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Bonfire's guide on how to design a t shirt

How to Design a T-Shirt

Designing a shirt can feel like a daunting task, especially if you are new to the world of custom apparel design. But no fear, you are in the best hands with Bonfire. We’ve helped thousands of individuals and organizations create amazing designs that their communities love. In this post, we’ll walk through some tips on how you can design a rockin’ t-shirt for your buyers.

How to Design a T-Shirt


Before You Start

While it may be tempting to jump straight into designing your apparel, there are a three steps we suggest completing first. Thinking about some of these options before you delve into creating your t-shirt will help make your design and campaign setup go faster and be less stressful.

Set Your Goals

Before you get started with your design, It’s important to have an understanding of what you are setting out to accomplish with your t-shirt campaign. What is the primary goal of your t-shirt campaign? Are you trying to raise a certain dollar amount for a cause or need? Or are you hoping to sell as many shirts as you can to promote your brand or cause? Maybe you’re simply trying to create a sharp looking shirt for your community.

Establish a goal for the t-shirt your design, what are you trying to achieve?

Establishing a main goal for your t-shirt will help you when it’s time to make design and pricing choices. Set your goals first, and then start making decisions about your t-shirt.

Brainstorm Creative Elements

Take some time to determine the words, imagery, logos, or colors that need to be included in your t-shirt design. It’s important to have a list of guidelines around your design so that you have a starting place when you begin your creative process. It will also help make sure you include everything you need to have on the shirt, which is especially important if you are designing apparel for a specific event or cause. 

Gather Design Inspiration

Now for the fun part, gathering inspiration for your design! Collect photos of t-shirt designs you like to help you determine the type of style you want to go for with your shirt. You can check out Bonfire’s Staff Picks, Instagram, or Pinterest to see some of our favorite designs. 

Gathering inspiration for your t shirt design

Once you have a selection of 3-5 designs that inspire you, take some notes about what you are drawn to in each one. Is there a specific illustration style or font that you would like to use? Is there an ink color pairing you keep falling for?

2020 t shirt design trends

Decide Who’s Designing Your Tee

Now that you have a better idea of what you want your custom shirt to look like, you need to decide who will be bringing your t-shirt design to life. There are three ways to get your shirt designed with Bonfire: 

Design decision tree

Designing a T-Shirt Yourself

Let’s get creative! Before you jump onto your computer to start creating your design, think about the garment you will be designing for.

Decide Your Design Placement

There are a few different options to consider when deciding where to print on your shirt. You can print your design large and centered, or shrink your design and put it on the top right side of the shirt as a “pocket print”.  You can also get creative and print your design aligned to the left or right for a more dynamic effect. You may also choose to print a larger design on the back of your shirt. 

Common design placement ideas for shirts include: pocket prints, large front print, large back print, and across the front prints.

Bonfire provides sellers with a printable area box that directly translates to the screens used in the printing process. You can completely fill in this rectangular printable area for the largest print possible, or shrink your design for a smaller print.

The printable area of a shirt that you can design on

The maximum art size that Bonfire can print is 11.5 inches by 14 inches. These dimensions match the size and proportion of the “printable area” shown in our design tool. To help keep costs as low as possible, the same screen is used to print the design on all sizes and styles of the products you choose for your campaign.

Choose Your T-Shirt Colors

Many of the choices you make when creating your t-shirt design itself will be influenced by the color of the t-shirt you choose to print on. If you know the colors of the products you want to print on before beginning the design process, it will save you some time in the long run, and help you choose which ink colors to use so your design and text really “pop” on your shirt when it’s printed.

Choose a t shirt color to print your design on.

The most popular t-shirt colors purchased on Bonfire in the last year were Black, Dark Heather Grey, and Midnight Navy.  So, you may want to keep that in mind when thinking through what apparel colors you want to use.

Add Visuals & Graphics

Custom apparel is a great place to reuse and repurpose existing creatives like brand logos and marketing illustrations. Many of these assets already contain imagery, typography and color palettes that resonate with your audience. If you’re creating custom shirts for your business, or organization, sticking with the imagery and colors of your brand is a great place to start.

Add visuals and graphics to your t shirt design.

