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Design 101, T Shirt Design Techniques

We are regularly asked for feedback on designs and very often we wonder if people understand what we mean when we use words like “depth” and “composition,” etc. So, we decided to put this together to try and help new designers understand what makes one design stand out against another. If you would like us to comment on your design post it here and we can give you feedback too.

1. Mastering a Shirt Design Concept, Theme and Idea

Some designs are lead by an idea or theme that tells the viewer something other than “Hello, I am a t-shirt, all pretty and stuff.” The idea can be subtle or in your face. It can be central to the design or a clever little element that is only revealed after a bit of looking. Artists who nail concepts/ideas/themes in their apparel design:

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“Never as it Seems” by zerobriant is a good example of this whole concept business. His design on first appearances almost seems abstract but then you see it is two worlds colliding. “An “upside-down illusion”. See something different when you look down at your shirt”. He hasn’t just thought “I’ll make something pretty” he has thought in depth about the wearer’s experience.

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“PPP (perversion of paranoid populace)” by radiomode is another awesome example of this kind of design. He is making a statement with this design. CCTV and camera surveillance is invasive. You don’t have to agree with the statement, but it adds another layer to the design.

2. Abstract

An abstract design is simply a collection of shapes or lines that do not represent anything physical. Something considered apart from concrete existence. “Easy,” I hear you mutter. Not so, creating an abstract design takes real skill. Combining elements to make something look beautiful is very difficult.

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One artist who immediately springs to mind is BeadlerWorks. His winning designs here are all examples of great abstract art. While some of his work has physical elements he has a way of making them come alive with abstracted elements. Note his winning design, “Drifting.” Movement is added using abstract elements and atmosphere is created with his color choices. What would have been just a house becomes something way more dramatic.

3. Composition

“The combining of distinct parts or elements to form a whole” basically sums it up. How you lay out elements on your canvas, in this case a t-shirt. How do you as a designer utilise the t-shirt area? How do the elements you use balance or contrast so that they appeal to the viewer? Questions all designers should ask themselves.

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“Pisces beauty”by SPYKEEE is a good example of composition, using the entire tee as a canvas and really making the art work with the t-shirt is clever.

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“Migratory Pattern” by dhectwenty uses the t-shirt to suggest movement brilliantly. He doesn’t have to use the whole tee or even many colors to create a beautiful piece of art.

4. Style

A style is something you gain through years of drawing and developing as an artist or designer. I personally have been drawing for about 30 years and all the time I have been developing a distinct style. People know it as mine and recognize it instantly. It takes work to get there and along the way you will draw on many influences. That’s not to say you copy a style from someone else, that friends is naughty. It’s also a whole other subject I could talk about for a year.

Artists with a style all of their own:

5. Depth

Depth in design can be described as many things; “the creation of something more than what is required or minimal, the hidden, the unclear, the difficult, the different, abundance and sometimes refinement and meaning.” For me depth is about layers of physical beauty or ideas. When you look at a design and see something within it. Layers of elements. It doesn’t need to be complicated but just thought provoking. Take the viewer on a journey. Make them look closer, question and ask “why?” Why is the Mona Lisa so famous? Lots of reasons, but partly because we are drawn in to her many layers, the cheeky smile, her eyes, the story. Capture that or something like it, and you’re there.

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“Deepness” by timizy01
The designer hasn’t just looked at this in one direction. He has climbed to the bottom of the ocean and looked up. He has given us a new perspective. He has added layers with the animals and lighting and finally added a tentacle stretching out. Are all the creatures doomed? Is it really an octopus? Eep! Who knows? The point is the artist made me question it/look closer. This people, shows depth.

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“A Paper Boat” by nicebleed
Excellent example. First off, where the hell is that river leading off to? and why is it black? Are we all doomed? The girl is the second element, maybe she symbolizes hope as she places the paper boat onto the oily river. What is this statement? Who knows? But it could be interpreted in a number of ways by the viewer. Bingo! It has physical depth, but also depth of meaning. Head explodes!

6. Color

Color theory is a huge subject but here I will give you the whistle stop tour. Let’s jump in. When looking at color we have to respect the color wheel. The color wheel helps us to understand colors and how they relate to one another. Here she is:

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OK don’t panic it’s not as scary as it looks. Let’s break it down. You have your 6 basic colors – red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple. Then you have the in-between colors that are mixes of the basic colors. Colors are categorized into 5 groups:

Primary – Red, Yellow, Blue. When you mix two primaries together, you get a secondary color.
Secondary – Purple, Green, Orange. These 3 colors are what you get when you mix the primary colors together. They’re located in-between the primary colors on the wheel to indicate what colors they’re made from.
Tertiary Colors – These are the other in-between colors like Yellow-Green, Blue-Green and Red-Violet. They’re made by mixing one primary color and one secondary color together. There are endless combinations of these badboys.

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OK that’s the basics, phew! Next we get into more color names and categories.

Complementary Colors – Red and Green, Blue and Orange, Purple and Yellow. These are the colors directly across from eachother on the color wheel. They should be used with some caution because they are heavy in contrast but used well can look nice!

Analogous Colors – Red and Orange, Blue and Green, etc. These are colors right next to eachother on the color wheel. They usually go together well, but they also create almost no contrast.

