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The art of T-shirt design


So, how do you design a shirt? In this blog post, I’m going to cover every part of the design process, including finding inspiration, illustration techniques, digital editing and T-shirt printing methods such as DTG printing and screen printing.

  

For those interested in digital editing, I’ll also be linking to a photoshop free trial, as well as a few tutorials which I hope will prove helpful.

Whether you’re looking to start a T-shirt business, or just curious to learn more about illustration and digital editing, this is for you.

If you've not yet checked out our designs, click here to view men's/unisex eco T-shirts or click here to view women's.

Finding Inspiration

So, let's start at the very beginning. I find inspiration comes when I least expect it. When I’m lacking ideas I like to take a shower, go for a walk or cook. It really helps overcome those annoying creative blocks. 

Apparently, there's a scientific reason why daydreaming is so effective when it comes to forming new ideas. Apparently, shutting down your frontal cortex (the part of the brain associated with creativity) allows your brain to subconsciously process old thoughts and ideas and turn them into new ones (source). Interesting!

Another source of inspiration is the internet. I like to draw animals but unfortunately, I don’t have lions, rhinos and frogs readily available, so I turn to Google for reference images. Don’t let anyone tell you that drawing from photographs is cheating—sometimes it’s really helpful!

 

Planning your design

When it comes to creating art, everyone has their own process. Personally, I find it useful to come up with a plan first. Before I start drawing, I mock-up a number design concepts in a sketchbook or on Photoshop. I feel far more confident if I've experimented with a few different compositions before starting on a final piece.

Take a look at the image below. Here I collaged together several images as a rough plan for a final design. The image on the left was my starting point, the middle picture is my line drawing and the final image has been scanned and edited on Photoshop. You can view the final design on a T-shirt here.

Stages of designing a graphic t-shirt

This process allows you to see if the artistic vision you have in your head will look as good once it’s on paper. Don’t worry if your initial sketches aren’t great—the planning stage is more about composition.

Drawing with confidence

That moment when you first put pen to paper can be very daunting. The potential to screw up feels immense! But if you think about it, this should be the least stressful part of the process. If you screw up at the beginning you can easily start again without wasting any time. Screw up in the middle and it’s a different story! So, let go of your anxiety and embrace your blank canvas. 

The grid method

The grid method is an extremely useful drawing technique. This involves printing a photograph you want to copy, drawing a grid on top of it, then drawing another grid of an equal ratio on your blank piece of paper. You then accurately copy the photograph one square at a time. This is a brilliant way to make sure everything stays in proportion.

When creating Born Hybrid T-shirts I often use the grid method. I start with pencil then switch to a 0.01mm fineliner so that I can achieve a highly detailed finish. You can see all of my designs at bornhybrid.com.

Using Photoshop to design T-shirts

Interested in learning Photoshop? At the time of writing, Adobe is offering free trials available here. There are also lots of free tutorials available here.

 

For each Born Hybrid T-shirt design I have scanned my illustrations and then edited them digitally. I often collect patterns and textures that I like and layer them up on photoshop, allowing me to experiment with different markings and colour schemes.

Here’s an example: In this instance I downloaded the pattern on the left from free stock photo library Pexels. Read on to find out how I used this image to create a subtle pattern on these two sheep... 

Graphic t-shirt design using a geometric pattern

You can see the final design on one of our eco T-shirts here.

  1. I opened my scanned drawing on Photoshop and created a new layer above the scan. I then went to file > place embedded to add a pattern of my choice as a new layer above my scanned drawing.
  2. I turned the transparency of my pattern down to 50%, so that I could see some of my scanned illustration below. Then, I used the magic wand tool to select the lines that would become part of my final design.
  3. I then went to select > inverse and clicked delete to remove the rest of the pattern layer that I no longer needed.
  4. I re-selected the parts of the pattern that remained using the magic wand and in the layer panel, created another layer on top of everything else. I then filled my selection with different colours using the paintbrush tool. 
  5. At this point, you should have three layers: your original drawing at the bottom, a layer above that contains the parts of the original pattern (you can delete this now if you want) and then at the top, your version of the pattern coloured in. You can continue to colour in your illustration using different colours in new layers. If you want your original illustration to be visible, you can play around with blend modes. These are really fun! Find out how to use them here.

Photoshop is all about experimentation. The great thing about it is that you can remove layers easily if you make a mistake. If you’re just starting out on Photoshop, remember to always work with layers, or you risk ruining your whole artwork… I can’t stress this enough!

Screen printing VS direct to garment printing

Want to print your own custom shirts? There are two main types of fabric printing; DTG printing and screen printing. Screen printing involves pushing ink onto fabric through a stencil (or a “screen”), whereas DTG uses a printer to transfer the ink directly onto fabric. Each colour is applied using a different stencil, once after the other, to achieve the final look.

Pros of screen printing:

  • Cheaper for large print runs over 100 garments.
  • Vibrant colours every time.

Cons of screen printing:

  • Cannot achieve the same detail or range of colours as DTG printing.
  • Higher reject rate (some of the companies we looked at count a 10% reject rate as acceptable).

Pros of DTG printing:

  • A more detailed finish.
  • Quicker turnaround.
  • No setup costs (a good option for low volume runs).
  • A vast spectrum of colours.

Cons of DTG printing:

  • Shirts made from synthetic fibres cannot be DTG printed.
  • Not all DTG printers can achieve the same level of vibrancy as screen printing.
  • Low reject rates.

Our T-shirts feature high definition, full body illustrations, DTG printed for long-lasting vibrancy. Visit bornhybrid.com to browse our designs or click here to check out our Kickstarter campaign.

 

So I hope this article has been useful for some people. If you have any questions, or if you can think of something that’s not been covered, just let me know in the comments and I’ll add it in. 

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