How to design a gorgeous shirt

Attractive shirts sell better, pure and simple. That’s why it always makes sense to invest time and effort into your design. Remember – you’re trying to convince your supporters to purchase a garment that they might wear for years to come. A prettier shirt makes that ask far more compelling.

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A great shirt should do more than just cover a torso. It should speak to someone’s identity within a greater community. Whether the design is humorous, solemn, trendy or quirky, it should reflect the wearer’s self-image and worldview.

Think about your favorite T-shirt in your dresser. What makes that one so special? It might have a cool, eye-catching graphic or a message that fits with your personality or values. Perhaps someone special gave it to you or maybe you got it at a memorable event. Wouldn’t it be neat if you created something that became someone else’s new favorite shirt?

To help you achieve this goal, here are a few tips to design that extra-special T-shirt:

Brainstorm design ideas

Your design concept is the seed from which your whole T-shirt fundraising campaign will grow. So instead of simply going with the first thing that pops into your head, sit down with your most creative friends or colleagues and start throwing out ideas.

Write down words or phrases associated with your community. What are the common threads that brings them all together? Sketch out some images on paper and think up some colors that support your theme.

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Use symbolism

Less is almost always more. The best shirts appeal to wide audiences by communicating one single idea very effectively. Using just a powerful image and/or a few carefully chosen words, you can capture someone’s attention and deliver a memorable, succinct message.

Here are a few shirts that use symbolic images to say more to their communities than a 1000-word essay.

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Adhere to conventional layouts

A T-shirt is a blank canvas with an infinite number of design possibilities. However, the number of places that you can actually place the graphics turns out to be extremely limited. Some layouts look great while others appear unnatural. Here are the tried and true places to put your images or text:

Front of shirt placements

Large and centered - This is the most popular printing location, and for good reason. Your beautifully designed graphic is displayed proud for all to see, centered just over the sternum. Round graphics work wonderfully in this location.

Frocket - Got a logo? Slap it right here! The frocket (short for “front pocket”) gives your shirt an official and grownup look. When paired with the full back print, you’ve got the mullet of the T-shirt design world (Business in the front, party in the back).

Across the chest - Thin, horizontal graphics and lines of text look their absolute best if they are perfectly placed at the chest’s widest part, centered about three inches below the collar.

Back of shirt placements

Full back - A large graphic on the back looks best when its center is high up, covering the shoulder blades. This pairs best with a frocket print.

Yoke - A yoke was the wooden thing that old timey farmers used to harness their oxen. Now it refers to the upper back part of a shirt! It’s a great place for a small logo or graphic, placed very high up, right between the tops of the shoulder blades. The yoke print pairs well with the large and centered graphic on the front.

Across the back - The cousin of the across the chest, this print places a thin graphic or line of text high up on the back, centered on the shoulder blades.

Coordinate your colors

Choosing the right colors will supercharge your shirt design, multiply your message and make your graphic really “pop.”

The number of possible color schemes on Bonfire is huge. Assuming you use three colors (Two ink colors + the shirt color), you’re looking at 87,000 potential combinations – a daunting number.

Here are some shirts that use vastly different color schemes to great effect:

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There’s no straightforward way to identify the best one. (You might say that it’s an art, not a science!) Some recommend playing around with a color wheel, trying to identify various types of color schemes. However, unless you’re an art student, learning color theory is probably overkill.

Instead, check out these example color schemes, submitted and voted on by artsy folks. As you scroll through, you’ll start to see the infinite range of possibilities. (And who knows, maybe one will inspire your next T-shirt design!) You might also find color scheme generators like this one to be helpful.

Be trendy

Fashion trends change over time, and that definitely extends to T-shirt designs. A shirt sporting a chic design will be more appealing to all your potential supporters, especially the younger, hipper and more fashion-conscious ones. In short: being more fashionable makes your shirt more relevant.

There are countless trendy design styles out there. Distressed, vintage-looking graphics seem to be a particularly enduring style, while two-tone, stylized typography are really “in” (at the time this article was written, at least).

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For some inspiration, check out our “Design Perfect” board on Pinterest. We keep it in vogue with the trendiest shirt designs from around the web. (But remember - these are just examples, all protected by copyright!)

As you get your fashion juices flowing, keep in mind that there’s a big difference between “trend” and “fad.” Getting inspired by existing styles of artwork and building on them is a great way to stay current. However, repeating the same tired images and formulas is just the opposite. (“Keep Calm and Carry On,” for instance.)

Use free or cheap design tools

Design doesn’t need to be expensive or even cost anything. Just because you don’t have an expensive design program like Illustrator (not to mention the skills to use it), you can still create a snazzy T-shirt.

Bonfire’s in-browser T-shirt design wizard offers all the basics. You can peruse clipart, change colors and add text, all with basically zero technological knowhow. For a small step up from Bonfire’s integrated design tools, try using a web-based design platform like Canva, which offers free and paid versions.

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To get even more powerful, there are a number of free design apps out there, such as Inkscape. These certainly require a bit more skill and practice, but you can do a lot more.

If you’re willing to spend a few bucks on a one-off design, consider using a freelancer from a site like Fiverr. Design projects of limited scope (like creating a single T-shirt graphic) are perfect for freelancers – just be sure to communicate precisely what you’d like done, and read all the fine print.

And as always, don’t hesitate to reach out to us with any design-related questions. We’re happy to give advice and help in any way we can. Whether you’re concerned about how a file is uploading or you’re wondering which colors will look best on your shirt, our professional graphic designers are on standby to make sure your shirt prints exactly how you intended.

Ready to start? You can use our online t-shirt design tool to create your own custom design for free. Click here to get started.

Thanks for reading our tips and hints. If you have any questions about your artwork, don’t hesitate to reach out to us on our Contact Us page. We’re always happy to help in any way we can.