A custom-printed t-shirt really is one of the best ways to get people talking about your brand. The initial cost is low, and the return is exponential — every time the shirt is worn, it’s working for you. It doesn’t matter if your business is corporate or casual, professional or whimsical, global or local, multi-generational or brand new — t-shirts can generate interest and pack a powerful marketing punch.
Custom printed apparel is one of the most versatile marketing tactics out there. Think about it: is there any brand, business, group, organization, or cause that can’t benefit from awareness-raising t-shirts?!
Hmm. Nudist colony, maybe.
No, actually, we could make that work. No one would expect it… total subversion of expectations! See? The point is that anybody can see results through a well-designed t-shirt. “Well-designed” is the key phrase here. The design of your t-shirt is just as important as the text in your print ad or the script for your radio spot. Effective design translates to real-world impressions. Whether you are trying to sell or give away a t-shirt to your followers and fans or you want tees that will act as walking billboards with your contact information, it’s important to give the design some serious consideration.
We’ve just about seen it all over the years, so we have a pretty good feel for what works and what falls flat. If you’re ready to use t-shirts to generate some interest in your brand, here are 10 handy design tips to get you started.
1. Use unique ink colors. Yes, white ink on a black or navy tee is a classic look, but there are literally thousands of ink color options to choose from out there, and sometimes choosing a unique palette is the perfect way to make your brand stand out. Maybe you want to feature the Pantone Color of the Year (it’s coral in 2019) to stay on top of trends. A pop of neon on a black shirt is a definite standout. Even swapping white ink for cream can set your brand’s apparel apart from the competition.
Metallic inks, glow-in-the-dark colors, pastel color palettes, glitter prints, monochromatic designs (artwork featuring 2-3 shades of the same color): these are all atypical inks that just might make a potential customer look twice at your brand.
2. Keep the design simple. Obviously this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule; some of the coolest designs we’ve printed have been very complex with lots of great detail. If you’re just getting started with apparel to generate interest in your brand, however, simple is good for a few reasons. First, it’s gonna save you money. With screen printing, your costs go up the more colors you use. Second, simple t-shirt designs are clear communicators. You don’t want your brand’s important info (phone number, website, etc.) getting lost in the shuffle.
Finally, simple designs can pack a powerful punch. One of the most effective designs we’ve seen was a t-shirt made to look like a Cards Against Humanity playing card. White Helvetica text on a black tee: simple, straightforward, and instantly recognizable by the brand’s target audience. Don’t overthink it! Sometimes basic is best.
3. Don’t go too trendy. If you’re developing a branded shirt design that you want to be able to use effectively for years to come, it’s important to not get locked in to the latest trends. Trendy t-shirt designs do what all trends do: they fade in popularity. Remember those KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON shirts that were a hit a few years ago? It seemed like every brand was using the iconic text layout in their apparel offerings. Now, though, that design’s popularity has waned. If your entire brand strategy was based on that trend, your collection of branded apparel would be sorely out of date today.
4. Go super trendy with a blitz design. Wait, what? You just said “DoN’T Go tOo tREndY!” Yes, well, that was a lie. Or, more accurately: it’s true most of the time, but it’s a lie for the next 30 seconds. Sometimes things happen in the mediasphere that are just too perfect, too monumental, and your brand can’t afford to miss capitalizing on these opportunities. If the Queen of England announces she’s only wearing tie-dye shirts for a month, and you run a tie-dye company… yeah, you might wanna make a t-shirt about that. Remember when the lights went out at the 2013 Super Bowl? Within minutes, Oreo’s social media feed featured an ad with this iconic text: You can still dunk in the dark.
People went nuts for it. If your brand can quickly capitalize on a phenomenon like that, the effects can be overwhelming. With digital printing, you can get your hands on a small run of pop culture-relevant shirts in a snap! So don’t be afraid to use a trend to your advantage, just make sure you use it effectively before the conversation moves on to the next topic. (Also, if anyone wants to make a Queen of England tie-dye t-shirt, we now have lots of ideas).
