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How to Design a Brilliant Graphic Tee

Creative Market March 31, 2021 · 9 min read

Back in 2010, there was an internal shirt design contest at the agency I worked at. I was super pumped to participate, because I had only created a few basic graphic tees in the past, and they weren’t very good. This was my chance to go wild and spend a ton of time focused on making a great shirt.
So, I let it rip. I submitted multiple designs into the voting system over the course of a week. Luckily, one of them won and was printed for the entire company. That was when I got hooked on shirt design, and knew that I wanted to get much better at it than I was. Since then, I’ve made quite a few shirts.

Lean Process

I wanted to share some insights from my personal experience of designing graphic tees. If you’re looking for tips about how to come up with a great concept and finish it through to completion, then you’re in the right place. If you want to see what the work-in-progress looks like for a shirt design from start to finish, then you’re also in the right place!
The process is pretty simple:

  1. Brainstorm ideas.
  2. Sketch & refine.
  3. Make it digital.
  4. Print & enjoy!

In this tutorial, I’ll walk through how I conceptualized and designed a brand new shirt for our friends over at InVision!
So, without further ado, here’s my newest shirt design for InVision that just launched this week in their brand new marketplace:
Now, let’s walk through how I arrived at this final design.

What’s The Big Idea?

Let’s start at the very beginning. How do you come up with a good idea for a graphic tee?
There are many creative exercises that can help you create the perfect starting points for generating a brilliant shirt design idea. However, keep in mind that it’s all about the message or story that you’re trying to tell with the visuals on your shirt. That should be the focus. Then, you have to think about what people are going to be comfortable wearing on their chest all day long. If you’re not sure about one of your ideas, ask your peers for feedback. They should be honest with you.
Here are my three favorite go-to methods for coming up with ideas:
1. Mind Maps
Start with a fundamental theme that you want the shirt to represent, and write it in the middle of a blank page. Next, branch out with words and topics that are associated with your central word. From there, keep branching out further from the middle of the circle by connecting words that are associated with the last group of related words that you wrote. Go out as far as you can or that makes sense. Once you’ve built out a large, deep circle of connected words, look to pair two words on opposite sides of the map that create a neat or funny idea. Check out these mind map resources: Austin Kleon’s blog,, and Designorate: How To.
2. This *as* That
This is probably my favorite approach. Create a list of words associated with and related to the overall theme of your shirt. Think about people, places, things and actions that have direct meaning to your theme, then think about ones that objectively or subjectively could imply your theme. After you’ve got a decent sized list, pair words together in this format: _____ as _____. If you’re lucky, then you are sure to strike a few golden ideas from this exercise. If this approach doesn’t work for you, then try This *and* This instead, but use vastly different subject matter (people, places, things, or ideas) to generate creative pairings.
3. Speed Doodling
Sometimes, the fastest way to a great idea is to let your mind wander with a pencil, a blank page, and a strong cup of coffee. This approach might take longer to unearth that clever concept that you’re looking for, but it can work! This exercise is all about speed. Don’t spend time on the drawings themselves, just let your brain think about your subject and let it go to town. Who knows — you might land on a unique twist on an idea that a word exercise could not have generated!
4. Other Approaches
There are a many other ways to brainstorm ideas. Take a look at this huge list of 50 techniques by I haven’t heard of most of these fascination methodologies, but maybe if you spin the wheel and give one a try, you’ll hit the jackpot. Just do it.

Sketch It Out

Whether you’re good at drawing or not, it’s important to get a basic understanding of how your concept will play out in visual form. So, grab a pencil (or pen) and pad, and get to it.
At this stage, it’s important to start thinking about how many colors you want your shirt artwork to be, especially if you’re screen printing. The general rule of thumb is that more colors equals higher cost. You’ll also want to think about special treatments too, such as glow in the dark ink or metallics if you’re interested in enhancing the final art. For this shirt, I limited myself to only using one or two colors.
I used the three primary brainstorming techniques that I mentioned above to generate a few ideas as rough sketches. The drawings that I’m about to share below are quick and messy, as their main purpose is to communicate an initial direction to the client. Here are six of the ideas that I pitched.
1. Rube Goldberg Machine
My first concept was to form a Rube Goldberg machine by combining design tools and the word “design” stacked in 3 rows of 2 letters. The initial sketch was sloppy because I didn’t have a clear vision of how I was going to pull off the final, but it was a strong contender!
2. Back to Basics
This concept displayed the three primary shapes that are formed by tools and icons that represent the idea of design. Just alright, in hindsight.
3. Devices
This concept used multiple devices and browsers in an inward fashion with icons, circuits, and more to enhance them.
4. Elements & Principles Icon Grid
This concept actualized the elements and principles of design as icons in a grid.
5. For the Love of Design
This concept used the universal hand symbol for love with the InVision tagline (“design makes everything possible”) lettered inside of it.
6. Elements & Principles Pen
This concept uses the same content as idea #4, but instead of icons, applied lettering to display the words inside the shape of a vector pen tool.