Warm Colors – Red, yellow and orange. These colors make us feel all warm and cozy because they remind us of things like fire, the sun and heat.

Cool Colors – Blue, green and violet. These colors make our teeth chatter because they remind us of winter days, water or grass.

Neutral Colors – Beige, gray and brown. They aren’t on the color wheel, they got thrown out by those pesky Primaries. They are considered neutral because they don’t contrast with anything really. They’re dull and uneventful. Poor little colors :(

Monochromatic Colors – A monochromatic color scheme uses 3 different shades of one color. For example: Light, Medium, and Dark Green.

Value – This is the amount of black in a color. The more black a color has, the darker its value.

Brightness – This is the amount of white in a color. The more white a color has, the brighter it is.

Saturation – Is basically the amount of a color used. When a color is at full saturation, it is very vibrant. When a color is desaturated, a large amount of color has been removed. Desaturated colors become neutral because they appear grayer.

There is more to it but basically this is a good start. You can find some useful tips online such as This is a very useful resource that let’s you peruse awesome color combinations and create your own. is another cool tool for playing around with color.

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mathiole has created his own recognizable color palette through his “watercolor style” digital illustration, seen in his “Ecstasy” design.

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ninhol’s bright colors usually scare most designers off. However he uses bright, bold color very well, like in his design “AΩ.”

7. Line, Shape and Texture

Lines are pretty simple things but here are some interesting things you should know. The direction of a line can convey mood. Horizontal lines are calm and quiet, vertical lines suggest more of a potential for movement, while diagonal lines strongly suggest movement and give more of a feeling of vitality. Contour lines are lines that make the edge of a shape. Gesture lines are multiple lines that make the shape look like it’s moving. It suggests shaking or wobbling.

Value Lines or crosshatching can also be used to create areas of grey inside a drawing. These areas of darker shading inside a shape, called areas of value, can give a more three-dimensional feeling to an object. Crosshatching done right can look incredible.

In a picture, the shapes that the artist has placed are the positive shapes. The spaces around the shapes are the negative spaces. It is as important to consider the negative space in a picture as the positive shapes. Some artists can create pieces that have no distinction between positive and negative spaces, clever. M. C. Escher was the top dog at creating drawings like this.

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Texture is the surface quality of an object. We feel texture when we touch objects and recognize roughness, smoothness or patterns. Texture is the artist’s way of creating these tactile impressions on to the two-dimensional image. Varying the pattern of light and dark areas on an object creates texture.

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shantyshawn uses line very well in the design “Red Riding Hood.” Note how the thick and thin lines make up a tunnel like effect that draws your eye into the centre. The focal point is the girl and he has used red to draw the eye in further. Hidden amongst the textured trees is a wolf adding depth and more story. It’s a design that just keeps on giving.

8. Movement

We all move and in art sometimes you want to portray movement, but how? Here’s how
Artists use repeated/fuzzy outlines to convey motion. Using multiple overlapping images gives us the impression of motion too. Eyes are awesome things, not just because they are the windows to your soul but because they see images cleverly. A good artist will lead the eyes on a journey around their artwork. Purposefully linking objects. “Rhythm” in art refers to the way your eye moves throughout a picture. Some images move your eye through them in a connected, flowing way, other images move you from one place to another in an abrupt, dynamic way Rhythm in art is created by the repetition of elements. The eyes have so much rhythm that optical illusions based on the repetition of geometric forms will cause your eye to produce motion where none is present. Yikes!
Once in a Blue Moon

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zerobriant’s “Once in a Blue Moon” is the perfect example of movement in design. Look how uses a mixture of line thickness, curved strokes and repeated shapes to draw our eye around the design. That whale’s gonna jump right out of that tee!

9. Balance

When objects are of equal weight, they are balanced. If you have several small items on one side, a large object on the other side can balance them. Visual balance works in the same way. Let’s break it down.

Symmetrical Balance – Symmetrical balance is mirror image balance. If you draw a line down the center of the page, all the objects on one side of the screen are mirrored on the other side.

Asymmetrical Balance – Asymmetrical balance occurs when several smaller items on one side are balanced by a large item on the other side, or smaller items are placed further away from the center of the image than larger items. One darker item will need to be balanced by many lighter items.

An unbalanced design creates a feeling of tension, as if the whole thing might tip, looks unfinished or the eye is drawn to the area that seems to have something ‘missing’.

Color can help to balance things too; our eyes are drawn by color. Small areas of vibrant color can be used to balance larger areas of more neutral colors. Use shape and textures too, large flat areas without detail can be balanced by smaller irregularly shaped objects (maybe with texture) since the eye is led towards the more detailed shapes.

A focal point is the area you want the viewer to focus on or see first. Like that 60″ LCD TV you have at home, that’s the first thing visitors see because it is awesome and right in the middle of the wall. A focal point can be supported by other elements around it to balance the whole image out.

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Nairk1’s “Giant Spirit is Hungry” has symmetrical balance. Not all the elements are the same on both sides but it is visually, intentionally balanced.

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“bad memory” by conker shows asymmetrical balance. The items are all different shapes and sizes but they are placed in a way that looks ‘right’. It is balanced by elements that make up a whole picture. Nothing looks out of place.


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