The Ultimate Guide to Designing Your Own Custom T-Shirts

by . December 13th, 2007

Outlined by Gino Orlandi, Written by Jessica Stockdale

The custom printed T-shirt business is mega-huge. If you want to talk about the benefits, we’ll be here all day. But a few of them include being able to use readily available templates, having tons of sites online to choose from to submit your designs, being able to express yourself creatively and show off your talent (you know you want to do that!), and it’s not a full time job, but it’s a great way to make some extra income.

A bonus perk is that you can promote T-shirt companies for credits towards free shirts. And really, who doesn’t love an awesome T-shirt? But the fact remains: one of the coolest things you can do is actually design one.

Below are tips, terms and resources to get your started designing custom T-shirts. Seeing your designs in action and getting rewarded for them is a great feeling, so don’t procrastinate on this!

Why Your T-shirt Might Not Win

Before you figure out what does work with T-shirt design, you might want to know what for sure doesn’t, eh? We’ve consulted T-shirt design sites on the Internet for what they say doesn’t work, to let you know what to avoid.

No Real Theme or Message in the Design

While some T-shirts are cool if they’re all hard to understand, most places want to sell T-shirts that do have a specific theme or message. And it shouldn’t take someone five minutes of starring at the T-shirt to figure it out, okay? You can make designs that are easy to understand, and are also artistic and innovative.

The best way to learn about this is to go to different websites and look at the T-shirts that have won contests and are being sold. The best theme is often one that is simple. But from there – it can be funny, ironic, anything!

You Didn’t Use the Right Template (Oh No!)

Most of the sites that you can submit to will provide you with a template that is specific to their site, and you should use it. If you don’t, that might get you disqualified right off the bat!

You Don’t Have the Copyright/Permission to Use the Images

As much as you might love Ryan Seacrest (and who are we to judge?) using his face on your shirt might not work well. If the artwork you’re using is copyrighted, you’ll have to deal with legal stuff, that no one wants to deal with. Not even Ryan Seacrest. Make sure that all images you use you have permission to use.

Color Overload only allows up to eight different colors (including black and white) in their designs. and only allows four colors. Either way, unless you’re especially skilled and have enough money – using too many colors may result in a T-shirt that looks sloppily designed.

Color Overload Part 2

Even though some T-shirt design sites with contests will say you can use X amount of colors, you don’t have to use the full amount. One suggestion you can take into account is using different shades of the same color. And don’t discount the overall effect of a shirt done in monochromatic colors. Remember, less can be more.

You Used a Gradient

Some sites will not let you use gradients, so if you even use one – you’re eliminating yourself from the contest right away. Make sure to read over the site you’re submitting your design to so that you don’t make a mistake like this. Some sites do let you use a gradient.

You Wrote a Novel

T-shirts are more for viewing than for say, reading. So if you want to write an epic poem, this isn’t the best place. It probably won’t win, and you probably won’t be able to read it. Stay clear of designs that have too much text.

You Wrote a Sentence, but That’s All

So you thought you could trick us by just using your favorite line from that epic poem (mentioned above), and putting it on your design? You used a really cool font and everything? Well, I hate to tell you, but designs that only have just text are not often selected as they can be fairly easy to design.

It’s Blurry

Who wants a T-shirt that’s badly pixilated or blurry? Not I, my friends! Make sure your art can be seen clearly. Details are fine, but they need to be clear. Different sites ask for different image resolution, so consult the site you’re submitting to before you actually submit.

Grandmother’s Would Have to Stay Indoors Forever!

Do you love your Grandma? Grandpa? Do you love/like anyone older, or significantly younger? Well older people can be offended by off-color jokes, and kids can learn bad language they shouldn’t – all from a shirt. Your shirt! I know the idea of power is surging through you and making you feel awesome… but please note that adult humor is usually not something that will win, no matter how funny it may be.

You Got ‘Special Printing’ Happy

Remember the key to things -everything in moderation. Even cake! You’re using special printing techniques to make something stand out – so using this in too many places will, what? That’s right. It will de-emphasize what you were trying to emphasize.

You Keep Hitting ‘Submit’

Even if you change your design a little, and then re-submit, most places won’t accept this. Do not re-submit something. Just wait.


Custom T-Shirt Design Terminology

If you’re going to be designing a shirt, it will be helpful to be familiar with the terminology that is often used so you can ensure that you decide that the shirt you want made is of the highest quality possible. And even with a great design, if you use the wrong ink – your T-shirt might not work well.

Raised Ink: Best used for smaller areas (but not detailing), raised ink is ink that rises up. Raised ink edges are rounded out, so don’t use this for any sharp lines.

