  • Use Pantone colors. Pantone colors are a standardized color-matching system used in printing and design. Printing colors may vary from printer to printer, so use Pantone colors in your final design to ensure that the colors you choose print accurately.
  • Focus on image quality. In most cases, images should be 200 dpi or higher at full size for custom t-shirt designs. Vector graphics scale to print without sacrificing quality and produce crisp images.
  • Consider contrast. Contrast is the visual difference between the dark and light parts of images. Choose high-contrasting colors—like black ink on a white shirt or light ink colors on a dark shirt—if you want a shirt that’s easy to read and aesthetically pleasing.

How to design a shirt FAQ

What materials are typically used to make a shirt, and how do I choose the right ones?

The most popular shirt materials are cotton, polyester, a polyester and cotton blend, and a tri-blend. There are also some more eco-friendly options like hemp. Choosing the right one comes down to cost, durability, your printing method, and how you want the shirt to feel.

How do I ensure that the logo or graphics I choose for my shirt are copyright-free?

To avoid copyright infringement, steer clear of cartoon, television, and movie characters and real people, and consider anything accompanied by the copyright symbol or a watermark to be off limits. You can refer to the US Copyright Act to confirm that your shirt designs are not in danger of infringement.

What should I look for in a manufacturer when producing my shirt design?

When choosing a manufacturer, look to see if they have quantity limits, if they offer the supplies you’ll need (like buttons), and if their customer service is well-regarded.

How do I market and price my shirt design effectively?

Social media is a great marketing tool; try organically building an audience, posting content, and investing in targeted ads. For pricing, calculate your costs and then research similar shirt brands and/or designs to find the average price. Many shirt designers aim for a 20% profit margin.