Get T-shirt Design Ideas

So you’re ready to start selling t-shirts on Teemill and maybe have one or two ideas. But how do you consistently smash out professional standard t-shirt designs that make you money, every time?

Some people think you need talent or magic. That’s not true: It is a simple process that can be taught. It consists of two halves, the development of the idea, and the execution in a design program like Photoshop or Illustrator. So let’s get started, bust some myths and get your 5 t-shirt design tips for professional results that sell.

Low Poly Digitally Printed Lion T-Shirt

1. If you start in photoshop, you’re doing it wrong

The difference between successful Teemill stores and those that fail to jump the first hurdle is in the way design is approached. Focusing too much on getting a copy of photoshop and playing round with it will blind you from the fact that the idea is the most valuable thing. You won’t have any t-shirt design ideas when you’re in photoshop. Close it.

Your design program is just a tool. Think of it like a saw, or a gun. It’s not the quality of the tools, it’s about the skill of the workman. You must think first – Using your design program to create the finished piece of art it is the last thing you’ll do.

2. Forget about finishing, focus on starting.

A great t-shirt design starts with the parts. Mindmap your brand, cause, values or inspiration, then search it to get some visual inspiration and build some themes. Research shows that people come up with much higher quality brainstorm ideas alone, so no excuses – you don’t need help. Step 1 is to think about your values, and the iconic visual cues connected to that. As a designer at Rapanui we care about sustainability a lot, so naturally polar bears, wind turbines, trees etc. follow.

Googling, and particularly searching themes on pinterest helps a lot at this stage to think laterally and find those iconic items or images that are related to your values or passion. Try building a Pinterest board around some themes. It’s not about finding t-shirts to copy – any visual cue, a poster, stamp, photo, pair of socks, old painting – anything that looks cool and catches your eye that’s related to your brand themes and keywords.

3. You are your own demographic

This bit is easy. Almost every successful Teemiller we talk to has figured something out: They are their own target customer. Maybe you love Motorbikes and want to make some motorbike-themed tees. Forget trying to design what others like: Design what you think is cool and you’ll find other people like you love it.

Go out there and find some other designs you like, and try to categorise or pick them apart. Look at the formula. Make a list. Pun t-shirt, black on white. Photo t-shirt with handwritten typography. Weird but quite cool low-res polygon thingy. Big bold font statement tee. Pocket design. These formats will give you some basic recipe ideas to jump that last hurdle, and get to list of tees that are ready to commit to your design program.

4. Take two ideas and combine

The t-shirt designs that make the most money on Teemill get purchased either because the cause is incredibly powerful or, more often, because the design is clever. High quality graphic design helps, but a clever idea always trumps it. So how to make a clever design? Well, like most jokes, it’s about tricking the customer into seeing something that they didn’t see first time round. A hidden message or visual warp: Darth Vader as a DJ. A wind turbine in a peace symbol. A concorde haynes manual. Subversion, surprise and imagination is what the customer experiences and loves – but it’s not hard to do.

Imagine yourself as a creative large hadron collider and try to smash your iconic objects from your brainstorm into each other.

Polar bear  wind turbine.. nope. Wind turbine  ice berg.. wind turbine on an iceberg? Nope. Polar bear on an iceberg. Polar bear iceberg. Icerberg shaped like polar bear…. That’s a winning idea.

Notice how the design process is a stream of thought, and iterative: Woody Allen, one of the most successful screenwriters ever, writes every day and throws away two pages for every three he writes: Be comfortable with the fact that the majority of your ideas will be total rubbish. Iterate, delete and move on within seconds whilst keeping any good stuff. You’re panning for gold way before you invest time in photoshop.

5. The idea is everything

Next consider your inspiration, out there on the net. We liked the low poly trend last year, and immediately you can see the connection to the iceberg. And the three things, iceberg, polar bear, low poly make up the idea. The idea is everything: You should be able to visualise the design before you even open photoshop, or explain the idea to someone you’ve never met.

Next, work on some more ideas. You should be able to write a list of design ideas, or roughly sketch each one in 30 seconds. A good collection is more likely to be found in a notebook than on a computer. Only then, when you’ve got some great finished ideas, is itit time to fire up the design program and turn that vision into a real t-shirt design that people can buy.

Next: Artwork…

There’s lots of things to consider when completing the artwork for your new t-shirt design, from program choice, colouration, resolution, file formats and the nitty gritty of which tools to use for what, all of which are covered in detail in the next post.

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