5. Use humor. Obviously, this tip is only going to work if it’s appropriate for your business. We don’t push humorous t-shirt designs on, say, a funeral home looking to get apparel for its staff. But if you want your brand to be more approachable and interactive with its target audience, humor is a great way to achieve this. Remember, the goal is to get potential customers to remember your t-shirt and thereby remember your brand. Of course, if you plan to use humor, make sure it’s humorous. Beta test your idea with a few friends and fans to make sure it’s not gonna fall flat.
6. Be edgy. Here’s another one that may or may not work for your brand. If you’re starting a brand new preschool, for instance, you probably want to stay away from Nicki Minaj lyrics in your shirt design. But, if it works for your brand, edginess can be a great way to zero in on your niche audience. Niche marketing is a method of subdividing the HUGE assortment of people in the world and directing your marketing efforts to a smaller group more likely to benefit from your business. Trying to attract the 20-30 crowd? Then go ahead and get t-shirts that will make an elderly church lady clutch her pearls. Looking to catch the eye of the golden-agers? Take potshots at millennials. Why not? There are no rules here; it’s t-shirts!
7. Add interesting textures or halftone effects. One way to easily make your t-shirt stand out from the rest is to incorporate interesting textures or effects into the design. Want your t-shirt to have that vintage, worn-for-years look? We can add a distressing texture to your design so it looks like parts of the ink have flecked away over the years. There are distress textures that mimic brick, wood grain, ink splatter, spray paint, and just about any aesthetic your brand is looking for.
You can also get creative with halftones when designing branded t-shirts. As you probably know, screen print pricing is determined by the number of individual colors in your design. So, if you’ve got an awesome illustration with a highlight and a shadow creating dimension, your design would be at least a 3-color print. Halftones allow us to create the illusion of highlights and lowlights using a single ink color. Portions of your design can be printed as a grid of fine dots, which allows the shirt color to show through the print and interact with the ink color.
8. Try a hashtag yoke print. Ok gonna get a little teachy and explainy here for a minute, so if you know how hashtags work you can tune this out. A lot of folks use hashtags as a sort of afterthought in a social media post. For example, you might see hashtags like #whatamIdoinghere or #starbucksdrivethruisinsane. These are fun, but not really what the hashtag was designed to facilitate. Hashtags are ways to organize and categorize various social media posts. When browsing a social site like Instagram, you can search a hashtag like #stlouismade or #yoga and see all of the posts with this hashtag.
For a brand, coming up with a specific, easily-searched hashtag (or using one that is highly searched in your area or among your target audience) is a great way to get more attention from your potential customers. ENTER: THE BACK YOKE PRINT. A back yoke print is a small, subtle print on the back of the shirt, right below the neck seam. Lots of brands put their logo here, but you can include a hashtag instead. That way, when you’re waiting in line to get that triple latte, the person behind you can be searching your hashtag and discovering your brand.
9. Experiment with non-standard print locations. Front prints, left chest prints, and back prints are the industry standard, but there are more options for creating unique, eye-catching tees. We can print on the sides of shirts that don’t have side seams. We’ve done sleeve prints, vertical prints that are aligned to one side on the front, hem prints, heinie prints, you name it!
If you watch The Office, you’ll have seen a perfect example of this. The high-strung and tightly-wound Angela, who happens to be very pregnant at the time, receives a gift shirt with “Ask, Then Touch” printed right across the belly area. It’s a non-standard print location that makes the text more effective because it’s printed smack dab in the middle of the NO TOUCH zone.
Our online design studio has a big red box outlining the printable regions of our shirts, but if you have an idea that is LITERALLY outside the box, send us an email and we’ll help you out.
10. Keep updating. As with any marketing effort, it’s crucial to keep updating in order to present a fresh, current brand identity to your target audience. You can have a standard company t-shirt that stays consistent from year to year, but consider supplementing that design with alternates that change from season to season. For example, if you rolled out a tie-dye shirt last summer, then switch it up this summer with your logo in bright neon colors. This will keep people interested in your brand and ensure that your t-shirt marketing doesn’t lose its punch over the years. T-shirts are easy to update and super cost-effective, so you can roll out a fresh design each year to keep your prospective customers on their toes.