So, what makes a great T-shirt design? How do we design apparel that really resonates with the wearer? Is it about a quirky message? Is it about a trendy aesthetic? In this article, we'll explore these concepts—what makes great apparel design and what makes the medium special. Let's try deconstructing some awesome T-shirt designs and thinking about what makes them tick.
Before we dig in, if you're looking for a user-friendly mockup tool that's perfect for testing out your T-shirt designs, consider checking out Placeit! It's a super-easy-to-use design tool with all kinds of mockups, right at your fingertips. Got a design idea? Mock it up on Placeit.
So What Makes a Great Shirt?
I think we've all experienced this before, at least once: we see a T-shirt with a message, a character, or a reference on it that really resonates with us, and we just have to pick it up. I'll be honest, I have more than one Pokemon T-shirt in my closet.
I would argue that apparel design is special and, in some ways, quite personal. These are works that literally go on the consumer's body. Most people are going to want to wear things that resonate with them.
For me, personally, this feels a little different from art I might hang on my wall. This is something I'm wearing, this is a part of how I present and express myself. What I wear is a part of my daily life.
This makes for a big design challenge: how do we design apparel that resonates with our audience? How do we approach T-shirt design as a medium to push, experiment with, and utilize to create wonderful, artful things?
Think About the Medium
It's a varied world we live in, with audiences and identities of all sorts. However, I'd argue that strong design—apparel or otherwise—considers and works with the medium, rather than against it.
For example, an awesome illustration doesn't necessarily mean it's going to make for an awesome T-shirt design. We need to think about the garment in terms of 3D space—is the image going to read well in this space?
What's the Purpose?
In addition, a design tends to resonate when it has purpose and direction. This could be commercial—for example, the goal could be to design and sell T-shirts. Or it could be more "art for art's sake"—something artful or even one of a kind.
We might be looking at a marriage of the two—or a completely different intent, like expression or exploration.
Point being, purpose matters. As with most types of art and design, knowing your goal and your intention can really impact your outcome.
For example, if your goal is to design employee work shirts, you're going to want the design choices to reflect this. If your goal was to reach a specific audience, then you have to know how to visually communicate and engage with them.
Communication Is Key
As with all design, communication is often a key aspect of success.
This can apply on a simple or a complex level; all visual elements potentially communicate, at some degree. A silly shirt with a slogan that really resonates with you resonates for that reason—it is communicating with you in a way that keys into your associations in a meaningful way.
Looking at Ideas
So how do we come up with tee-shirt design ideas? I'd argue that we can take those three points above, and use them as our starting line. While there is no right or wrong answer here, these are some points you may want to consider, in your own brainstorming process:
- Think about what you'd like to say—what are you aiming to communicate? This doesn't necessarily mean a literal phrase (although it can!). For example, an abstract design could communicate beauty, visual interest, or an appreciation for geometry. Maybe you're keying into a specific aesthetic, theme, or niche.
- Who is this for? Is it for you? A specific audience? Think about the audience's preconceived ideas and preferences.
- How can you illustrate this concept, successfully, given the specifications of your medium? A T-shirt has dimensions and depth to think about—it's not the same as paper, for example.
Now, let's take a look at some inspiring designs, and consider what might make them "tick".
For example, let's take a look at Pandycanes' "Chest Cavities", above.
We wear a shirt on our torso—so there's a visual association there that most people are going to make very quickly. However, seeing the skeleton isn't necessarily "normal"; we have a duality here of something a little spooky mixed with something a little sweet.
Think about how this visually communicates. Perhaps "I'm sweet on the inside", with a little whimsy. It's cheeky, but it's also illustrated in vibrant, lively colors. What audience do you think this might appeal to?
Here's TechraNova's "Owlsome" T-shirt design. It plays into an 80s aesthetic, and the word "awesome", in a whimsical way.
The color choices and composition deliberately draw into preconceived ideas associated with this aesthetic, but then twist them in a way that makes this its own concept. When I first saw this one, I made immediate associations. To someone who isn't familiar with the 80s vibe this is inspired by, how do you think it might visually communicate?
