A lot of T-shirt designs are little more than a rectangular picture printed onto plain white material, without much thought about how T-shirts can be different from paper or canvas.
This can look great (I’ve had shirts like that myself), but I think it can be even better if the art looks like it was designed especially for T-shirts.
Here are some ways to help your design look more like it belongs on a T-shirt:
Step 1. Match the shirt color to the design.
You can choose a shirt color first and design with that in mind, or you can pick a color in the design and use that to choose the shirt color.
Having this one color in common will help make the shirt and the design look like they belong together, especially if it isn’t the usual choice of plain white (although white can still be great).
Step 2. Break up the edge of the design.
This might be a good method if you’re using photos or other complex pictures because you won’t have to change the artwork itself. You’ll just be changing the border.
You might make it an oval shape instead of a rectangle, or you could erase the edges with a soft or textured brush in photo editing software.
A more decorative option is to scatter shapes like flowers, cogs or snowflakes around the central design. It’s all about getting away from that plain rectangular border.
Step 3. Use the shirt color as the edge of the design.
This usually works best with black (or any dark color) because you can have silhouettes of things, such as monsters around the edges, as if they’re reaching out of the shadows.
That sounds creepy, but it doesn’t have to be! The main artwork can be quite cheerful, with trees or buildings creating the setting.
You can also create a scene that has the edges naturally falling into shadow, such as a character lit with a spotlight.
Step 4. Use the shirt as the main background color.
This can be really easy for simple designs. In fact, you may have already done it without even thinking about it!
The most common example would probably be light text on a dark shirt. You can see this method used in other tutorials on Printaholic.com, including a plain, dark car printed onto a light shirt.
With some planning, you can use the shirt to provide the main color for more complex, multicolored designs.
This works best for shirt designs that are more cartoony than realistic because you can use whatever color gets the idea across rather than just the colors people expect to see in real life.
My most successful design so far (“Invention of Color,” seen in Printaholic’s “15 Cool Vintage-Looking T-Shirts“) uses this method.
You’ll see these different methods being used in T-shirt designs almost anywhere you look, with a lot of designs combining more than one of the options.
Take your time.
While sometimes all you need is a great picture with no thought for what the T-shirt can add to it, I think it can really help your work to stand out if you design with the T-shirt in mind!