Sixty-two percent of Americans own 10 or more t-shirts they wear regularly. That’s why it’s no surprise the ubiquitous t-shirt has reigned for years as the number-one promotional product category. Every year, we love asking some of the most talented decorators out there to share their biggest-selling t-shirt designs, with insider tips for getting those standout results. Get inspired by stellar t-shirt designs from six shops across the country, as they use a variety of decorating techniques ranging from screen printing to DTG to direct to film.
Tapping Into the Amish Way of Life
Devon Brabenec, owner of Superior Merch, created this “Amish Country: A Way of Life” t-shirt design as part of his shop’s in-house line, available for purchase inside his downtown Ashland, OH-based retail store. This seven spot-color t-shirt stands out in Brabenec’s corner of the country since not many of his competitors create intricate designs. “I wanted to raise the bar and do something that’s different and definitely not boring,” he says.
Pro tip: “Find a great vector artist so you get the best possible artwork to print,” Brabenec says.
Yes, He’s Really a Gun Drummer (Look at His Tee!)
Brabenec and the Superior Merch team created this “Gun Drummer” shirt design for a unique, up-and-coming YouTuber who makes wild and chaotic “gun covers”—covers of popular heavy metal songs using some traditional musical instruments, and yes, guns. (Check out this YouTube star’s wild cover of Europe’s “The Final Countdown.”)
This head-turning design is a full-color DTG print, but Brabenec plans to transition it to a screen-printed version soon. “This design really sums up the Gun Drummer’s personality and YouTube channel,” he says. “Lots of shops just stick to one- or two-color merch, so this one really pops.”
Pro tip: A metal fan, who happens to be an artist in Poland, submitted this cool artwork that’s now become part of the Gun Drummer’s popular merch line. “Don’t forget to look for and use talent within your existing fan base, when possible,” Brabenec says.
The Retro Cool Look of Eco-Friendly Inks
Wizard of Barge created this inspiringly “magical” design, and asked the team at Night Owls Print Shop to put it on a t-shirt. “Gildan Adult Heavy Cotton T-shirts have long been a staple of streetwear and accept discharge ink perfectly,” says Eric Solomon, owner. “We didn’t use any plastisol inks in this print. Just custom-built, Pantone-matched discharge formulas to make each ink color pop.”
Pro tip: Check out the Gildan Adult Heavy Cotton T-Shirt (G500) if your clients want an old school streetwear vibe for their t-shirt style.
Artist Jay Ryan, who heads up small screen-print shop The Bird Machine, created this Electrical Guitar Co. design and asked the experts at Night Owls to print it. “We used super-soft, eco-friendly, Matsui High Solid Acrylic water-based inks,” Solomon says. “These inks print in thin layers, so you have the softest-possible print, without sacrificing opacity.”
Pro tip: Check out the Next Level Apparel Unisex Cotton T-Shirt (3600) if you want a soft, lived-in t-shirt (that looks great on everyone) as the canvas for your vintage-looking designs.
The Pump Truck Design You’ll Wear Everywhere
This throwback design takes vintage inspiration from a 1930s Ahrens-Fox Fire Engine Co. advertisement, designed to promote the company’s “new at the time” pump truck. The company of today wanted its Ahrens-Fox dealers to use these historical-inspired shirts as memorable giveaways for their customers.
Since Ahrens-Fox no longer had the original artwork, Charles Juarros, owner of Ragged Apparel Screen Printing, worked off a .JPEG image of the ad. Juarros’ team decided against recreating the image into a vector format, since they wanted to keep the stylized look of the 1930s drawn art. “We used Adobe Photoshop to enhance the provided graphic as much as possible, while maintaining the look of the ad,” he says. “Retaining the rough vintage look makes the printed design extra cool.”
Then, the team separated the artwork into three screens using Separation Studio, and printed them at a 61-degree angle and 55 dpi. The inks used were all from International Coatings. “We used Legacy White for the underbase, followed by 6143 Dark Grey and 726 Gold,” Juarros says. The screens were all tensioned at 30 newtons, using Newman Roller Frames with 230 Saati Hitex mesh. The screens were coated with Saati Textil PHU emulsion with a 1-over-1 coating using the coater’s round edge.
“A lot of printers focus on what occurs on the press, since that’s where we physically see the image come to life,” Juarros says. “However, if you focus on perfecting what happens before you go to press, everything falls into place when you put your screens on press. Pre-press is really where your wow-worthy image is born.”
