Using Color Theory To Create Your Next T-Shirt Design


When designing a t-shirt, choosing the colors can be the trickiest part. However, it doesn’t have to be! Check out this post on color theory, and how you can use it to choose the perfect colors every time.

Picking a color palette for a design is often thought of as a gut feeling thing; something you either have the eye for, or you don’t. While some people may be more naturally gifted at selecting colors that work, it’s something you can learn!

Whether you know it or not, you’re probably deploying color theory in your designs. Maybe you chose orange and blue in your design because you just thought they looked good. There’s more than just personal preference at play here though. It’s because we’re wired to see those colors as two that fit together!

So, whether you’d call yourself a color whiz or not, we’re going to give you a basic breakdown of color theory, and how it can help you make your next t-shirt design your best one yet.

Basic Color Types, and Using Them To Your Advantage

When designing a t-shirt, choosing the colors can be the trickiest part. Not only do you have to pick colors for the design, but you also have to consider the color of the shirt itself, and make sure that your design shows up well on the t-shirt.

A great resource we recommend checking out is Adobe Color CC (we used it to create the images below). It makes it super simple to pick one base color and see all of the different combinations that would go well with it.

Let’s cover some basic color theory by going over four basic color types — monochromatic, analogous, complementary, and triadic — and when it’s best to deploy them in your t-shirt designs.



Monochromatic Colors



What it is: Monochromatic colors all share the same base color but regarding of saturation and brightness. The far left color wheel above is a good example. Or in the shirt above, you can see that it only features various shades of the color green.

When to use it: This color scheme is a good one to have in mind when designing towards people who might like a more low-key piece of apparel, and are wearing a t-shirt because it looks sharp, rather than to promote something. It can also help simplify a busy design.

Tips to keep in mind: To be honest, there isn’t a ton to warn about here. Simple, monochromatic designs work every time! They look really clean, make complex designs simple, and they get worn time and time again. When in doubt, go monochrome.


Analogous Colors


What it is: Next we have what’s called Analogous, meaning a group of colors that are adjacent on the color wheel. The example above uses a color palette the features shades of purple, red, and orange, all in the same quarter of the color wheel.


When to use it: If monochrome is a little bit too boring for you, but you also don’t want to go crazy with your colors, this is a great route to go! Analogous colors are a great way to keep your design fairly low-key, but add a little bit of pop!

Tips to keep in mind: Using this type of color palette is great for adding small, subtle flashes of color. Notice how the majority of the shirt above features shades of red, purple, and pink. But they add in just a splash of orange, and it really pops off the shirt well and makes the design a bit more lively.


Complementary Colors


What it is: Complimentary colors are colors from opposite sides of the color wheel. Blue and orange, yellow and purple, green and red: they stand out against each other, but the effect feels right. It’s not garish and clashing.


When to use it: Complimentary colors tend to stand out when used together, so they’re best used when you’re designing a shirt that you really want to have noticed. This could work well if your design has a really strong message, and you want to make sure people see it.

Tips to keep in mind: If you want the contrast to be evident, we’d recommend printing on a 100% cotton tee. This will make the colors in your design a bit bolder, and allow for greater contrast between colors. The Next Level Apparel 3600 and the Canvas 3001 are two of our favorites!


Triadic Colors


What it is: A Triadic color scheme uses three colors that are spaced equally apart at equidistant points on the color wheel. The contrast isn’t quite as stark as complimentary colors, but this scheme offers a good amount of contrast while still maintaining good harmony. The shirt above starts with three triadic colors — red, blue, and yellow — then actually uses purple where the blue and red overlap.


When to use it: The triadic color scheme is great when you want to have fun with your range of colors, and make sure it still looks good. Mixing multiple colors can get messy, but keeping this color rule in mind will let you do it in a way that still works.

Tips to keep in mind: Adding additional colors can be a lot of fun, but each additional color will add to the price of your shirts. If you want to save a little bit of cash and still add some extra color, consider using a colored shirt! The t-shirt below does an excellent job of featuring the purple of the shirt as part of the design itself.



Notice that they used a color scheme very similar to the shirt above it. Coincidence? We think not ;)

We’ll admit that designing, like screen printing, is more of an art than a science. And even though we just gave you a bunch of rules on how colors work, we also think rules are made to be broken! So don’t be afraid to step outside of these boundaries if it feels right, because odds are, it is.

So get designing! We can’t wait to see what you come up with.

P.S. If you want to kick your design up another notch, go check out our free resource on t-shirt fabrics, and learn how colors interact with each fabric. If you liked this post, you’d love this as well :)






Like this post? Share it.