Above, we have "A Tangled Mess" by Feonix, a handmade, one-of-a-kind work of art: each stitch, in each line, embroidered by hand. Really impressive work, right? Remember, T-shirt and apparel design aren't limited to one kind of printing, construction, or even objective.
The high contrast here really makes the design elements stand out against the black "background" of the repurposed jacket. These are song lyrics from Good Kid's "Noma"—I love the idea of visually depicting a beloved song on a jacket! The tangled "strings" visually associate with the words themselves.
That said, I had the pleasure of asking several artists for their thoughts on designing for T-shirts—why work with apparel design, how they approach this kind of design work, and other words of wisdom. Let's take a listen in!
I had the opportunity to speak with TechraNova (Sarah) and ask her about her work. She's got an impressive T-shirt design portfolio, and I was curious to hear her thoughts on the medium and her process.
Hello!! My name is Sarah! I tend to go by my artist name online - TechraNova. I'm an artist from Scotland who got really stuck into the wonderful world of shirt designs for the past few years. My other art passions include character design and other character based art too which also feature heavily in my shirt designs.
Working on shirt designs has been incredibly fun and interesting over the past few years. I've learned to work with less colours due to designing with screen printing in mind (a type of printing that lays down colours one by one on the print).
At first I viewed it as a limitation but now I realise that it's a strength! I know my colour/palette theory has improved because of limited ink colours.
I also feel like it's different than working on different media because you want to design something that someone would be happy or proud to wear outside in public! Although I definitely draw some niche and unusual art, I try to make it seem cool and unique - and especially adorable!
I definitely struggled at the start before I found my workflow. Follow lots of fellow amazing shirt artists, be inspired but don't copy - Work hard on shirt collections, themes - lots of artwork that would look lovely together. It helps cross-promote your other work and makes your style more recognizable to others over time. Find your niche that you love designing for and keep on improving upon it!
You can check out more of Sarah's work at:
There is something really beautiful and captivating about handmade work; I had the opportunity to speak with Feonix, a very talented artisan who hand-embroiders apparel. Their elaborate designs are wonderfully artful and inspiring.
I’m Feonix! I’m a self taught non-binary Canadian embroiderer. I specialize in apparel, my favorite canvas being jackets I’ve thrifted.
I take a forward-thinking and modern approach to using embroidery. I’m very inspired by bright, loud colours, and geometric or abstract designs. In the end I’m just trying to express myself to strangers passing on the street through my art.
Designing for apparel definitely has its quirks. In the end you have to think about functionality and longevity. It’s going to take a beating. It needs to be able to hold up to getting worn every day, wherever the world may take it, and get washed. You have to think about how it’s going to fit on the body and move with it - that’s something that took me a very long time to get the hang of.
Placement can really make or break you, if it’s off by the slightest margin, you really notice. It just doesn’t look right. You can’t just peel it off and shift it a few centimeters which way, either. You have to get it right from the planning stage.
For a design to work well it has to catch someone’s eye and be comprehensible at a glance. The key is nailing the balance between detailed and not confusing to the eye. Growing up in Toronto, people are a bit notorious for having some kind of tunnel vision - you completely mentally block strangers out as if they’re not there at all. If I can make people snap out of that and think about my work when they see it pass by, I know I’ve done a good job.
My advice is if you’re thinking of doing it, just start. It’s probably not gonna be pretty right off the bat, just learn from your mistakes. Do something a little more ambitious with each project and work outside your comfort zone. Don’t expect things to come out perfectly the way it was in your head. For almost every cool thing I’ve done, there’s another instance of me trying the same concept, but flubbed it.
Check out more of Feonix's work here:
Pandycanes (Kate) is a working artist, focusing full time on apparel (I'm talking really cute T-shirt designs here!). I had the opportunity to ask her some questions about what she does and what words of wisdom she'd share with others looking to design and create work of their own.