Pro tip: Starting with good artwork is essential. “In this case, we were challenged by limitations of the older artwork,” Juarros says. “We could have recreated it completely, but that would have detracted from its authenticity.’
Pro tip: Pre-press is arguably the most important part of the screen-printing process. “It’s simple: Create good screens,” Juarros says. “Account for all your variables, like proper tension, good reclaim procedures, coating techniques, as well as maintaining proper humidity levels to allow your emulsion to dry properly. These all play an important factor in the final outcome of the print. Paying close attention to the details of the pre-press process will make you a better printer, as your t-shirt deigns stand out from the crowd.”
Direct-to-Film Fish Are a Great Catch
Year-round fishing resort Dale’s on Lake of the Woods chose The Visual Identity Vault to host a merch webstore for their resort. “We change up the designs for the seasons,” says Tanya Doyscher, owner and graphic designer. “These two designs are brand new to the resort for the summer season. Dale’s loves having new options for merchandise for their guests!”
Doycher used direct-to-film (DTF) printing for these designs, an imprinting technique that quickly has become a favorite of many of her clients. “Dale’s especially loves the colors DTF produces as well as the soft hand,” she says. “The colors of these two t-shirt designs are absolutely gorgeous and will be a hit with their guests. We expect the fish design to be a huge seller; the other benefit of that particular shirt is the resort’s contact information on it, so it doubles as a sales tool for Dale’s.”
Pro tip: Find a DTF vendor that has knowledge, experience and a proven track record. “This process is easy to do wrong since it requires several steps, as it’s being printed, dried/cured and powdered, or adhesive-applied,” Doyscher says. “Some companies convert aftermarket printers without understanding the science behind it and then when prints fail, it looks bad for the seller. Then, there are issues with the vendor/seller relationship.”
Dosycher encourages shops interested in DTF printing to do their due diligence and find a supplier or two that has a proven track record, as well as a backup plan if their machine has issues or goes down. “Also, understand that not all machines and materials have the same pressing instructions, so if you’re using multiple vendors, pay special attention to instructions when completing your projects,” she says.
Don’t Be Afraid of Hustling, or Text-Based Design
The years 2020, 2021, 2022 and beyond are the years of the statement t-shirt. People love wearing motivational messages and their beliefs on their favorite tees. Misti Money, owner of 6Money’s Creations, created this supportive “The Dream is Free, The Hustle is Sold Separately” message t-shirt for a women’s expo. “We created this design to encourage attendees to stay focused on their goals,” she says.
For a super-soft, long-lasting tee, Money chose the Bella + Canvas Ladies’ Relaxed Heather CVC Short-Sleeve T-Shirt (6400CVC) in Navy. She used a silver heat transfer for the text. “The shirt and transfer colors complement each other well,” she says. “The silver gave the design a bit of a sheen, which made it eye-catching for people who saw it.”
Pro tip: When you’re working with a text-based design, choose fonts that complement each other to make the image interesting. You can incorporate a shape, like a box, into the design. Opting to increase the font size of the main word brings the focus to the core part of the message. “Don’t be afraid to mix and match fonts,” Money says. “Doing that can make your text-based design stand out.”
A T-Shirt-of-the-Month Club With Nonstop Killer Designs
Money creates new t-shirt designs for her 6Money’s Monthly T-Shirt Club, which hundreds of happy member women have joined. They love receiving attractive and inspiring t-shirt designs 12 times a year.
First up, this “All American Woman” t-shirt arrived just in time for the July 4 festivities, but recipients enjoyed wearing it throughout the year. When creating this screen-printed design, Money first reviewed the heathered shirt color and texture. “I chose a shade of blue that would coordinate best with the shirt color and text-based design,” she says. “Using navy blue and white really brought my vision for the shirt alive.” This design could also be reproduced with heat transfer vinyl.
Pro tip: Keeping the “All American Woman” design simple, but using varying font sizes helped balance this design. “I love how the three simple stars and the line gave interest to the design, but didn’t detract from the message,” Money says. Using harmonious fonts, and knowing when to use a readable script font, is always a good rule of thumb when creating any design with text.
