How to design a great t-shirt | from daydream to design

The other day a couple of groms we’re in the shop and we got talking. 

They were really interested in my sketchbook that was sprawled wide-open on the countertop in the shop.  “How do you actually design a t-shirt?” one of them asked me. So we got chatting about 'how to design a great t-shirt.'

At first, they were completely absorbed by the concept that I was hand drawing lines in my sketchbook and turning them into the artwork, printed on andorwith tees.

This is the story, I shared with them.

Dreaming up an idea

First things first, I come up with a new idea. This usually happens in a dream or a moment of reflection.  I might be deep in thought, laying on the grass somewhere or out in the surf chilling between waves.

This particular idea of the kombi van appeared to me during a conversation with my Dad.  He was telling me the stories of his surfing days back in the 70’s.

He and his mate Ray actually bought an old 'Mr Whippy' Ice cream van and turned it into the ultimate shaggin wagon! They would pile-up 'as many surfboards as they could' and strap them on top. Brilliant, I thought.


Dad (David Smith) behind the wheel of the old surfing van.

Replicating the feeling of that dream

Dad’s story had really given me a sense of those 70’s surfing vibes. And “what epitomises 70’s beach culture more than a Kombi Van?” I thought.

So, I started to come up with this vision of ‘surfboards on top of a Kombi Van.’

Like any good idea, I like to start sketching as soon as I can.  Just to make sure I don’t lose the idea. I usually begin with a pencil and one of my many sketchbooks.

I usually keep one handy in the shop, one in the kitchen, one in my bedroom and another in my car.  You literally never know when an idea might present itself.

“It’s always good to have something to draw on,” I told the young groms, “because, you don’t want to lose that golden idea,” I affirmed.


Sketchbooks, coloured pencils, water colour paint and that trusty black pen.

From pencil, to my trusty black pen and onto the computer

Once I’m happy with the pencil work, I’ll draw over the lines with a 0.6 Artline black marker (these are my absolute favourite design tool  – by the way).

Then, I scan the artwork (or take a quick photo with my phone) and send the sketch over to my computer.  The back pen helps all the details show up on the screen.

On the computer, I start to redraw the artwork so that it's pixel perfect.  Here I’ll also make a few slight adjustments and maybe add some extra ‘digital artwork’ if need be.

Specifically, I use Adobe Illustrator.  With Illustrator I can create a ‘vector graphic’ which can be scaled up or down to any size, without affecting the quality.

Mocking up the t-shirt and playing with colours

Once I’m totally happy with the vector graphic, I lay the design over a high-quality image of a t-shirt.  This creates a digital mock-up of the final t-shirt design.

I really like to do this because it helps me visualise whether the design will actually look good or not!

I also work out 'how large the design should be printed' onto the t-shirt, and start playing with colours. 

What colour should the t-shirt be? And what colour ink should be printed onto the t-shirt.  This can be a bit of an experimental process.  Especially with some of our more colourful artwork.

Usually, I finish up by showing some colour options to my family and friends, because it really helps to have some honest feedback.


The Kombi Van Faded Blue Tee - straight from your old man's wardrobe back in the 70s.

Over to the screen print for production

Once everything is perfect, I send the vector graphic artwork file over to our screen printer, here in Adelaide.  They print the digital vector onto their silkscreen. 

The artwork is actually embedded within the silkscreen. This allows the ink to pass through the artwork and then onto the t-shirt.  It’s actually quite magical.

After the artwork is printed, the t-shirts are cured using a heat lamp and a high-intensity oven. This ensures the ink cures so that it lasts a long time and can be worn for years to come.

As for the two young groms, they were pretty captivated by the whole process and left the shop with a dream of creating their own t-shirt.  Hopefully, they drop back into the shop again soon with a progress update.

Maybe their design will feature in our next collection?  I’ll keep you posted.


More from Dad's classic photo albums and that legendary van.