In the fiercely competitive t-shirt industry, your online t-shirt store is up against everyone from small-town boutiques with their own Shopify stores to brick-and-mortar megastores with armies of web designers and ecommerce strategists.
Entering this challenging market can be daunting, but when it comes down to it, a well-crafted custom t-shirt design is still the difference between a customer clicking “Add to Cart” or scrolling to the next t-shirt. Maximizing the impact of your designs will help you capture your share of this $4.3 billion market, with return sales from satisfied customers keeping your digital doors open long after your competitors have disconnected.
Your t-shirt designs can make or break your online business. The best designs cater to a specific target audience and draw inspiration from a variety of sources like pop culture, fashion trends, or current events.
Once you’ve created your design, it’s important to test it out. Reach out to your friends and family and ask for their feedback.
With your perfected design in hand, look for high-quality t-shirts. Consider small-but-crucial details like fabric, t-shirt base color, cut, and weight and choose the best products for your audience.
As always, there’s no “one size fits all” approach to creating amazing t-shirt designs, but these steps can help you create custom t-shirt designs and graphic tees that stand out.
A few hours of brainstorming and market research will pay dividends for your online t-shirt store. Whether you’re new to the industry (you can do this!) or you’ve already set up your online custom t-shirt business and storefront (nicely done!), pinpointing potential customers is an essential part of the design process.
Start by listing your interests and passions. Then, work backward: who might want to buy t-shirt designs featuring those topics? Identify your ideal market’s demographics (age, gender, marital status, education level, employment, income, and more) to zero in on design choices that align with your chosen subgroup's specific interests and styles.
The most successful t-shirt designers create a well-defined niche within their target market. Doing so lends authenticity to your brand’s voice and makes it easy to formulate a unique selling proposition for your custom t-shirt designs.
After identifying demographics, refine your niche with competitive research. Your competitors’ storefronts, Etsy pages, and social media will tell you what conclusions they’re drawing from their market research and help you find market gaps to exploit.
Pay attention to customer reviews. What are people saying about their t-shirt designs? Who’s engaging with their brand, and how?
T-shirt ideas are intangible flashes of creativity that serve as a design's starting point. They’re often abstract concepts inspired by things you’ve seen recently.
You probably came up with a few t-shirt design ideas during your competitive research. If so, great; if not, don’t worry. Great idea inspirations can come from many places, often when you least expect them:
Trending social media topics
Books, movies, and TV or streaming shows
Pop culture references and memes
Articles in magazines
Being aware of the world around you can offer consistent design inspiration. A helpful tip for t-shirt designers is to keep a small notepad (or your phone's note-taking app) handy to capture ideas whenever inspiration strikes. What colors, fonts, styles, graphics, and other elements catch your eye?
If you have a nature path nearby, even better! A refreshing stroll through the woods or meadow can clear your mind. As you walk, pay attention to nature’s colors and shapes. How can you incorporate them into your design templates in unexpected ways?
A finalized custom t-shirt design conveys a message or evokes a feeling in the viewer through your creative decisions - like a color scheme.
As usual, it’s best to start with your target audience. What kind of mood or message are they likely to respond to? How can you use t-shirt colors to highlight that message - or to undercut their expectations?
It’s okay to incorporate multiple colors into your scheme, but try to focus on one primary color with a few accents that complement each other. This will ensure your t-shirt colors complement each other without clashing or overwhelming viewers.
With your printing colors in mind, it’s time to move on to graphic design.
If designing a t-shirt makes you feel nervous, consider contracting an experienced t-shirt designer. Letting someone with proven design skills take your concepts from ideas to final designs can help you craft t-shirts that stand out. Finding the right designer is a worthwhile investment in your business that can often pay for itself.
Whether you’ve already got design skills or want to try designing t-shirts on your own before hiring someone, start drawing out your t-shirt ideas on paper (or a tablet or a napkin). Your graphics might be illustrations, abstract visuals, or a fresh take on a classic logo - let your inspiration drive you to find the right vibe for your creation.
Leaping from paper to pixels requires specialized design software, so if you don’t have access to tools like Adobe Photoshop or Adobe Illustrator, it’s an excellent time to consider looking into those. Canva is another great option that helps make it easy to design t-shirts.
You can also use Gelato+, which offers access to millions of stock images, graphics, and fonts.
Use as few fonts as possible if your shirt design requires text. Multiple fonts on your t-shirt design can make it difficult for the viewer to focus and absorb your message, so stick with simple font choices for now.
You can use Gelato+ to experiment with different fonts, placements, and text sizes. Above all, the fonts you choose should prioritize readability until you’re experienced enough with the rules of good t-shirt design to know when to break them.
Once you’re feeling confident about your design, it’s time to get some feedback. Getting honest feedback from friends, family, and colleagues is often as easy as a quick text.
Leveraging your social media channels is another priority. Engaging directly with your audience can help you collect valuable feedback on the designs your followers like to wear, so post a survey link or a poll on your pages, or put together a series of posts showcasing your designs and asking for comments.
