Inside Apparel Design: An Overview

Process Overview

Process Overview

In this article, we will focus more on the "blue" side since the main concern of the designer in the production part is the "Approval."

The tips and techniques I share here are from my experiences designing shirts for Team Manila (featured in this article).



Usually the Art Director will give you the theme for the upcoming collection/series — that will be the starting point.

Use Your Resources

Utilize all your resources such as the Internet, books, magazines, and your sketchbooks.

Save them all in a single folder so you will have instant access to your resources. No need to categorize and organize the folder — keep them in one level so you don’t have to look into sub folders.

Use Social Networking Sites

Add, follow and be friends with your fellow designers and design blogs on web services like Twitter, Facebook, and StumbleUpon. Their posts and feeds will give you a wealth of information and inspiration in a passive way. Save posts that interest you — you might use them in the future.

Always Have a Notebook in Hand

Always bring a handy, dandy notebook (your mobile phone’s note-taking application will do) — you never know when that million-dollar idea will strike you.

Always write and list your ideas: It will free your mind, and as a result, you can absorb more thoughts in the process.

Brainstorming and Presentation

Brainstorming and Presentation

You got your research down, now it’s time to show it off!

Try to make your pitch as visual as possible; don’t put any unnecessary words/text in your presentation —  just explain it verbally and let your team’s imagination and creativity handle the rest.

Again, always bring a notebook and list all the inputs of your Art Director and fellow designers. Have a copy of the presentation of your fellow designers for reference.



Now let’s go on to the fun part. I know we all have different approaches to the design process, so I will just give you some tips and things to remember when designing apparel, as well as some insights on my personal design process.

Design for "Wear-ability"

First and foremost, you will be designing something that is to be worn, not to hang on walls in an art gallery. Always keep that in mind. Throughout your design process, always ask yourself "Is this wearable?"

Design for the Brand

Design with the brand in mind. Yes, I know you might have your own style, but it’s not about you, it’s about the brand you’re in and doing the design for.

Carefully read the mission, goals, and vision of the brand you’re making the apparel for. Who’s their target audience? What things and themes do they carry in all their projects?

Keeping the brand in mind ensures that your design will be cohesive with the brand.

Choose the Right Colors

The colors you use can make or break the design itself. Keep in mind the number of colors you will be using. Normally, you should just use a maximum of four colors in your design — this will save cost and time in the production.

Communicate With Your Printer

Ask your printer about the specs they need. Know their different types of printing techniques and applications so you’ll know if your design is possible for printing.

Experiment with their printing methods. Know your printer’s limitations such as the number of colors they can do, their prices, and available fabric colors. Knowing these things will save you a lot of time configuring what to do.

Design in High-Resolution

Just a reminder, I’m sure that if you’ve done any sort of print design work before, you already know this, but it’s worth saying and repeating: Make sure you are doing your artwork in high-resolution. For example, if you are using Photoshop, a letter size, 300 dpi is a good starting point.

Approval and Revision

Approval and Revision

So, let’s say you’ve got your design finished. Now, it’s time to get it approved!

Show the beauty of your design, present it well to your Art Director so he/she can appreciate it well.

Explain Your Design Well

List down all the comments and feedback you get. Don’t be afraid to ask questions so that you will know if you really got his/her vision right.

Remember: Communication is the Key

Sometimes you and your Art Director will have different views: It’s to be expected because design is subjective. Keep it civil and professional and don’t take negative feedback personally.

Final Artwork

Final Artwork

After all the revisions, you finally get it done right. Now it’s time for "Final Artworks".

FAs are documents you have to send to the printers for… well, of course… printing.

Measure Twice, Cut Once

Get your brand’s blank shirt, the one that your company uses. Get the measurements so you will know how large your design(s) will be.

Prepare your design in the actual size according to your measurements, print it on paper, and then place it on top of a blank shirt for double-checking purposes. Doing this will save a lot of time in the production line.