Money takes into account the month and season she’s creating a particular design for, so in this case for March, she wanted to inject some spring thoughts. “March makes me think of fresh flowers and new life,” she says. “Using complementary colors as well as several different styles of flowers and elements helped this shirt come together. The ‘Live Happy’ message also fits perfectly here as an uplifting thought.”
Pro tip: When you’re conceptualizing a t-shirt design, think about when and how your clients will wear it. While this particular design is a longer one, Money knew it was perfect for March weather. “Most of my club members layer their tees with cardigans and the design works well with that styling,” she says. “Using various floral colors also allows my customers to change up the look of the shirt, just by adding different accessories or layering pieces. It also can be worn on a casual trip to the greenhouse or dressed up for a girls’ night out.”
Money created this inspirational, distressed design for the warmer months. If you use heat transfer vinyl, think about how much distressing you put on the design. “You don’t want several little cavities that need to be weeded,” she says. If you have the ability to screen print or even use another printing style such as white toner printer or DTG-style items, you can add more distressing. “You want to make sure that the roughed-up areas don’t take away from the readability or the overall look of the design,” she says.
Money created this “Small Business Owner” design for her Lady Boss T-Shirt of the Month Club. When she’s designing, she takes trending designs and colors into account. “Currently the Southwest look is super popular, so I decided to give it a try with a simple message for my small business owner members,” she says. “Finding a way to incorporate retail trends into something as simple as a font is a great way to make a statement and have your designs stand out.”
Pro tip: Using her iColor White Toner Printer, Money wasn’t limited to what type of garment she placed the design on. “I was excited to find a heathered sunset tee that vibed with all the colors and design elements for the tee,” she says.
Out-of-the-Ordinary School Spirit Design Template
Money created this “Pirates” design for a local school’s spirit wear shirt. “We create one design template, and can quickly change it out for any school mascot and colors,” she says.
The 6Money’s Creations team used an easy-to-read front but added interest to the design with lines and the school mascot. “By creating a slight slant, we make the design stand out from a standard straight chest logo,” Money says.
Pro tip: Create a t-shirt design that you can easily adapt to different school names, colors and mascots. By using a slanted design that’s different from the average chest logo, your shop will get a reputation for bringing some extra edge. “When we create templated designs for our spirit wear, we make them stand out from more ordinary designs,” Money says. “It’s also great to build designs that can quickly accommodate a color change, so you can appeal to additional schools using their unique colors.”
A Spirit Wear Design That Transcends
Money’s shop created this “Patrick Henry” design as school spirit wear. “Fans of all ages took advantage of the design because it was timeless, and it’s a design that can be worn to multiple school events, because it isn’t sport or group specific,” she says.
This vibrant design was created using a flock heat transfer material, which has created dimension and interest to the design. We also left a space between the two mediums we used, allowing the sweatshirt fabric to show through, giving the design an extra color,” Money says.
Pro tip: When you’re in the planning stages for a client, think about what color apparel the design will sit on. “This will help you decide if you want to use the feature shown here, allowing the shirt shade to become part of the design,” Money says. “For the Patrick Henry shirt, it works well. You can use a two-color design, but give it the appearance of three colors.”
Pro tip: Using different types of media helps create an eye-catching design. “The flock we used added dimension to the design, and is also soft to the touch,” Money says. “Texture is trending right now, and this was a way to uplevel my products for my customers.”
We Love Small and Long Dogs, to the Moon and Back
Meg Paxton, owner of TheTeenieWeenieStore.com and PaxtonPhotography.com, creates whimsical t-shirt and bag designs for The Teenie Weenie Store, a shop for small and long dogs and their favorite people. Paxton uses high-quality, full-color direct-to-film (DTF) transfers to produce her designs. “Buying the machine wasn’t right for me at this time due to upkeep,” she says. “However, using our in-house heat press and the film is quick and easy, and the designs look great.”
Paxton absolutely loves being able to come up with her must-have designs, send them off electronically and get them back in the mail in about 72 hours. “With direct-to-film printing, you can literally go from design creation to shirts for sale in 72 hours, all depending on shipping times,” she says.
Pro tip: Finding the right DTF film printer for your shop is the most important consideration when you’re starting out. Prices and quality of films vary by the vendor you use, so do your homework. “Playing with your heat press to get the correct time and heat for your environment is pretty direct and easy to figure out,” Paxton says. “Knowing your times and temperatures is the other important part of the equation.”