How To Think Outside the (T-Shirt) Box

John Barker has been steeped in the digital printing and imaging world for over six years. Since 2005, he has headed up the acclaimed sublimation educational series Project Sublimation. To catch Barker at a workshop or trade show in your area, visit or email

In 2005, environmental artists Christo and Jean-Claude began construction of their sprawling fabric-steel-and-PVC landscape art The Gates, Central Park, New York, 1979–2005. The outdoor, “site-specific” art stretched down 23 miles of Central Park pathways and forever changed how many New York residents and visitors defined art space. While millions of visitors and observers recorded mixed reactions to this work (beauty is still in the eye of the beholder), there is no doubt that their artistic creation made an impact.

Whatever your form of expression, it often makes for more of an impact when you stop thinking in terms of pre-conceived borders and margins and start thinking about maximizing the use of the entire canvas available to you. When it comes to T-shirt design, thinking outside the de rigueur, restrictive boundaries of the “T-shirt box” can set your designs apart from the mundane, and help increase your profits along the way.

A brief history of the T-shirt

For as long as there have been garments, there have probably been people with a skill for decorating them. Whether it was sewing buttons on coarse wool jackets, embroidering a design on silk, or coloring natural fabrics with dyes, apparel and decorating have always gone hand-in-hand. While the T-shirt may trace its origins to the late 19th Century (thought by some to have originally been developed by P.H. Hanes Knitting Company to be worn under clothes as the top component of a two-piece men’s underwear set), it wasn’t until the mid-20th that Westerners broadened their horizons and began expressing themselves through Great American T-shirt Art.

Which leads us to the pressing question at hand: If decorating a T-shirt is truly a form of self-expression, why do so many designers limit themselves to a small, rectangular portion on the front and back center of the overall garment?

It’s time to shrug off the trappings of the past! In the world of T-shirt design, not only will staying within the lines limit your creativity, but you run the risk of your products being compared to those churned out in the mass-production world.

The 21st Century meets the ubiquitous T-shirt

When it comes to putting a design, slogan, image or message anywhere on a T-shirt, today’s decorators have a wealth of simple-to-use technologies to choose from for decorating a variety of garment styles and fabrics. The screen-printing industry has been greatly improved: Modern-day digital equipment allows for better color, faster production and cheaper costs. We’ve gained the ability to quickly and easily add other materials to fabrics, and decorators are going crazy with rhinestones, beads, studs and other highlights. In addition, digital T-shirt decorators are adding embroidery, vinyl, cutting-edge transfer media, doming and dozens of other embellishment techniques to their repertoire. Other contemporary techniques have decorators combining multiple embellishment methods in a single T-shirt design.

Advances in the textile industry have introduced new T-shirts and garments made of synthetic fabrics. These engineered, polyester-based garments can be decorated using a variety of methods, but for the best imaging quality and unmatched wash fastness, dye-sublimation answers the call. It is the only technology that delivers a full color, photo-quality image which does not inhibit the garment’s wicking ability. In addition, a sublimation transfer carries no hand, nor will the sublimated graphic ever wash or peel away.

Thinking outside that box

Thanks to cleaner, more user-friendly digital-imaging systems such as dye sublimation, it is becoming fashionable to embellish previously untouched or inaccessible areas of a garment. With sublimation, it is relatively simple to target any area of a garment. As long as it is made of polyester and you can get the area under a heat press, you can put a graphic on it (see Figure 2).

Thus, not only is it easy to step outside of “the box” in T-shirt decoration with a sublimation system and standard heat press, it’s encouraged! If you’re one of those people who find it difficult to conceptualize a creative, broad design from edge-to-edge, back-to-front, side-to-side of a T-shirt, there are ways you can force yourself to get there. Think of the shirt as a graphic file made up of layers. For example, you can start with a background layer of sublimation (the base for the shirt utilizing areas outside of that centered box). Then, depending on the alternative technologies you have available to you, you’d add further decorative layers over the sublimation through techniques such as embroidery or the addition of rhinestones.

Ironically, an effective way of thinking outside the proverbial box is to divide the shirt’s design itself into multiple boxes (see Figure 3). First, measure a common style of T-shirt, perhaps a short sleeve men’s size large. Divide that shirt into quadrants (or sub-quadrants) based on your printer output size and heat press platen size. By doing this, you can estimate which parts of the shirt you can decorate with each transfer print and each trip to the heat press.

When it comes to designing a clean, edge-to-edge graphic on a T-shirt, an easy approach is to focus your design on one quadrant within the shirt (or one half of the shirt) at a time. For example, designing the left half of a shirt allows you to plan for the sleeve, neckline, and hems of one side of the shirt. Then, with the simple Copy, Paste and Mirror commands in your graphics software, you have the other half of your fully-embellished shirt designed (see Figure 4).

After completing your sublimation base design, it’s time to accent the shirt using other technologies. Here’s where your creativity is especially important. Even if you haven’t spent thousands on other decorative production equipment such as an embroidery machine or vinyl cutter, it is still relatively inexpensive to add flair and flourish to your T-shirt. For example, a complete Bedazzler kit (as seen on late-late-night TV), including rhinestones, will cost you $19.95 plus shipping and handling. There are also inexpensive pigment-style “puffy” paints on the market that require low heat to activate. The point is, being creative is not rocket science!

If you want to take your designs to the next level while increasing your profits in the T-shirt world, consider thinking beyond the mundane style that traps so many decorators. Attract a different type of customer willing to pay for quality and ingenuity, by appealing to their independent, expressive side. Start with T-shirts, then branch out to other garments such as hoodies, golf shirts and more. In the end, you’ll realize more exposure and additional revenues when thinking outside the (T-shirt) box!