How to design an authentic promotional T-shirt

A while ago we had a customer who wanted to order some corporate tees for a special event. Seeing they would have to make a small investment on the garments, their graphic design team decided to make something “cool”. So they took a couple of weeks to come up with the design and when they did, it was cool all right, but it was also not compatible with the printing technique that had been chosen for this order.*

Designing a promotional T-shirt may seem like simple business. Stamp a logo across the chest and you’re done, right? Well, as any designer who’s had the pleasure experience of working for a brand can tell you, whenever it comes to a company’s name, there’s always a lot more to it than simply just printing a logo.

Bellow we’ll go over some of the main points you’ll need to take into consideration when designing a promotional T-shirt.

* BTW, we totally sorted out these guys order and they were super happy with the end result.

Working with Brand Guidelines

When you’re designing a brand’s promotional T-shirt, you’re not designing a regular garment. Promotional material is supposed to look more than just cool and pretty, it is also meant to communicate and advertise the brand and/or product which means there are certain rules in place…

Discuss Style Manual

Sometimes there is a style guide, sometimes there is not. If you’re lucky, you’ll be working for a company that’s got a neatly designed book with pages and pages on how to place their logo and what kind of colours you’re allowed to and not to use. Then, there are other times when one must rely on more “spiritual” guidelines, if you will. 

In this first discussions, it is important to make clear:

  • Briefing (target, purpose, expectations)
  • Timeframe (how much time you have to design this)
  • What can you do
  • What you cannot do
  • See examples of what they’d like to see

Design

Once the boring part is over, it’s time to start drawing! Take out your sketchbook and let your ideas flow.   

Getting Creative

Sometimes it’s cool, sometimes it’s not. When working with a brand that’s already got an established presence, it can be hard to get out of the comfort zone. As a designer, you may have the desire to do something different (after all, you’re an imaginative creature), but marketing directors may not necessarily want to see their logo reimagined as an 8bit video game character from the 80’s.

Personally, in this type of scenarios I’d rather go on the safe side. This means presenting a creative option and then one or two more conventional idea(s). Just prepare your arguments for the more unique concepts, because must likely they won’t be open to it. 

Working with fonts

This is a case by case basis. Most marketing directors have a series of fonts they like to work with, while there are others who wouldn’t be able to distinguish a Verdana from a Times New Roman. If you’re working with the latter, try to guess their general preferences, for example which do they prefer: Contemporary fonts or classical ones? Sans-serif or serif?

If they already have a corporate font, then make sure you have access to it before you sit down to work. You wouldn’t want to make the investment yourself. Typefaces can be expensive!

More on how to pimp promotional t-shirts with typography here!

Working With Colour Palettes

Similar to fonts, some brands will have a designated colour palettes while others won’t. Some may have a pantone code while others may just refer to the tones as “bright yellow” and “navy blue”. I used to work for an organisation which’s colour’s were simply “red” and “black”. No further effort made to discover even the RBG or CMYK proportions. Nope.

best-tshirt-colour-combinations-top-image

If you don’t have any colour guidelines whatsoever then you’ll have to pick them yourself, but still that doesn’t mean you can just choose whatever you fancy.

When creating a palette it’s important to keep in mind:

  • The meaning behind this colours
  • The vibrancy between the tones
  • How similar they are to other branded colours
  • How print friendly they are (some colours are for web use only)

Working with Logos

When working with brands it is very important to be careful with colours and logos placement. Ideally, you would have received the style brand guide by now which explains how and where to place a logo. Logo disasters do not only include poor design choices, sometimes poor positioning can be catastrophic as well.

Use graphics and illustrations wisely

Just because you’re working with a brand it doesn’t mean you can’t use illustrations and/or icons. The trick here is to stay within the the realm of the brand. While you may not reference it directly by featuring a logo or a slogan, the images you choose still have to fit within the brand’s mythology.

A good example are McDonald’s and Coca Cola when they partnered with YouTube Superstars Rhett and Link. The fast food giant asked the creative duo to produce an ad for the brand based on their viral video T-Shirt Wars (16 million views, wow!). For those who haven’t seen it, this is a stop-motion video that uses T-shirts to drive a narrative. The illustrations are simplistic and only feature the McDonald’s and Coca Cola logo at the beginning of the clip. While these garments were manufactured for the video and not for sale, they are still very attractive.

