Graphic Designer vs T-shirt Designer


Working with the best talent and experts is always key to any company's success. The same is true when starting an apparel brand and you are working with a tight budget. A mistake I have seen over the years is start ups contracting t-shirt art to unqualified designer to produce their T-Shirt art. When it comes to hiring someone, they may choose a friend who is a graphic designer or even a professional would create web & print media but has not advanced to the world or color separations screen printing design. In this case, the money strapped start up, may ultimately pay for their artwork twice to have it production ready. 

When Looking for a designer to create graphics for your apparel brand, you must first come to the understanding that not all graphic designer are equal. In fact, very few are skilled with the right talent pair with the proper experience to provide the necessary files or print quality art needed to have the job done right the first time. With so many brands, graphic styles, trends and niches, a successful T-shirt designer requires experience in the following skills and software:

  • Viral Communication
  • Hand Illustration
  • Color Separations (Spot Color, Index & Channel)
  • Print Experience



Spec Sheets and Tech Packs are the provided manuals created from the Designer to give the proper information so that all Screen Print Dept can use these documents to for a successful production. Having all of your placement notes, PMS colors and final print size are crucial in order to avoid unnecessary communication.  Below are a few examples of proper spec sheets and all of the details required for a seamless production outcome. 

Spec Sheet | Shirt Quantities + Press Notes

Spec Sheet | Includes Neck Label info



The ability to freehand Illustrate graphis is key when creating designs and without finding someone with this natural talent, you may find the cost of your final design to be increased. An Illustrator will know the proper technique to get the design from the sketch pad in to computer to finalize it there. Hand lettering is also a unique skill set so if you can find someone who is comfortable with this type of creative ability, you will be able to sell designs with a unique look. Below are a few Samples of Custom illustration work and what you should see in their portfolio. 

Illustration | Final is 1 Color Vector Format

Illustration | Final is 5 Color Index Format

Illustration | 1 Color Channel Spec 


Being able to draw is a huge advantage, however, to qualify as an expert in T-shirt Design you will need to know how to get your artwork ready for film production. There are 3 main types of separations and each has it's purpose. The 3 are Spot Color, Index and Channel separations.


When creating art in Adobe Illustrator, graphics are considered Vector or Line Artwork. This type of artwork can be scaled as small or large as you want without losing anyt quality or resolution. When colors are separated and selected by PMS Solid Coated colors or made into SPOT COLOR swatches, there will be solid objects with crisp lines or gradients and output with precise registration and creating a base is easy. Most good T-shirt Designer will create their artwork as spot color designs from the beginning.

  • INDEX: 

Index Separations is an alternative technique other than channel separations used when separating colorful designs and breaking them down into square dither dot patterns. Usually photos qualify for good prints using this technique or illustrations colored by hand and then brought into the computer.   


Like index separations, Channel separations are broken down into gradient half tones as well as selecting larger areas of solid color. Channel separations need a sort of finesse and even can be separated differently depending on the ink you use. Photos, Difficult Spot Color designs with heavy gradients and CMYK jobs are usually great qualifiers for this type of job and when knowing your press's capabilities, you can make your separations accordingly.

NOTE: There are a variety of variables to understand to know which technique to apply and how. Things like, printing on and off the base screen to save money or reduce colors is a good skill to know. Being versatile enough to adjust print designs for both light and dark garments with the same design is also a crucial skill set to have. Since fabrics nowadays are becoming more versatile and better to print on, knowing how to separate for plastisol or water-base accordingly is key as well as knowing when to blend Channel, index and Spot colors seps together or even being able to tile a design in a way to turn a Standard print into a Jumbo or All Over Print is key to having the most options available to you when creating your line. Before committing to working with an artist, find out what his level of experience is so you can have the best results for your Prints and overall longevity to work with your artist.



I was personally fortunate enough to start out in the industry as a manual printer in the R&D department. I worked my way up to being an automatic press operator then production manager before I became a designer. Having that previous experience alone, I was able to apply that experience to my understanding so that I created my my designs to be the most cost effective and Production ready to avoid any production or budget issues. Working with a designer that has this type of press experience will be in the best interest to you as a Start up. With understanding all of the variables that may come into play you will able to have more efficient productions and your money will be well spent and protect to invest in more product and design. 

Designers who only know photoshop and Illustrator but can't illustrate a custom idea, tend to call someone with these skills up to help them finish a project to keep a new or preferred client happy.



Not all designers are effective T-shirt graphic designer when it comes to down to it. Buying custom graphics that are ready with spec sheets takes a unique knowledge and experience that most graphic designers are unaware and it may cost you more time and money in the end. With that said, take the time to find the right fit for your brand and save yourself the hassle and avoid headache and have it done right the first time. Also, with the type of skill set and ability with their experience you may have a solid designer for all of your design work needed.