An important note when sharing on social media (or anywhere online, for that matter): watermark your images so that your t-shirt designs are copyright-protected.
Now it’s time to think about how to get your graphic design onto your t-shirts. Choosing the appropriate printing process for your t-shirts is essential, so we’ve gathered the most common printing options for t-shirts and analyzed their strengths and shortcomings.
Screen printing presses ink through a mesh t-shirt design stencil onto fabric. It offers vivid colors but works best for simple with limited colors, as intricate designs will require multiple set-ups and screens that increase your print cost. Designers must offset the high set-up costs of screen printing through bulk orders.
Dye sublimation uses heat to transfer dye onto a t-shirt’s fabric, creating durable designs embedded in the t-shirt’s fibers. Dye sublimation offers a vibrant print but requires a 100% polyester fabric base for the best results, which can increase your overhead costs.
This printing method is a digital process that applies specialized ink directly onto the fabric. It’s ideal for creating high-quality, detailed designs - and best of all, it has no color limitations. T-shirts created with direct-to-garment printing offer a soft fabric finish, as the process is compatible with cotton t-shirts. Print designs are also more durable with this method, as the ink penetrates the t-shirt’s fibers. This method is ideal for small runs and on-demand printing.
By working with Gelato to print your shirts, you’ll have a trusted, reputable, direct to garment print on demand service on your side.
Your t-shirt itself is as much a part of the design as any of your graphic elements. Here are five key things to think about as we near the finish line.
Most t-shirt sellers select cotton, polyester, or a blend of both for their material base. Remember: your chosen print process may limit your options here. For example, avoid using dye sublimation with cotton t-shirts or dark-colored shirts.
Cotton is soft, comfortable, and durable but prone to shrinkage and fading with repeated washings. If your niche involves eco-conscious customers, partnering with Gelato allows you to offer t-shirts made with 100% certified organic ring-spun cotton. This unique fabric is grown naturally without chemical pesticides, fertilizers, or genetic modification.
Polyester is better at retaining its size and color over time but tends to pill and hold odors. Because it’s not as breathable as natural fabrics, it can make wearers uncomfortable in hot weather.
Blended fabrics combine the benefits of both materials but are often more expensive to source. They can also present a quality control challenge and require special care to keep them in good shape.
The fashion industry groups t-shirts into weights based on the thickness of the t-shirt’s fabric. Lightweight t-shirts are soft, breathable, and comfortable. They’re ideal for outdoor activities, workouts, or layering with other garments, but the lightness of the fabric can cause designs to wear out more quickly. Midweight t-shirts offer a good balance of durability and comfort and are less susceptible to shrinking and wrinkling than lightweight shirts. Heavyweight t-shirts provide maximum durability but are best suited for workwear and cooler weather.
Slim-fit t-shirts are generally snug and tend to be popular with younger buyers. Regular-fit t-shirts have a classic feel that’s suitable for a variety of body types. Relaxed-fit t-shirts offer more room in the chest and waist area and are preferred by older buyers primarily concerned with comfort.
Gelato offers three kinds of t-shirt cuts:
Crewneck t-shirts are a classic cut with a round neckline that sits close to the base of the neck. These t-shirts are versatile and can accommodate a wide variety of designs.
V-neck t-shirts have a neckline forming a “V” shape, with its point sitting lower than a crewneck. It’s a stylish choice but may not work well with all designs.
Ringer t-shirts are similar to crewnecks but feature contrasting colors on the collar and sleeve cuts, which can lend a retro appearance. This can be a good choice if you want to experiment with multiple dimensions of color.
Your t-shirt’s fabric color is also important, as your printing colors will look substantially different against various backgrounds. You likely already factored this into your design, but Gelato+ makes it easy to explore other shirt colors and see how they affect your design.
Consider whether a darker shade might make your ink colors pop or if there’s a fabric color that might complement - or clash - with your design’s colors for an exciting effect.
When your t-shirt design ideas are ready, use Gelato+ to see your final design on hundreds of digital mock-ups and see how the appearance might change with different placements. Proper design placement is essential, and the right choice varies depending on the goal of your shirt. For example, sleeves are an excellent spot for long and narrow designs, whereas front and back placements may better suit circular, rectangular, and square graphic elements.
Gelato+ also makes it easy to see how your design looks on models with various body types. Altering your design and logo placement to accommodate a wide range of sizes and fits will increase the size of your addressable market.
Once your mockups look good, order samples from your chosen print on demand supplier. This is your chance to make sure you’re pleased with all the design elements of your shirt and how they look in the real world.
If you’re satisfied, use your samples to take photos for your store. Pictures are one of the most significant factors in whether people buy your t-shirts, so hire a professional if you need to. Your bottom line will thank you.
Even in the crowded t-shirt industry, filling your online store with high-quality, well-executed t-shirt designs is your best bet to stand out from the competition and build loyal customers who shop your t-shirt store repeatedly.
Start designing your t-shirts with Gelato’s direct-to-garment, print on demand services today. You’ll get all the benefits of Gelato+, the ability to offer organic cotton, and various cuts to keep your designs varied.