If you’re using Photoshop, blow up your design in its actual size, and lessen your dpi settings to about 100 dpi to 150 dpi, depending on what the printer’s requirements are.

Label and Organize

All your sizes are now set. Properly label your design with measurements and the placement of the design on the shirt.

Also, label all the colors you used by using a "Pantone Guide". Make sure that your monitor is calibrated.

Wrapping Up

There’s a lot more to discuss in this topic, but for those who are interested in entering a career in apparel design, this article will give you a basic understanding of the task ahead. If you have more questions, don’t hesitate to drop me an email and post your questions in the comments section below.

  • 4 colors maximum. That’s hard. How do you pick color scheme with this limited color?

  • Magnooze

    You can still use CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black) process coloring which covers full color spectrum by mixing those four colors together. You have to do some extra editing on the files then but you’ll find very good tutorials for that online.

  • 4 colors (spot colors) is not the standard maximum,it depends on the budget really. More colors=larger production cost. but if you need a full color design, like Magnooze said we can use the CMYK process>

  • Nice Guide and good speech used in the article well it is hard to find apparel designer customized for your own design rather then using the others ready made designs.

  • Using less color for more pop is always best. Even when adding colors alot of the time adding pantones instead of going CMYK is better. Like using a underlay for a color can change it’s appearance.

  • Great writeup! You hit a lot of great points, although I would’ve liked seeing a quick tip about separating colors in Illustrator before sending to print. Overall great job though!

  • Tom Heffernan

    Total # of colors depends on equipment your printer is running. There are machines out there capable of 16+ colors. That makes for a heavy print if using non-water-based ink. Quality 4-color process printing on textile is difficult to do well. Understand your printer’s capabilities before cutting any art. It’ll save you boatloads of time.

  • If I have another chance to write another article we might discuss some part of it separating spot colors using Illustrator, although most of the times you don’t have to worry about separating colors on your own, since the printer should handle that job, but yes it’s good to know the process.

  • “Understand your printer’s capabilities before cutting any art. It’ll save you boatloads of time.” -totally agreed. =)

  • awesome article. thanks Heinritzh.

  • How do you become an apparel merchandiser?

  • It is a design challenge, but I find that working in grayscale greatly helps. I use black for the line work, light gray,medium gray, and a white base, on a locked neutral background, all on separate layers. This is enough to get all the shades and highlights you need and helps keep you from using any unnecessary colors to keep the client cost down. Hope that helps. In photoshop you will need to work in separate layers, the printer will need the colors separated as part of there process later on, and you can help them by doing it from the get go. In Illustrator the separations are handled as part of the pincers export settings so you don’t have to worry about it.

    If you still need more color, you can cheat by using either halftones (let the printer set these up for you, as each screen is different and they know what works best with there gear) or you can use the shirt color, for example, if you have gray in a design, you can delete the gray and the gray of the shirt will fill in the design and save some money.

    4 is not the max, but it is a good ballpark, there are other methods of printing that do not have a maximum color limit, Direct to garment for example, they just have pros and cons like any method.

    Whatever you can draw someone out their can print it for you, so don’t let this stop you from drawing the way that you want.

  • Do you mean a designer or a seller?

    For design, there are a number of tee shirt contest you can participate in that well help you get your feet wet.
    The method I used when I started was to do contest, and also join as many online portfolio sites that I could that were art/design related and would let me post an about me, and photos of my work. I have never had to seek out work, clients just come to me from the internet.

    I did have a strong art background before I went digital, it helps to know the fundamentals.
    I would also recommend a drawing tablet, it gives more control over a mouse. Wacom has a good variety, I recommend the highest quality for your budget, but the cheap one will work fine.

    If you mean selling yourself, there are some print on demand sites that are a good place to start.
    I recommend red bubble, If you want to pay for printing and ship them from home. I use big cartel, or storenvy is also good.

    If you mean how to get stores to carry your merch.. I’m sorry I have yet to reach that level, but it can be done.
    Good luck.