How to design a t-shirt from scratch

How to design a t-shirt from scratch

When it comes to clothing items with universal appeal, it’s hard to go past the humble t-shirt. Younger or older, you’d be hard-pressed to find a person alive today who hasn’t slipped on a tee at one point or another. They’re a versatile, comfortable and casual staple in any wardrobe. So, if you’ve ever thought about designing your own clothing or branded merchandise, a custom t-shirt is the perfect place to start!

There’s endless different reasons you might choose to design your own t-shirt. It could be to sell in your eCommerce store, build morale in your corporate team, give as a gift or even just wear yourself. Branded t-shirts can also be a highly effective marketing strategy, with research from BrandSpeed showing that 57% of consumers looked more favorably on companies that gave them a free t-shirt.

Whatever your goal is, designing your own t-shirt from scratch doesn't have to be an expensive, stressful difficult process. By following these steps, you can make your first DIY t-shirt project a success.

Define your purpose

To maximize the impact or profitability of your custom t-shirt, it’s important to think about why you’re creating it. For example, It might be to raise awareness of a certain cause, brand or event. In this case, you, your team or your brand ambassadors will likely be wearing them out and about. So, you’ll want them to be as  eye-catching as possible, to pique curiosity and encourage people to ask you about them.

Generating attention doesn’t always mean your t-shirt has to be bright and bold. Sometimes, a clean and minimalistic design, accompanied by a punchy slogan, cute iconography and easy-to-remember hashtag can be all you need to start a conversation. You can see this in action in the example below.

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Via Bonfire

You might also be creating shirts to sell on your website, eCommerce store or even in a brick-and-mortar store. There are a couple of key considerations to keep in mind here.

Firstly, if you already have an established brand, you’ll want to make sure your t-shirts align with your existing aesthetic, values and personality. This t-shirt from TedX’s RasElBar conference is a perfect example. The black, red and white colour combination and large ‘X’ icon are instantly identifiable as belonging to the forward-thinking brand.

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Via Behance

You’ll also want to keep your target audience at the front of your mind when designing your custom tees. Not only should they represent your brand, they should be something they’d actually be proud to wear in public! You may want to consider running surveys or market research to determine what styles, looks and fabrics they prefer before you start designing. Doing this from the get-go can help save you time and money down the track!

This simple, minimalistic and stylish t-shirt is the perfect walking billboard for a modern fitness studio. You can make it your own in Canva with the Bold Boxing Lifestyle and Hobbies T-Shirt template.

Pick your colors

To some extent, your existing brand colors (if you have them) and your audience will guide the color scheme for your t-shirts. However, there are a couple of other considerations to keep in mind when choosing colors.

Firstly, you don’t always have to use your entire brand color palette in your merchandise—and in many cases, you shouldn’t!

While experimenting with an array of colors might work well in your social media channels or even brand packaging, that doesn’t always translate well to clothing. Many people prefer to avoid ‘loud’ clothing in favor of more simple pieces, and the goal here is to make it as wearable as possible. So, if, for example, your brand palette consists of silver, blue, purple, teal and black, you may choose to pare it back to just two to three shades when designing your t-shirts.

With three main colors, this cute design is a great example of color done well. It’s vibrant and complementary without feeling overwhelming. You can customize it with your own brand colors in Canva with the Pink Illustrated Owl T-shirt template.

It’s also important to note that there are two sets of color you’re working with when creating t-shirts. The first is the color of your fabric, and the second is the colors in your graphic, logo or imagery. To ensure your t-shirt design is visually harmonious, you’ll want to make sure these two complement each other. You can see this in action in the below example for Overcomer, an at-home healing program for men with chronic pelvic pain. The light blue with darker blue detailing stands out against the plain, black background and instantly catches the viewer’s eye.

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Via 99Designs

To ensure your fabric and design colors are complementary, use your fabric color as the base when you start creating your shirt. You’ll also want to keep in mind that colored canvases can affect what the ink looks like, so be sure to ask for samples from your printer if you plan to use anything other than plain white.

Choose your fonts

As with any design project, your typography is a crucial piece of the puzzle. Using the right font can be the difference between making your shirt look like amateur hour or a polished and wearable garment. Readability is the top priority here—you don’t want people to have to stare at your chest to decipher what your shirt says! While cursive fonts can look feminine and elegant in other branding, these can be difficult to read on t-shirts. The good news is, there are many serif and san-serif typefaces for you to choose from.

For example, Graduate is a popular font option in t-shirts. It’s versatile, modern and very easy to read—especially when capitalized. You can see how this gives a t-shirt a clean and professional aesthetic in the example below from Bonfire.

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Via Bonfire

Canva’s template library for t-shirts is a great place to start when it comes to picking readable fonts, as these have been hand-picked by professional designers who know what works.

Of course, you need to go beyond just readability when selecting the perfect font for your t-shirt. Brand personality is paramount too, and different typefaces can evoke very different feels.  For example, Monserrat is a geometric font that is perfect for bold and modern brands, while a brush-script font can invoke a more earthy and organic feel.

Want to give your t-shirts a natural vibe with a brush script font? Canva’s Yellow Soup Kitchen template is the perfect place to start.