Refine the Drawing

InVision decided to move concept #1 forward, which was pure delight to my ears! I had my work cut out for me. It took more time to plan out the drawing into a larger format, in a ratio that I intended for the final shirt design. I spaced out the six letters in a grid, and tried to imagine the best way to form and connect them together with elements that communicate design. I also split the design so that the top half subtly alluded to day time and the bottom half alluded to night time — because design never sleeps.
In an effort to show more of my work-in-progress on Dribbble, I posted this shot of the revised drawing as a teaser for this project.

Make It Digital

Next, I brought the revised drawing into Illustrator to use as a wireframe for my vector drawing. I started by picking a stroke weight of 2.4 pt, and using the pen tool to trace over my wireframe. If you’re using linework in your shirt, think about the scale of the artwork and the thickness of the stroke. If it’s too thin or too tightly drawn, it won’t print well.
For this particular piece, I also illustrated interior rounded corners to give it a bloated, soft look that’s prevalent in vintage printing. I used the CMD + Y shortcut in Illustrator to work on my vectors in a wireframe view, which helped me line up strokes and produce the interior rounded edges. After I finished each letter, I copied them into a new document, and expanded them by selecting the entire thing and clicking Object > Expand in the main menu. If you use the Dynamic Corners Tool from Astute Graphics, it will offer you full control to produce consistent interior rounded corners. It’s an amazing plugin.
I continued to share my process as I finished out individual letters.
In process shot #2, you can see that I have expanded all of the stroke lines but haven’t expanded the interior rounded edges throughout the letter.
In process shot #3, you can see that I expanded the stroke lines and interior rounded edges.
With this process shot #4, I tried out gold ink on a dark charcoal shirt. This wasn’t the final direction, but an interesting test nonetheless.

Production File

After finishing all of the artwork and interior rounded edges, I flattened the piece and scaled it into a slightly larger size appropriate for medium-sized shirts. Here’s the outcome of the illustration work. Since the intention of the artwork was to keep it flat, I didn’t need to add any texture or roughening. The Illustrator document was ready to ship out to the print vendor!
We looked at the shirt in three colors: gold on heather black, navy on medium blue, and teal on heather purple (which was the final that we settled on).
Enjoy the final design and purchase a shirt or poster over on the brand new InVision Marketplace!

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  • @Gerren Lamson This is such a helpful guide! I remember voting for that shirt you designed in 2010. It was the clear winner and I loved that shirt! 7 years ago
  • Awesome work @Gerren Lamson ! I loved seeing the process. I also want to mention that your tee designs keep my kids fascinated for hours - there's so much interesting stuff to see! :) 7 years ago
  • @Priya Kothari Haha! It seems like such a long time ago. 7 years ago
  • @Beth Rufener Thanks Beth! Love that your kids love them. That's very special to hear! 7 years ago
  • Thank you for sharing your process :-) Very insightful! 7 years ago
  • this is really helpfull, all the article, it's going straight to my bookmark and my favorites. im getting through hard times in te creative time for my t-shirts, and this will really help, im from Mexico, tijuana to be more specific, and im starting my own brand, i'll really apreciate if someone of you guys get a look at mi facebook page, and like, im uploading my newest designs in january of the next year and all the support will be tottaly awesome! this is the page, my brand name is HOAX and all the feedback and the support will be tottaly awesome. 7 years ago
  • @Prina de Nooijer You're welcome! @Rafael Beltran That is great news to hear! 7 years ago
  • Nice blog, Keep up posting such blog. 6 years ago
  • @Mix Unit Thank you! 6 years ago
  • Anonymous
    I love this post as well as the shirt!! I will be purchasing one to wear. Thanks for sharing this great how-to! 6 years ago