What You Need to Know When Designing Art for T-shirt Printing

Coming up with designs for t-shirt printing can be fun, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t serious technical considerations that come into play. Just as comic book artists are compelled to think about things like panel sizes and color printing limitations, t-shirt print designers have to think about similar restrictions.

From the variation of colors their printers allow to the size of the design the printing equipment (or expertise) can support, t-shirt print artists have quite a number of things to consider. Here we cover some of the crucial ones, so that people looking to get custom shirts printed know what to keep in mind.


The Graphics: Should you use vector or raster?

A common question people pose is whether they should go with vector or raster graphics. Strictly speaking, you can choose either. Raster graphics can be simpler to create for some people. On the other hand, vector graphics are extremely convenient due to their scalability: they can be resized up or down with absolutely no loss of quality. If your design is simple enough, you may want to go with a vector image instead for its convenience.

If you do have a vector design, though, make sure that its different elements—the vector objects of the image, that is—are grouped together and that the layer where you placed them is locked. This prevents errors such as the printer accidentally moving one of the objects while checking it out on a computer. (This happens more often than you probably think.)

Color and Ink

Let’s talk about the colors first. When getting something printed, one of your big concerns should be ensuring that the color of the finished print matches what you put in your design. The first step to ensuring this is to color correct your monitor. That is, you want to ensure that your computer monitor’s color calibration is accurate. There are myriad free utilities for this task. A great example is Calibrize, although you can find many others if you just do a quick Web search.

After your monitor has been calibrated, you should pick a color system. Ask your printer first if he has a particular preference for color systems, be it RGB, CMYK, or PMS. Generally, though, screen printers will prefer the PMS or Pantone Color Matching System. The idea of using the PMS system is to maximize the fidelity of the finished print to your imagined/chosen colors.

Keep in mind that printers may also have caps on the number of colors used in a single design. Most of them cap it at numbers below 10, but this really depends on your printer. The more color you use in the design, the more expensive the printing may be.

Now related to the colors you’re using would be the type of inks you want your printer to use. This is particularly important in screen printing, where different ink types and even textures can be used. You can have metallic inks, for instance, or glitter inks, or even glow in the dark inks. You can also have textured inks with a suede feel or a flocked texture to them.

Consider using specialty inks with simple designs to give them extra detail. Instead of drawing vintage fading and crack lines into your design, for instance, keep the actual graphic clean and unbroken, then simply ask your printer to use a cracking ink when printing it for that authentic vintage look.

Text: Outline it!

Text is common in t-shirt designs, particularly those with a promotional aspect—most t-shirts given out as corporate gifts, for example, typically have some information about the company printed on them for marketing purposes.

Text content rarely gives people a problem in t-shirt designs. However, the same can’t be said for text design. Some text may not show up properly on all software. This is due to the font not being supported by the software opening it.

To avoid your printer having to replace your chosen font with another one because of this problem, make sure you convert your text elements into outlines. Most programs have a “Create Outlines” command – just search for it. It usually opens up as an option made available when you make a selection (in Adobe Illustrator, for example, you just select the text, then right-click to see it among the options in the dialogue box that appears).

What this conversion does is make the text universally available across different print studio software. That’s because it converts the text into a drawing, as opposed to a font-set-based element. As a result, you’ll never have to worry about your Times New Roman text being printed in Arial type instead.


DPI and Detail

This depends on your printer and printing type or subject, but generally, you want an image with a resolution of 300 DPI. Photo or BMP file printing (if what you want to get printed is a photograph) usually requires at least 150 DPI, although some printers may ask for 200 DPI images.

Now as far as the detail goes, this is really up to two things: your budget and your printer’s expertise/willingness to take on the project. It’s true that you can make some outstanding and unique shirts with complex designs, but they won’t always be printer-friendly. Most printers will either baulk at or charge dramatically more money for a design with a high level of line intricacy and numerous color gradients.

If you want to retain all that detail, you’ll have to pay a lot for it. Keep in mind, though, that not all printers can really deliver there: you should ask for samples of their most detailed work to see if they’re genuinely capable of giving you the intricacy you want. Otherwise, stick to cleaner lines and solid colors. They’re less likely to disappoint you with the finished product that way.

Size: It does matter.

The last thing to ensure is that the graphic you’re making is true to the actual scale. This is so you’re your printer doesn’t botch it by printing the logo you had envisioned as a 5x5in as a gigantic 15x15in print instead.

What you want to do is size your art properly from the get-go, so that the file you send to your printer is in the right size. Illustrator, Photoshop and other raster/vector graphics editors allow you to view ruler measurements of your artwork and even resize it based on inch/cm values. How do you know how that’s going to look on your chosen t-shirt? Get a ruler or tape measure and take it to the garment. You can also print your design on paper in the actual scale, cut it out, and then try taping it to the shirt to see if the size is right.

Something to consider too is how large you want your print to be. Once a design goes past a certain size—say about 18×18 inches—it starts getting a little trickier to print, and you have to find out if your printer can manage it. Some printers even offer all-over printing, which can cover practically the entire shirt if needed.

Don’t just assume your printer offers the larger printing options, though: when in doubt (about any of the things above, in fact), ask him first! Just because you want to make your own t-shirt doesn’t mean you can’t have some assistance along the way.

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