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Creative T-shirt thinking on colour, typography and composition

Woman wearing a pink T-shirt with a On Sundays I rest with Gin and tonic design and 6 wine bottles

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Why read this? : We share how we used different creative approaches in our T-shirt designs. Learn the role colour, typography and composition play in creative T-shirt design. Read this for examples of design theories applied to real-life design challenges. 

Our recent Spreadshirt shop launch article shared why Print on Demand was our preferred first sales channel for online selling. 

This week, we cover to how to be creative with T-shirts. We share graphic design skills and design principles we’ve used to move from theory to the practical side of designing. 

Our goal is to make each new design better than the one before. Our post-launch selling T-shirt learnings article shared the need for smarter designs. Here’s some of what we’ve been doing about that. 

Woman wearing a pink T-shirt with a On Sundays I rest with Gin and tonic design and 6 wine bottles


Most of the T-shirt and design suppliers like Spreadshirt and Redbubble come with a large choice of products. Each product has a wide range of colours to choose from.

Our first designs didn’t take into account the differences between printing on light and dark colour backgrounds.

As per our design principles guide, contrast is an important element to include when you design. 

We created 2 versions of these designs. One to show up on a light background, the other to work better on a dark background.

But this leads to a confusing choice for the shopper. So, we’re now thinking ahead more when we choose colours. We consider how they’ll appear on different colour backgrounds. While it’s also fun to think about the psychological effects of colour, there are also practical considerations to work through. 

Example - Mumjuggling design

Take our recent mumjuggling design, for example. Here, we have a magenta font ‘mum’ running on the black cut-out of the mum juggling.

This combination helps the image stand out more.

It’s a good example of using contrast.

The dark cut-out stands out on lighter backgrounds, and the magenta stands out on darker backgrounds.

We also applied colour in design thinking to other elements in this design. For example, the red font on the main mum juggling is complementary to the red gradient on the ‘balls’. 

Three brains Mumjuggling t-shirt design

The gradient effect also gives a 3D feeling to the balls. We also slightly changed the angles of the gradients so the balls look more ‘natural’. As if they were really being thrown in the air.

We also considered the colour choice and how it’ll print. Colours look different on screen versus on printed items, as per our colour in marketing guide. 

We use the RGB colour system as it’s recommended by the print on demand companies. The quality of the finished product depends on the printer’s ability to transfer the colour from a digital file to the T-shirt.

As we’re still new to using the Print on Demand companies, we’ve found their help guides on colour useful such as this guide from Spreadshirt.

Woman wearing a pale green T-shirt with a design showing the outline of a woman juggling 6 balls and the word mumjuggling

Font and typography - Website

When we set this site up, we started by browsing the Adobe Font library to see what typefaces were available. There’s a lot to choose from. We’ll share some of our experience with that before we look at the typefaces we used on our T-shirt designs. (Incidentally, we hope Adobe pay the font creators well. That’d make us feel better about the outrageous Adobe fees we’ve moaned about in previous posts).

Libre Baskerville and Poppins

We ended up with Libre Baskerville for most of the headings and Poppins for most of the body copy. (Note : we’ve since dropped Libre Baskerville, and gone with Poppins for all our website typeface choices).

These came with the WordPress theme we used (called Neve, if you’re interested), but are also available license-free at font-squirrel. It’s important to check the usage rights on typefaces. So, whether it’s free for commercial use, or only for personal use, for example. There are some great guides out there on where to download fully free fonts

We also think it’s worth researching the fonts you use.

Libre Baskerville is a serif-based typeface. It’s web font optimised with origins dating back to American Type Founder’s Baskerville from 1941.

It’s been adapted to make it easier to read on screen, and it’s been downloaded almost 650,000 times.

Poppins on the other hand is a sans serif typeface.

It works in Devanagari and Latin writing systems according to the notes on Font Squirrel. It’s been downloaded more than 700,00 times.

Screengrab of part of the Three Brains website with text underneath showing the fonts used - Libre Baskerville and Poppins

You probably got to this page via the home page but probably didn’t pay much attention to the font choice. Who does? But it’s important to consider when building website pages to make sure the text is legible.

Font and typography - T-shirts

However, what works well on a web page doesn’t necessarily work well in other formats. And when we played around with these fonts on some early creative T-shirt designs, they didn’t work so well.

On T-shirts, we like the chunky El Grande for headlines. It’s a sans-serif with a lot of curves and character. It stands out well when seen from a distance. And on most of our new designs, we’ve added a little (0.05in) drop shadow with no blur. (Note : El Grande was part of the Adobe Font package when this article was written, but is no longer part of that package).

We also like Noteworthy as a copy font – it’s informal and script-based. But when we tried Noteworthy in the mumjuggling design, it didn’t quite work.

So, we’re trying another script typeface called GoodDog New. We may well use it in future designs. 

It’s chunkier, so it stands out more at a distance.

You can see these different fonts in the image with the mum juggling and introvert guide to Christmas designs. (Also, check out our full marketing typography guide for more on fonts and typefaces).

Two T-shirt designs with text underneath showing the three fonts used - El Grande, Gooddog new and Noteworthy


Our final thought on creative T-shirt design is around composition and layout.

We use a standard 11in x 11in grid for the basic T-shirt layouts. And we work mostly in Adobe Illustrator for layouts.

We tried one design in Photoshop (our recently added Gin and Tonic t-shirts started with images of actual wine bottles).

But they didn’t work so well with the other graphics. So we ended up drawing our wine bottles from scratch in Illustrator. 

Woman wearing a grey T-shirt with a On Sundays I rest with Gin and tonic design and 6 wine bottles

Some of the Print on Demand design specifications let you go bigger than this – especially the height, but we prefer to aim a little smaller. It’s easier to enlarge a design than to squeeze a design into a smaller space. 

We mostly use the Snap to Grid function as this helps with a lot of alignment. Alignment is another topic we cover in our design principles guide. 

The designs should be balanced for layout with images and fonts coming together. We also use the alignment tools in Illustrator a lot once we have the basic elements in place.

Images and text we try to centre align as a rule to give some balance. But only where there’s not a lot of text, as centre-aligned blocks of text are harder to read. 

Conclusion - Creative T-shirt thinking

We’ve added more design notes about our creative T-shirt work on our design page. But for this article, we wanted to connect our T-shirt thinking with content from our creative skills section.

We hope these give you some ideas on how to apply design skills with actual products sold online. 

It’s been quite a creative week overall as we’ve also started looking at another Print on Demand option called Society 6. We’ve managed to get a couple of test designs uploaded here

Person holding light bulb with blurred out light effect in the background

It seems more artist-oriented than Spreadshirt or Redbubble. Plus, it seems to offer a wider product range. But, it’s got a lot of different product specifications. And that means a lot of resizing images to get them on the main range of products there.

And that’s a job we’re saving for after Christmas,

Check out our colour, typography and design principles guides to learn more. Or get in touch to see how we can help grow your creative T-shirt skills. 

Photo credit

4 coloured paint rollers : Photo by David Pisnoy on Unsplash

Person holding light bulb : Photo by Fachy Marín on Unsplash

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