Circa 2020 was definitely the year of the statement T-shirt … so we asked some of our favorite screen printers to share their most inspiring designs from a pandemic year, and give us their best tips for creating compelling artwork and printing like a pro.
“At a time when a message means more than words can express, and what we wear during a time when a face mask covers our normal, everyday conversations, the beliefs and expressions we convey through T-shirt design are powerful,” says Tom Rauen, CEO at Envision in Dubuque, IA.
Get ready to be inspired by these 10 T-shirt (and hoodie) designs and the great stories behind them.
It’s a good time to ‘Love People’
Rauen created this T-shirt design to help raise more than $3,000 for the Fountain of Youth Program, which spreads awareness and funds programming for local underserved youth dealing with generational poverty.
The team at Southeast Impressions in Tennessee designed this T-shirt with four interlocking hands and the “Love People” message in a get-noticed font for a local fundraiser. Rauen contacted Southeast shop owner Ben Spurlock to see if they could collaborate to use the design for a group near Envision.
Of course, Spurlock said yes. Rauen says the fun part of bringing this design to life was collaborating and using another screen printer’s design in a different market.
“We contracted the printing to Southeast Impressions and we did the fulfillment on our end,” he says. “This helped keep production costs low and efficient, since Ben’s team was producing the same design for their campaign as well.”
This design is simulated process printing that looks great on both black and gray T-shirts. “It was nice to offer a couple of different options,” Rauen says. “The University of Northern Iowa Men’s and Women’s basketball teams adopted this mantra and wore the T-shirt, showing unity among each other.”
Part of the ‘Here for Good’ movement
Many decorators joined in the Here for Good movement during the pandemic: Shops set up T-shirt fundraising stores for local businesses where supporters could buy T-shirts with the business name or logo on it. Then, the decorator printed and shipped the shirt, and gave the business a part of the proceeds.
Tanya Doyscher, owner and graphic designer at Fairmont, MN-based The Visual Identity Vault, joined the Here for Good movement a little differently. First, she partnered with local competitor shop D & S Trophies, owned by Sara Cyphers, to create just one shirt with a “Martin County Strong” logo to show unity.
“We wanted this shirt visible in our community to benefit as many businesses as possible,” Doyscher says. “The impact on our community was huge. We funneled a lot of money back and showed that working together creates amazing things.”
D&S created the artwork, Doyscher’s shop ran the webstore and shirt production, and then the shops came together to bag and tag, and then deliver or facilitate pickup. “We developed a list of business names we printed on the back of the shirt,” Doyscher says.
“When someone ordered a shirt, they could choose the business they wanted their donation to go to. Some businesses even opted to send their donation to a food bank or other worthy nonprofit.”
To prepare for the volume of shirts, the shops opted for a one-color black distressed design, for interest but also to indicate 2020 was a time of distress. “A myth here is that more colors is better,” Doyscher says. “Not necessarily. When it’s something like this, I recommend keeping the design to one or two colors so that there’s more profit for the group you’re supporting.”
On the printing side, Doyscher set up an adult and a youth size in a triblend tee and on her auto press. “We played with the names on the back to make sure they were legible on the youth tee,” she says.
Honoring veterans with ‘The Last Ride’
Doyscher also worked on The Last Ride shirt for a veterans group in nearby Faribault County. “The message they’re conveying via the shirt and the ride honors those who’ve served and made the ultimate sacrifice, in the past, present and the future,” she says.
“The shirts are very visible and participants and those who support the cause wear them at the event and year-round. The impact for the group is awareness and a fundraising tool.”
Supporting the small town bar
To support her local small town bar, Stacy Sports Bar in Stacy, MN, Carolyn Cagle, owner of Strikke Knits, created this look-at-me design for T-shirts and hoodies. She used a plain white screen-print transfer from FM Impressions overlaid with colored metallic foil from ProWorld.
“To get the crinkle effect, I put the white down first,” sayCagls. “Then I cut the center circle out, crushed the foil and put it onto the transfer.” She set her heat press for 375 degrees at seven seconds. She cold-peeled the transfer after adding the “crinkly layer” of foil.
Getting in a vacation state of mind
During 2020, even though the in-person promotional product trade shows were canceled, the team at Panama City, FL-based Garment Gear still needed to promote their services. For several years, Proforma had printed Garment Gear’s catalogs. “We talked to our rep there about handling our 2021 catalog, along with doing a direct-mail piece to include a custom printed T-shirt for every Proforma distributor,” says President Dan Strickland.
Strickland shifted his trade show budget into this direct mail piece and custom T-shirt. “We decided to use DTG printing to create unique individual name drops in full color,” he says. “Our travel-themed artwork captured that essence of freedom, vacationing and travel, which was taken away from everyone over the past year.”
