How To Design A T-Shirt That Flies Off The Shelves


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Whether you are building a t-shirt business or want to know how to design t-shirts that make sales, this article is for you. In the article, I go through all the fundamentals and details you need to know before creating a t-shirt design.

Key Takeaways

  • Define the target market and create multiple (even hundreds) designs and scale the ones that show traction and interest from the customers.
  • Create or buy professional designs and add your own unique twist to them.
  • Prepare the print file correctly for optimal results.
  • Choose a t-shirt business model that suits your needs, abilities, branding, and vision.

Understand T-Shirt Printing Basics

When it comes to creating and designing t-shirts, it’s worth understanding a few printing techniques and how they differ. This can affect the business model you choose for your t-shirt business.

Sublimation Printing

Sublimation printing uses heat to transfer dye onto the fabric, creating a vibrant and long-lasting print. The design is first printed onto special transfer paper, and then the transfer paper is heat-pressed onto the fabric. The heat activates the dye, causing it to bond with the fabric fibers.

The end result is a high-quality, durable print that won’t crack or fade over time. This printing method is ideal for printing on polyester or synthetic fabrics, and it’s often used for t-shirts.

DTG Printing

DTG stands for Direct-to-Garment printing, which involves printing the design directly onto the garment. This is done using special inkjet printers that apply the ink directly onto the fabric. The ink is absorbed by the fibers, creating a soft and breathable print.

DTG printing is a versatile method used to print many designs, including complex graphics, photographs, and more. It’s an efficient and cost-effective method that produces high-quality results and is widely used in print-on-demand business models.

White Underbase

White underbase is mainly used when printing designs on dark-colored garments.

Here’s how it works and why you need to understand it:

  • A layer of white ink is printed as a base layer on the garment.
  • The white underbase helps to brighten and enhance the vibrancy of the colors in the design, especially the lighter shades.
  • The white underbase also prevents the dark garment color from bleeding through and affecting the final print quality.
  • Once the white underbase has been printed and cured, additional layers of colored inks can be added on top to complete the design.
  • The white underbase acts as a canvas for the design, creating a clean and bright base for the final print.

Define Target Market

T-shirt design sketch to a finalized piece. Mockup example from Placeit.

Not every t-shirt is for everyone. Before you start your t-shirt designs, think about who would buy your designs and why. Do market analysis, competitive analysis, and market research, and analyze what type of designs tend to sell and gain clarity on why certain designs sell.

Does the design speak to a certain group of people (anime lovers, cat lovers, dog enthusiasts, heavy metal music fans, etc.), or is the design an answer to a certain event or holiday (Halloween, Christmas, valentine’s day, etc.)?

While you might have amazing design ideas that you think people would love to buy, do market research and see if that is true or not.

Understanding your target audience:

  • Who will be wearing the t-shirts you design?
  • What are their tastes, preferences, and needs?
  • Know your customers’ age, gender, and interests

Researching trends and competitors:

  • Look at what’s popular in the t-shirt business
  • Study your competitors’ designs and see what resonates with customers
  • Stay current with design trends and see what’s hot in the market and why

Create Or Buy Graphics And Fonts

You can easily buy great designs from various marketplaces like Envato Elements and Creative Market. However, know that there’s a reason why the designs are there and not on t-shirts.

If you buy designs from marketplaces, try to alter them uniquely and create something new. If you create designs, piggyback the designs already selling well on marketplaces.

When you create your designs, it’s worth checking what sells well on Amazon and creating designs close to the ones you see already selling. Adding fonts, funny quotes, or creating cute characters are some ways to make unique designs.

T-shirt design from concept sketch to a finished piece. Mockup example from Placeit.

You can also try and mix things like a rainbow unicorn as a dinosaur or a cat-shaped coffee mug. To succeed, you need to create tens or even hundreds of designs just to see what sells and what not and scale the ones that have traction.

Choosing a concept or theme:

  • Decide on a general idea or theme that reflects your designs.
  • It can be something broad like “summer fun” or specific like “political satire.”
  • Ensure the theme aligns with your target audience’s interests.

Selecting colors and font:

  • Choose a color palette that complements your designs.
  • Opt for font styles that are easy to read and visually appealing.
  • Your color and font choices should align with your concept or theme.

Creating sketches and prototypes:

  • Draw rough sketches or create mockups of your t-shirt designs.
  • Use professional art software (Adobe Illustrator) or other tools like AI (artificial intelligence) and Canva to bring your designs to life.
  • Don’t be afraid to experiment and try new things.

Refining and finalizing your designs:

  • Revise and perfect your designs based on feedback (Facebook groups, email list, YouTube channel).
  • Fine-tune your designs until you’re happy with the final product.
  • Make sure your designs appeal to your target audience (customer feedback).
  • Do not use anti-aliasing in line art for t-shirt designs, as it will create a greyish outline for your design.

Print File Preparation

Whether you print the design or use print-on-demand services, you should follow best practices such as using PNG file format, have the file at 300DPI, and have the resolution as high as possible.

General print file guidelines for t-shirt designs:

  • File format: PNG, JPEG
  • Resolution: 300DPI
  • Design size: 3600 x 4800px / 12” x 16” / 30 x 40cm
  • Color profile: sRGB color profile sRGB IEC61966-2.1
    • sRGB has a wider, more vibrant color range (aka gamut) compared to CMYK

You can read more about preparing print files from Printful’s blog.

Choose A T-Shirt Business Model

You have few options to choose from, uploading files to a marketplace and using print-on-demand services or printing the design yourself using sublimation technique or even DTG printing.

Things to consider when doing printing by yourself using sublimation or DTG techniques:

  • You need inventory space
  • Startup costs can be high as you need high-quality equipment for quality printing and creating a quality end product
  • You need a reliable source for bulk buying blank t-shirts
  • Customer support is required
  • You need to drive traffic to your business

Things to consider when using the print-on-demand business model:

  • The profit margin is not as good as printing by yourself
  • You can scale business fast and easily
  • You can publish your designs on multiple marketplace (Redbubble, Society6, Amazon)


Digital Artist

I’m a digital artist who is passionate about anime and manga art. My true artist journey pretty much started with CTRL+Z. When I experienced that and the limitless color choices and the number of tools I could use with art software, I was sold. Drawing digital anime art is the thing that makes me happy among eating cheeseburgers in between veggie meals.

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