High Density Ink: Much like raised ink, high density Ink rises up, and is best for small areas (but not detailing). Unlike raised ink, High density has square edges.

Suede Ink: Suede ink is not actually suede, but it resembles suede. Suede ink is not good to use on very thin or very wide areas.

Glow: This is ink that will glow in the dark, how cool is that? In normal light, it looks light, but can still appear.

UV Color Change: An ink that can only be used on light colored material. The colors appear only when exposed to ultraviolet light. The color of your material will affect what color your ink will appear as. Do you like surprises?

Metallic Clear: This ink is printed onto another ink and the effect is sparkly effect, where the ink shade is also multiplied.

Shimmer: Much like you’d expect, shimmer ink adds a fun douse of sparkle to your material. The ink is metallic and you can find shimmer ink in these shades: silver, bronze, black and gold.

Glitter Ink: Add some bling to your T-shirt with glitter. Glitter ink is available in the basic colors of the rainbow. ROYGBIV, baby!

Blistering: Blister ink is puff ink that sort of indents randomly. You need a good amount of space to show the effect properly, and the ink can be heavy – so take that into consideration. It looks great, but it might not be the most wearable ink.

Water-Based Inks: Using these inks, your design will look as though it was not so much printed on a T-shirt, but more like it was woven that way. A T-shirt with these inks will be soft, and can appear vintagey.

Heat Applications: Using heat, a variety of inks can be used together on the same T-shirt.

Flocking: Flock ink is like an imitation of felt. Flock has a great texture to include on a T-shirt when used in moderation.

Foil: If you’re looking for something shiny, a foil ink might be just what you’re looking for. Foil ink is especially great at adding highlights to designs.

Vinyl: Like a record, you remember those? Vinyl ink is shiny and plastic, but not as hard as a record.

Appliqué: A pre-cut piece of fabric that is then sewn onto your shirt.

High-Density Gel: Ever wish your shirt could be a little more rubbery? With gel, it can. Just put some nice high-density gel on! Or you can just apply one coat, and give your design a glassy look.

Burning: Through burnout, you remove cotton fibers, and leave synthetic fibers on a shirt. This gives it a burned-out look. Use a shirt that is 70% cotton for best results.

Discharge: Minds out of the gutter, please. Discharge is basically bleach. Applied raw, it will bleach a dark shirt white. Applied tinted, it will only mildly bleach the ink color.

Embroidery: Using a needle, a thin thread is woven through a T-shirt, pretty!

Gradients and Simulated Process: Gradients can be used, but you should know that they must be smooth – as that’s how they will appear. If you’re using a half-tone to create a gradient for a T-shirt at, the lightest your half-tone should be is 10%.

Belt Printing: All-over printing that prints both sides of a T-shirt. Only one color can be used. Pick a good color! I heard aquamarine is the new black.

Jumbo Prints: A print is considered jumbo when it is 20” wide and 24” long.


Top 5 Sites of Which to Submit Your Custom T-Shirt Designs


Prizes: If your design is selected you will win: $2,000, $500.00 to be spent on OR $200.00, $500.00 each time your design is reprinted, Alumni club membership that includes a medal, and $10,000+ if you win a BestTee in the annual Threadless awards.

Voting: The community at scores and comments on your design for a period of seven days. The scores and comments influence the people in charge as to what designs should be picked.

Get Started


Prizes: You can win $750.00 ($250.00 of that is credit for the site) for Shirt of the Day (five are chosen a week), an additional $1,000 for the Shirt of Week and an additional $1,750 ($250.00 of that is credit for the site) Shirt of the Month. The site also says, “Artists will be paid an additional cash award based on the number of t-shirts sold over the life of the design via the DBH Rock Star Awards.”

Voting: Members vote on what they like. The site then decides.

Get Started


Prizes: You can win a gold, silver, or bronze prize. You get paid via commission – (generally) $2.00 per shirt. Once you’ve sold 50 shirts, you get a free shirt of your choice.

Voting: Members vote, then the site looks at the three designs that have the most votes, comments, and what scores they have.

Get Started


Prizes: The site is pretty vague, “The highest rated designs win a cash prize and their tee joins the shop.”

Voting: They pick one winner monthly (usually). They decide who to pick based on your feedback and voting.

Get Started


Prizes: If you win, you get $500.00 and $120.00 in store credit.

Voting: Input is allowed, but the site makes the final decision.

Get Started

We hope this guide helps you on your journey to becoming a great custom T-shirt designer. Who knows, maybe you will end up starting your own custom T-shirt design business!


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