The in-house art department at Garment Gear created several concepts. “We needed a design that would hit the vacation angle, but was also promotional for us,” Strickland says. “That’s why we came up with the idea of parachuting crates of T-shirts to a vacation island.”
Since Strickland wanted to print more than 500 individual name drops, going the traditional screen-printing route would have been “an impossible task financially,” he says. Instead, his team decided to use their Kornit Vulcan DTG printer (click here to watch the actual DTG printing job).
The Garment Gear art team built the master art file and then added in the individual name drops in layers. “Then, we imported the files and set them up in the printing queue,” Strickland says. “We turned out 180 shirts, and each one is truly different.”
Feeling happy with retro goodness
TV DAD is a cool clothing brand based out of Los Angeles that makes “wacko weirdo gear to be worn and enjoyed by all.” The brand’s team wanted to offer a full-color print on their site, but were concerned about the process since they had never done it before. They partnered with Eric Solomon, owner of Houston-based Night Owls, to produce the print. “One of the great things about TV DAD is that they partner with emerging artists to feature their work,” Solomon says.
Artist Arabella Simpson (@arabella_simpson) created the retro, pop-culture-inspired art that recalls more carefree times featured on this T-shirt. “Quite frankly, the TV DAD team was super concerned about how the art would translate to a T-shirt and whether our shop could pull it off,” Solomon says.
This design was one of Night Owls’ first full-color, high-solids acrylic screen prints. “The key for any high solid acrylic print is to control the opacity in the bases,” Solomon says.
“By creating a super-smooth, flat surface with opaque bases, we used thinner highlight colors, which allows for better blending properties, and an even lighter and smoother print.” The biggest myth about this process, Solomon says, is that you can separate and print full color, wet on wet, using opaque water-based inks.
Solomon printed this design on a Gildan Adult Heavy Cotton 5.3 oz. T-Shirt (G500), using a 12- color press, with eight of the 10 colors printing wet on wet. “We used every head, with no cool-down stations, and the print still retained detail and vibrancy with properly printed high-solids acrylic water-based inks,” he says.
Check out more of Night Owls’ work on Instagram (@nightowlsprint).
Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop’ feeding the kids
During the pandemic, the Utica City School District staff in New York was determined to get every student their daily lunch. “We designed this shirt for the food service department staff to bolster spirits while serving lunch to students who picked it up at the schools,” says Howard Potter, CEO and partner at Utica, NY-based A&P Master Images. “Basically, their attitude was, ‘Nothing will stop us from feeding the kids.’’
Potter’s team riffed off a “can’t stop, won’t stop” theme and used an eye-catching text design that also incorporated the year 2020. In line with on-trend “logo-like” or emblem designs, the A&P art staff chose to fit the text into a circle. Echoing the Utica City School District’s crest logo colors on the shirt back, they popped the same red (hello, apples) on the center-front shirt design.
“Sometimes, ‘statement’ shirts are busy and very difficult to read because of multiple fonts and colors, which can take away from the design and the message,” Potter says. “The rule of thumb: Approach it like a logo. Less is more, and packs a punch to get the point across.” Potter’s team chose to print on a 100% polyester shirt with moisture-wicking qualities so staffers working in warmer kitchen environments stayed comfortable.
Dancing alone and together during quarantine
Potter’s shop also created a motivating, team-building T-shirt design for the local Center Stage Dance Studio, which switched to all-virtual classes in 2020 to keep all dancers training and interacting with their company mates. “We worked their logo into the design, but kept it clean and classy to create a simple message of hope,” he says.
The A&P team chose a super-soft T-shirt from Next Level Apparel for a higher-end feel for the wearers.
“This design required a white base to block out the shirt color with a second color to go over the top,” Potter says. “For the design elements with fine detail, we reduced the point stroke on the base of the detailed elements, so the top color would cover the base evenly and be easier to register to get a clean print.”
What to do today
After you’ve read the stories behind these 10 inspiring designs, it’s time to think about how to apply what you’ve seen in your shop and for your customers. Savvy decorators look at their current client base and see where certain T-shirt designs might fit into business-boosting marketing campaigns, events, giveaways or sales. As you’ve seen, some of the decorators here partnered with artists or other shops to make events and fundraisers happen. Brainstorm your client list with your team to see what you can dream up, and then present those ideas enthusiastically to your clients.
Did you know that a simple placement change can update the look of an embroidered hat? Instead of center-front placement, choose a location over the left eye to create a modern, offset retail look. “You may need to edit the logo to achieve the look, but the results are worth it,” says Traci Miller, owner of Warren, OH-based Color 3 Embroidery, “and your clients will love it.”
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