How to create the perfect t-shirt with Clark Orr
Design
7
min read

How to create the perfect t-shirt with Clark Orr

Read an interview with our pal Clark Orr on his design process and where he finds inspiration.

The design process can be a daunting one. It’s easy to feel stuck, and when inspiration isn’t flowing like you hoped it would, it can leave you feeling really discouraged. This happens to everyone from time to time, so the question is, what do you do about it?

This week we caught up with our friend Clark Orr to chat through his design process, and different tips he has for creating a t-shirt that people are going to love wearing again and again.

Clark and his wife Brittany are the masterminds behind Hellcats Inc., a craft goods and accessories shop. 


Prior to Hellcats, Clark was still very much inside the t-shirt/design game. Wanting to be involved in the punk music scene when he was younger, but not playing an instrument, Clark started designing logos and t-shirts for friends’ bands, then friends of friends’ bands, until he became the t-shirt guy. 

He even started designing t-shirts for Johnny Cupcakes early on, designing one of the mainstays in their line, the Big Kid. All that to say, he knows his stuff.

The Design Process

The design process is, obviously, the hardest part of the t-shirt process. It’s also the most rewarding. This is when you get to start with nothing but your ideas, and turn them into a potential masterpiece. One of the challenges here, though, is inspiration. Like we said, you’re beginning with a blank slate, so how do you know where to start?

Inspiration –– Surround Yourself With It

As you're in the idea phase for creating a design, be sure to seek out inspiration. This can take place in any form. Pinterest, Instagram, or Dribbble are excellent places for designers to go and draw from other work. 

“I feel like Pinterest gets a bad rap, almost as like the place your mom goes to get recipes,” says Clark. “But it’s a really great place to search and find cool design work.”

Don’t underestimate how valuable it can be to easily look at and be inspired by other people’s work.

Great design can be found outside of the digital space, too. To help shape his own brand’s designs, Clark has become quite the antique collector. Looking through books or going into antique stores and seeing old printed goods has helped shape a lot of his design work.


“I’ve always been inspired by things that are older than me, so my office is surrounded with a bunch of weird antique items” says Clark.

This is where it helps to be intentional with your workspace. Surround yourself with things that inspire you –– whether it be antiques or magazines or succulents –– and it can help you push through. Take time to be thoughtful with your workspace, because it really pays off.

Sketching

A craft that often gets overlooked in design nowadays is sketching. While it can feel slow and somewhat archaic, it can be incredibly helpful. 

“Sketching helps me render out ideas quickly,” says Clark. “Sometimes I’ll go straight to computer, but if I’m having a hard time getting out ideas, it’s probably because I didn’t sketch.”


Taking the time to draw things out requires a little bit of patience, and you have to be okay with the fact that you’re not going to use most of what you draw. But it also forces you to really flesh out your ideas. Plus when you start an idea you don’t love, it’s much easier to pivot to the next.

Once you have a favorite design selected, take a photo of the selected design and upload it to Adobe Illustrator. That’s when you really begin to polish up your design and add the finishing touches.



Colors and T-Shirt Styles

Once your design is complete, you’ve done most of the heavy lifting. However, there are still some important decisions to make. One of them being, what t-shirt are you going to print on? What material? What color? What style? 

These details are not to be combed over, because they’re going to have huge implications on your end product. Here are a couple of Clark’s tips for choosing colors and styles.

1. Pay Attention to What’s Popular

We mentioned scrolling through different social networking sites to get inspiration. While you’re there, take note of different trends that are popular. Colors, patterns, fabric types –– anything that might give you an inclination as to what will be popular with people. 

Clark mentioned while working at Johnny Cupcakes, a huge part of their customer base were also sneaker heads, so when they were designing for a new line, they’d look at the newest releases from Adidas, Nike, and Jordan to get a feel for what color combinations and patterns would work well.

He even mentioned a time where they noticed a lot of yellow being worn, so they printed some shirts on a yellow American Apparel t-shirt and they sold like crazy! It seemed like no matter what they printed on it, people were snatching those shirts up.


2. Aim For Simple Designs

Another good rule of thumb, and one we preach often here at Real Thread is, the simpler the better.

Unless it’s a color associated with a particular cause or brand, people tend to wear more muted colors as opposed to louder, brighter ones. So unless the goal is specifically to be noticed, try starting off with something a little more toned down.

Even make it a goal to stick to one color in your design if you can. Simple prints are usually the best prints. Plus, they cost a bit less to produce, so you’ll end up with a better profit margin.

3. Be Mindful of the T-Shirt You Print On

This seems fairly obvious, but also worth repeating. Make sure you do your research when picking out a t-shirt. This is the canvas your artwork is going on –– make sure it reflects that quality of your work.

It’s also worth thinking about what your audience cares about. Is American made something important to them? Or something eco-friendly? Or is it just important that they have something that fits nice?

There are a lot of t-shirts out there, so make sure you do your research, or ask someone who knows t-shirts inside and out.

Set Your Art Up For Success

One last thing you’ll want to do when you’re designing a t-shirt is make sure your artwork is optimized for printing. When you work with a reliable t-shirt printer, this shouldn’t be a big deal because they’ll help you with it, but to reduce the chance of miscommunication, you want to make sure your artwork is ready for print.


So make sure to think through things like:

All things that will make your ordering process smooth, and ensure that there are no hiccups or unexpected surprises when your shirt is printed. For more art prep tips, be sure to download our T-Shirt Printing Checklist.