How to Design Custom T-shirts
Products, Swag Ideas

How to Design Custom T-shirts: Pro Designer Gives 5 Expert Tips

For marketers, T-shirts aren’t just T-shirts. They’re mobile billboards for spreading brand awareness, ones that come intact with a peer or even friend endorsement of the brand. That’s why a custom T-shirt design is more than just swag, it’s a business tool.

The question is, what makes a good T-shirt design for both looks and branding? Who better to ask than a professional designer, and one who specializes in branded apparel. Below, you’ll find 5 professional tips from Steven Mink a top custom T-shirt designer from 99designs. Understanding the principles of graphic design, and product t-shirt design in particular, is the first step to mesmerizing and effective branded apparel.

1. Communicate a central message with succinct wording

Custom t-shirt design for Our Company Values

Custom t-shirt design by andrs01

Have you ever seen a big block of text in a movie and got worried you won’t finish reading in time? That’s how text in T-shirts works too — if the wearer’s in motion, the viewer only has a time limit to scan, process, and register everything on the shirt. While images can be identified in an instant, text takes a few extra milliseconds that can make all the difference. 

That’s why it’s best to keep your textual messages short and sweet, and limit them to one central idea. If you’re creating a traditional custom T-shirt design, this could be a company slogan or promotional campaign catchphrase. But you can also think outside the box: for example, if you’re an unknown company with a unique service, you could quickly explain what you do or mention a value point. 

2. Design for your needs

Custom t-shirt design by Dexterous

There are a few different reasons to get a product T-shirt design, and each one has different demands for the design itself. A T-shirt intended for customers would have different demands than a T-shirt intended for employees, and so you’d have to design each with different goals in mind. 

To get you started, here are four of the most common types of custom T-shirt designs and how to design for them:

  • Swag and promotional gifts — these are for people who may not know or use your brand; design them with memorability in mind, like a joke or wordplay 
  • Internal company usage — usually motivational or display a theme of unity; include sources of pride for your company
  • Merchandise — because customers are paying for these, they expect a little extra; use fashionable designs and put your best foot forward
  • Event souvenirs — these T-shirts should revolve around the special events or conventions they’re commemorating; feel free to use symbols and representative icons if your event is more abstract. 

Furthermore, you want to make sure you understand the person who’s going to wear your shirts. Draw on customer data and what you know about their preferences to make a custom T-shirt design that the recipient will love — and wear over and over again.

3. Consider the design as a whole, not just its parts

Custom t-shirt design for The Summer Isle

Custom t-shirt design by Agnesema

Elements like what text to include and what imagery to use are individual choices, but a good custom t-shirt designer considers how they all fit together in the end. After all, the whole is more than the sum of the parts, especially when it comes to graphic design. 

In particular, you want to understand the concept of visual flow, the order in which most viewers notice things. For example, a viewer might first see the big bright letters of the company name, then the colorful mascot, and then the smaller text slogan underneath, all within a split-second. 

There’s lots of graphic design techniques for influencing the visual flow, but that’s what your customer T-shirt designer is for. Just make a list of all the elements you want to include and prioritize them in order. The designer will take care of the rest. 

4. Use hand lettering for a personal connection

Custom t-shirt design for Canis Pomeranus

Custom t-shirt design by Dudeowl

It’s not just the meaning behind the words you use, it’s also how they look. Typography is a powerful design tool, and can go a long way in how your brand is perceived. Classy, goofy, confident, easy-going — you can communicate a lot through font. 

Because branded t-shirts are personal anyway, one of the most effective types of typography is hand lettering, any font that looks like handwriting. The style of hand lettering works best for friendly and casual brands — the brand next door — and reads in a conversational, person-to-person tone. 

They’re also visually dynamic and can act as a central image if you’re not including a logo or other pictures. Just be careful not to overcrowd your product T-shirt design with too many eye-catching elements, which brings us to our final tip…

5. Avoid complex visuals

Custom t-shirt design of a mountain scene

Custom t-shirt design by Dudeowl

T-shirts are not a perfect canvas. They fold, wrinkle, overlap, and twist around — every movement the wearer makes, your design makes as well. 

That’s a compelling enough reason to simplify your custom T-shirt design and avoid details that might be missed from a distance or hidden within a wrinkle. Stay away from overly intricate detailing or complicated fonts, as well as including too many individual elements. 

Simple visuals also helps the final product look how you intended it. T-shirts are a strange canvas, and things could get lost when transitioning a complex design from a computer screen to fabric. More basic designs, on the other hand, hit closer to the mark. 

Where to find a custom T-shirt designer

There’s a lot of nuance to graphic design: imagery, typography, sizes, shapes, and colors, not to mention the techniques mentioned earlier about tying them all together. To truly optimize the branding message of your product t-shirt design, hire a professional designer who knows these nuances by heart.

Steven Mink is just one of many talented custom T-shirt designers at 99designs who can create a gorgeous branded t-shirt for you. has partnered with 99designs to match you with an industry-leading professional who best fits your brand style! Click here to see the perfect designer for your T-shirt now!

*This post was written by our Laura McLeod, Partnerships Marketing Lead, 99designs.  If you’re interested in speaking with Laura about partnerships, feel free to reach out.