Pick your graphics

If you plan to let your typography do the talking with a slogan t-shirt, you can skip this step! However, you may choose to incorporate graphics into your t-shirt, as they’re an excellent way to make your design stand out in a crowd. There are a couple of different routes you can go down here. Firstly, you might choose to keep it simple and print your own logo across your t-shirt. This can give your merchandise an air of understated cool as if the brand speaks for itself, as we often see with companies like Nike or Calvin Klein.

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Via Dribble

If you already have an existing logo for your brands, you will need to import the version that is in PNG and CMYK color format into your design tool. Otherwise, you create your own logo from scratch in Canva.

You might also choose to experiment with illustrations or other visual graphics. This is a great way to give your t-shirts a more fun and playful feel, as you can see in the below example for Time for Tacos.

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Via Dribbble

According to research by 3M, visuals are processed 60,000 times faster than text. This means you can make a memorable impact much faster with t-shirts that feature visual icons. If you have the budget, you may opt to have your graphics created by a professional designer. Or, you can simply choose from Canva’s extensive library of free and affordable icons.

Canva’s Flower Shop Logo Template features a cute, illustrated graphic that could be used for a range of lifestyle, floristry or children’s brands.

Mock up your t-shirt

Now, it’s time to actually start designing your shirt! This is where you choose the actual layout of your design, and mock it up—meaning, you’ll preview what it’s actually going to look like on a t-shirt. At this stage, it’s important to find a plain, t-shirt mockup image to guide your design. This will ensure you’re working with the correct dimensions, spacing and scale. If you are working with a company that prints the t-shirts for you, they will often have their own tool to do this.

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Via Behance

Mocking up your t-shirt is usually the last stage in the design process before you get it printed. So, be sure to carefully consider how your overall composition works together. Have you given your text and graphics plenty of negative space to breathe? Is the spacing between all your design elements even? Does your layout look balanced and pleasing to the eye? Asking yourself these questions—or asking others for feedback—can make or break your final product.

Choose your material and quality

Think about the shirts you already have in your wardrobe. Chances are, they not only look different, but have various textures and feels. Not all t-shirt materials are created equal, so it’s crucial to make sure yours fit your needs and budget.

Firstly, consider what material you will have your t-shirt printed onto. Cotton is a very popular option, as it’s affordable, easy to print onto and easy to wash. Another common choice is 50% cotton and 50% polyester, as this tends to have a softer feel.

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Via 99Designs

Consider heading to your local store, to get a bit of a feel (literally!) for the different t-shirt fabrics on offer. At Canva, we print t-shirts onto 100% ComfortSoft fabric, a comfortable and slim fitting material.

Another decision you’ll need to make is what t-shirt cut you’ll go with. There are many different styles of t-shirts, from V-necks and raglan sleeves to crewnecks. Here, it’s important to consider the preferences, lifestyle and needs of potential wearers. Canva’s custom t-shirts feature a classic round neck, a versatile and popular choice for both men and women.

One of Canva’s tees in action.Check out Canva’s Pink Technology Lifestyle and Hobbies T-Shirt to get the look.

Finally, you’ll need to choose your printing style. Some printing companies offer multiple options, including screen printing, vinyl graphics, and direct-to-garment. These each have their own pros and cons. Screen printing is the most common choice, as it tends to be fast, reliable and great for larger bulk orders. However, the cost can quickly add up if you’re using lots of color. Vinyl is known as a great option for bright colored t-shirts, as it’s highly durable and vibrant. However, as each transfer is done individually for each garment, it’s not always the best choice for bigger orders. Direct to garment isn’t a printing method per se, but the ink is sprayed onto the fabric. It’s highly customizable and allows for endless color combinations, but works best for small orders. Be sure to familiarize yourself with each of the printing options before you dive in.

Get them printed

Here’s the exciting part, where you get to see your t-shirt design come to life! By this point, you might already have an idea of where you want to get your t-shirts printed—whether it’s on Canva’s print shop, a local supplier or at an off-shore manufacturer. To ensure the production process goes as smoothly as possible, it’s best to read all of their guidelines for supplying your final image for printing. Generally, they will need you to submit your t-shirt design in vector format, which will usually be an AI, PDF, or EPS file. The process for this depends on your design tool, but in Canva you do this by selecting ‘download, then ‘PDF print.’

Want a final as elegant and polished as this one? Check out the Simple Bakeshop Logo T-Shirt template in Canva.

Next, it’s time to think about how many t-shirts you will need printed. If you’re printing them for your team, company or volunteer organization, you will likely need less—in which case, you may want to go for a company that requires no minimum orders. It generally works out cheaper to print in larger quantities, which is good news for those printing to sell at a conference, event or at a brick-and-mortar store.

If you have an online store or aren’t sure how many t-shirts you’re going to need, dropshipping and print-on-demand services can be a good option. You only pay for the shirt production when someone actually orders them, and there’s no overhead. No matter which option you take, it’s best to order samples before you release them to the masses so you can road-test them first.

Whether you’re a budding fashion designer, marketing whiz, entrepreneur or corporate leader, these design tips will help you design eye-catching t-shirts from scratch. Before you know it, you’ll be wearing your new creation and everyone you meet will be asking you where you bought it!

Your secret weapon for stunning design