Artwork must adapt to the final format

It does no one good to have an amazing design only for it not to be compatible with the final printing technique (remember our client!). It is important to keep in mind the embellishing process from the very beginnings of the creative process in order to avoid a setback.

If you’re not sure about the printing technique, then you could ask the person in charge of speaking with the suppliers or you could also speak directly with them.

Sending off to production (AKA Design Proof)

Finally after days of planning and design it is time to start production — but there are still a couple more things you need to look over.

Have your pantone codes in hand

Confirm the colour they receive on the other end is the same one as yours.

Make sure its CMYK

All printers, including DTG, use a CMYK format. Which means you must double check your artwork is in said format before sending it off. Sometimes nothing will happen if you print a RGB format, while other times it could be an absolute disaster. Better make sure before sending.

Double Check final printing technique

Make sure you and your account manager understand what type of method will be used and what kind of artwork it requires. Some use flat vector layers with as few colours as possible, while others need 300dpi images.

Convert fonts to outlines

This is a big one! The reason why I would like to highlight it is because it doesn’t matter how many years of experience a designer might have, there is always that one time they will forget to convert fonts to outlines.

Make sure you use the right file Type

Again these depend on the printing technique. If you’re not sure of which file type to use then go for a high quality PDF. They’re safe.

Order samples if necessary

Sometimes it is just better to see and touch the products with your own hands. The better the quality of a garment then the better the final job will turnout, although keep in mind that if the artwork is poorly prepared then there is no T-shirt that can save it. Most printing agencies will ship samples when requested (we sure do). Don’t be afraid to ask your account manager.

T-shirt design inspiration

If you want some inspiration for designing promotional T-shirts, here are a few brands that have done it right…

MailChimp

Used mostly as giveaways for faithful subscribers, MailChimp is a company that always does the T-shirt thing right. It doesn’t hurt the fact that they have a really cute mascot, Freddie the monkey, that looks good on almost anything you put him on.

Fedex

This T-shirt was designed by BBDO New York advertising agency for a Fedex guerrilla campaign. As you may appreciate on the picture, the print is designed to create an optical illusion of the user carrying a package.

Marshall Music

Another example of an optical illusion done by a print. This time around, the hyperrealistic images and a camera angle make you believe these people are singing onto a microphone and carrying a pair of headphones around their neck. The one with the guitar sucks, though. Creative director Ivan Johnson created this campaign for Marshall Music, the biggest musical instruments retailer in South Africa, to communicate the company’s new branding.

Burger King and Getafe

Back in 2009 Burger King partnered with the Spanish football club Getafe to design a new jersey for the team. The shirt had the face of the fast food monarch printed on the inside, meaning that whenever a player scored a goal, they could pull the shirt over their heads and do some promotion for the American chain while celebrating their accomplishments.

But that wouldn’t be the last time the Madrid based Football Club would venture into unconventional marketing. Two years after the Burger King campaign, they released a porno (quite literally) to recruit new fans.

Apple

This one takes us, way, way back. In the days when Apple was still trying to find its space in the market, some merchandise came out to promote the new personal computer. First, I don’t know if it is the retro effect or what, but I love those T-shirts. I would buy one in a heartbeat if they were for sale now and second, — have you ever seen a happier family to be all wearing the same clothes? Seriously, these are some Tom-Cruise-jumping-on-Oprah’s-couch levels of happiness here. 

Final Thoughts

When designing promotional T-shirts remember:

  • Be faithful to the brand guidelines
  • When venturing into unknown territory, have always a good reason to do so
  • Be ready to defend your ideas.

Before you send your artwork for printing, you’ll need to double-check:

  • The Colours (pantone code and CMYK mode)
  • Fonts (right for the brand and converted to curves)
  • File Type

For more ideas on how to design creative T-shirts, you can always check the following article we wrote a few months ago. Do you have experience designing promotional T-shirts? Is there anything we should add to this post? Then, please let us know in the comments bellow.

In the meantime, keep reading the Printsome Blog for more awesome content.


Printsome is a personalised clothing printing company that delivers throughout the UK. We offer screen printing, direct to garment printing, express t-shirt printing and all printing in between. If you really are looking for promotional t-shirts, then start a conversation with us and let’s get your project off the ground!


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