The original March For Science shirt, shown on the left, featured their logo and was designed by the national organizers of the march. As sister marches began creating their own t-shirts, they used the colors and logo icon as inspiration but made the designs personalized to their geographic area and audience. Local organizers had the creative freedom to create relevant, contextually-rich designs tailored to their audiences, while still keeping a cohesive look because they kept the atom logo and color scheme.

If you’re designing a shirt for a new business, grassroots cause or personal fundraiser without existing assets, research the themes, passions or interests that tie your network together before you start designing.

Read our guide to learn more about creating a design for your target audience.

Use Typography

If you are struggling to figure out a way to visually represent your brand, cause, or business on a t-shirt, typography could be a great starting place. Broad, appealing phrases will maximize the interest in your shirt and in turn, bring in more sales. Typographic designs are an easy way for anyone to create an awesome t-shirt design, without any expensive design programs.

Use typography in your shirts design to represent your brand or spread your awareness for your cause.

You may already have a word or phrase that will resonate with your audience, but if you are unsure, think about what unites your audience. Design with relevant words or sayings that will reinforce a sense of community around the shirt’s subject matter. Use unique fonts on your shirt to create a piece of art out of just these words or pair your phrase with other design elements and imagery.

The best t-shirt fonts to use in your next design
Font pairings for your shirts design that will always go well together

Our t-shirt design tool has over 170 free t-shirt fonts to help you create something truly unique. If you can’t find the perfect font for your shirt in our design tool, there’s an endless amount of creative fonts available online for free. If you’re feeling inspired, you can also hand draw your own fonts and text to create your design.

Select Ink Colors

Select the ink colors that will be used to print your design on the shirt.

Picking the colors of the design itself is important when making your t-shirt. The best rule of thumb is to always use light ink colors on a dark shirt and darker ink colors on a light shirt. This creates a contrast between the print and the shirt itself so your design will really “pop”.  While printing black ink on a black shirt may be trending in some audience groups, most buyers would be disappointed if they couldn’t see the shirt design on the t-shirt it was printed on.

Pro Tip: use 1 to 3 colors in your design to maximize your profits or to keep your cost per-shirt as low as possible.

White ink is an easy win and shows up well on most shirt colors. However, if you want to play with more colors in your design, explore complementary colors that create a pleasing mood when used together. We recommend using 3 or fewer colors to maximize your profits and create a clean, aesthetically pleasing design.

T-shirt color combinations that always work.

Bring Your Design to Life in the Design Tool 

Whether or not you have fancy design programs, you can create awesome designs for your apparel right in Bonfire’s Design Tool. Once in the Design Tool, you can choose to upload your own custom, ready-made design, or add text and clipart from our extensive clipart library, powered by Noun Project. 

The Bonfire t shirt design tool

If you’re uploading your own custom artwork, follow these design file recommendations to make sure it looks its best when it’s printed:

  • Upload an .AI or .EPS file with a transparent background
  • Export your artwork from vector graphics if you can’t upload an .AI or .EPS file
  • Use a print file that’s at least 1500px x 1500 px and 300 DPI (dots per inch)

Once you’ve uploaded your design or created it in the design tool, you can select your apparel styles and colors. Our t-shirt design tool makes it easy for you to test color options out and see what looks best. We’ve worked hard to make sure that the t-shirt images in our design tool match what the shirts look like in real life.

10 ways to use Bonfire's t-shirt design tool like a pro.

So, if you don’t like the way your design and t-shirt pairings look online, you are really not going to like them in person.

Hire a Designer

If you don’t have the time or talent to bring your t-shirt design to life, you can hire one of our a talented graphic designer to create it for you.

Bonfire Studio, custom t-shirt design services, graphic

For as little as $49, you can get the concierge design experience of your dreams. Simply tell us your vision for the design, and pass along all of your ideas, inspiration, and any sketches you have. Our team of designers will work with you to create a design that fully encapsulates your vision.

Design a Shirt with a Customizable Template

Bonfire has a suite of over 500 free customizable t-shirt design templates to help you create an amazing design for your community without the need for special design software.

Use a customizable t-shirt template to design your shirt.

No matter what you are creating a t-shirt for, our fully customizable templates will allow you to have a starting point, and make edits to personalize it to your brand or cause. 


Ready to Design Your New Shirt?

Jump in our free design tool to bring your idea to life!

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