My name is Kate Delossantos, but online I usually go by "Pandy" or "pandycanes". I started designing clothes in my sophomore year of college in 2015. I started off making things for my own personal use, and after receiving positive feedback from friends, I decided to start designing things to sell to other people. My first designs were socks that I funded through Kickstarter. From there I moved on to t-shirts, and now I make a living selling everything from hats to jackets at anime conventions.
My work is mainly inspired by video games, anime, and pop culture. I try to make my designs either uniquely colorful and bright with imagery that people can feel a connection to, or I focus on certain themes and references and try to incorporate them into something fashionable and subtle that people can feel comfortable wearing in their daily lives.
I think one of the biggest things to keep in mind in apparel design is that the whole piece of clothing is your art and final product, not just the drawings that get printed on it.
You have to think about where your 2D artwork is going to be in 3D space on a person's body. I do a lot of work with all-over-print designs, but even simple graphics tees require consideration of shirt color, material, size, and placement of the design. I think really strong apparel design considers all these factors and thinks of the person wearing the clothing first and foremost.
Another thing that really helps the design process is asking yourself some questions about what you're trying to achieve with your design. Do you want a piece of clothing that someone would feel comfortable wearing on a daily basis in public? Or are you trying to make something really flashy that they might only wear for special occasions? Questions like that can really change the direction you head in and helps you narrow down how you approach a design.
My personal process involves a lot of brainstorming and sketches. Don't be afraid to show your WIPs and ideas to other people! Sometimes I post pages of sketches on my social media to see what concepts my audience responds to.
Most of my work goes through a lot of changes as I draw and design, and bouncing my ideas off of other people is incredibly helpful.
When you start to slow down or feel unsure about aspects of your work, getting input from other people helps you overcome design roadblocks and make your design more accessible and appealing to a wider audience. 2 (or 10) brains are better than one! Also, DEFINITELY try to make a mock-up image of your design actually being worn on a human body. It doesn't matter if you just make a drawing, or if you edit a photo, but seeing clothing on a body is the best way for you to see if the design is working or not.
Check out more of Pandy's wonderful work here:
As we discussed earlier, design is not always about the same purpose. Enter Emma, an artist with a unique and inspiring focus—taking her experiences with personal art therapy and channeling that into her design work. I asked her for her thoughts on experimenting with this concept and working with apparel.
My name is Emma and I’m working on turning my therapy art project into my business! I started doing artwork of four pigeon characters (Sugar, Spice, Salty and Sweet) exploring my moods, emotions and symptoms early in 2018 and in October of that year, began working on an art collection of self care mantras and wisdoms that personally resonated with me for CBT [cognitive behavioral therapy].
People wear apparel for all sorts of reasons. Maybe it’s to make a statement, maybe it sums up their mood that day, maybe they just really like the character or pattern on it, and so on.
A lot of my [work] expresses statements or a piece of self care advice. Seeing that particular image on the fridge, or under my coffee mug, or even on the shirt I’m wearing would help me remember it.
"Progress, Not Perfection". It’s [something] that I mutter to myself a lot so I can give myself a break and not force art to happen if it just ain’t gonna happen. It's a design and a concept I want to see and live (or wear).
One of the appealing things about apparel design is that it can mean more eyes on your work, on your ideas, than something stationary, like a print.
Check out more of Emma's inspiring work here:
- Crumb's Diary, Emma's artistic journey, work, and exploration
- Twitter | @Moodypidge
- Instagram | @Moodypidge
- Redbubble | @Moodypidge
A big thank you to all of the artists for sharing their thoughts and their work—you are inspiring and wonderful! Thank you for sharing with us. I hope you found their work as inspiring as I did, as T-shirt design inspiration, apparel design inspiration, and as designers, in general!
That said, good luck with your own apparel designs!
Looking to dig right in and experiment with some T-shirt design ideas, right now? Consider checking out Placeit—a super user-friendly tool for creating design mockups!
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