Nobody likes to waste perfectly good t-shirts. We all want to be good stewards of the Lord's resources. T-shirts are a great way to excite and inspire, communicate your message, promote your group, and leave a lasting impression. At Church Art Works®, we've been serving the design and apparel needs of churches and ministries since 1982, so we've seen the potential pitfalls. Here are a few tips to help you avoid them.

1. Start Early.

One thing we see all too often is the mad scramble as the frenzied youth leader tries to pull off a t-shirt miracle at the eleventh hour. If you need a completely new custom design from scratch, try to plan the project about 2-3 months ahead, or even earlier if you are going to use the same artwork on promotional brochures, posters, and web. This allows enough time for all the details such as conceptualizing, designing, estimating costs, working out quantities & sizes, printing, and shipping. If you don't have much time, consider using a One Color Template, Multi Color Template, or Creeds™ design where the basic artwork is already done and you just need to change the text or add a personalized secondary design.

2. Budget Enough Bucks.

This one is easy. Before the t-shirt project proceeds, call or e-mail the artists and/or printers and ask for estimated costs. Your goal should not be to find the cheapest, but to find affordable excellence – super cool stuff at a reasonable price. And while you're at it, be sure and discuss the timeline for the project and your final "in-hands" date.

3. Tie Shirts into the Big Picture.

Apparel should be only one part of your total branding and promotional efforts. Event promotions will carry more impact when there is continuity in all the pieces. If the shirt art is expanded and used in multiple applications it will raise the perceived value of the shirt and the event.

4. Have A Point.

Figure out early on what the purpose of the shirt is. Is it to communicate a theme or scriptural concept in an artistic way? Is it to create curiosity and opportunities to answer questions? Is it simply to promote an event or to raise awareness of your group by displaying your identity? Answering questions like these will help you decide what should go on the shirts.

5. Involve Your Students.

Granted, this one is scary. You don't want to open a can of worms, but if there is a way to gather student input about design and apparel options in an organized, positive way, you should consider it. This increases your chances for success because your students will feel like their opinion counts, making them more likely to "buy in" and take ownership.

6. Know Your Audience.

Who's going to be wearing the shirts? How old are they? What are they into? What kind of fashion do they wear? How bold are they in their Christian walk? Knowing your demographic is important to apparel success.

7. Know What's Cool.

Instead of instantly gravitating to your own tastes, try educating yourself in the current "school of cool" - today's culture. Get your fashion education by scoping out some popular sites like Buckle, Old Navy, American Eagle, PacSun, CCS, Hot Topic, or whatever stores your students are shopping at. Fashion changes fast so check out the latest looks, and try to soak them up a little before deciding on a design direction.

8. Carefully Consider the Text.

Make a short list of the mandatory and optional wording. Make sure you think about headlines, bylines, dates, and scripture verses or references. If the shirt is printed on both sides, then what info goes where? Sometimes a cool or clever quote can be the ingredient that "puts it over the top." Evaluate every word. Is it necessary? Could it be rephrased to make it punchier? Does it communicate clearly?

9. Keep it Simple.

Less is usually more. As a general rule, keep the clutter to a minimum. If some words are unnecessary, drop them. Your students will be happier with the result. Never "write a book" on a tee unless it is a quotation, creed, or scripture verse.

10. Don't "Over-Churchify" it.

One of the quickest ways to guarantee your shirt going down in flames is to use blatant spiritual talk or "Christianese." Be sensitive to your students. If wearing the shirt in public makes them too uncomfortable, it becomes a car wash rag. So take care when it comes to using Christian icons and words like "ministry", "church" or "spirit-filled".

11. Print on Wearable Colors.

When trying to please a large group that includes both guys and girls, it is best to choose a color that errs on the side of safety. Taking risks on extreme fashion colors may make you feel radical, but may cut down the percentage of shirts that are worn for any length of time. Lean towards classic winners, the type of colors that are universally popular.

12. Get Funky.

Don't always take the t-shirt design so seriously. Sometimes, try something new, like a humorous, bizarre, random, or semi-shocking image or concept. Be bold! Many times those are the most memorable.

13. Use the Right Designer.

More often than not, it pays to go to a professional. Not only will they have more dynamic design solutions, but they will also have a better understanding of all the variables that make a design connect with the audience. Many times there will be an online portfolio of past work to preview their quality and style. There may also be pre-made templates of popular designs. If you don't have to recreate the wheel, sometimes it is best not to.

14. Be Gender Conscious.

Today, more than ever, you have to consider that both guys and girls will be wearing the apparel. This includes not only the garments themselves (girls may want a feminine style garment), but also WHAT the shirt says and WHERE the printing is placed. Sometimes an innocent theme can take on an off-color meaning when printed on the front of a girl's shirt.

15. Nail the Sizes.

If there is ever a place to avoid winging it, this is it! Do your homework. Find out what sizes the majority of your students are wearing - right now, students are wearing smaller sizes than they did in the past. Sometimes an event pre-registration can supply you with your specific sizes. If you have to guess, then guess based on experience from the previous year, combined with the advice of your printer. On big events, sometimes your initial order can be made, followed by a "fill-in-the-holes" reorder right before the event.

16. Order the Right Quantity.

Again, pay close attention to this one. Prices for printed apparel are based on the quantity of each print run. If you underestimate, you might end up having to do a more costly reorder. On the other hand, if you are too optimistic you are liable to end up with a box of unused shirts in the corner of your office. It's best to have just a few extra to cover those who sign up late or who ordered the wrong size. If you're worried about getting stuck with extra shirts, you are usually better off if the shirts don't have the date on them. That way, you can more easily use them for prizes and giveaways, or sell them the following year.

17. Use a Quality Printer.

Leave nothing to chance. As a general rule, you get what you pay for. Use a professional with years of experience, and don't hesitate to ask for references or samples of their work.

18. Nurture Relationships with your Apparel Sources.

Unless you are dissatisfied with them, it is a good idea to stick with your designers and printers for awhile. As the relationship grows and a true friendship develops, communication normally gets better, and the end product improves. Designers and printers are like anyone else - they will more easily go the "extra mile" for a long-time friend than for a "one-timer".

19. Hype the New T-shirt.

When releasing a new shirt design, make a BIG DEAL out of it! Make a giant scene over the "unveiling" of the new design. Let staffers wear the shirts early, before they are available to students, as a "teaser." Or use the "free" shirt as an incentive for early event registration, kick-starting the event momentum.

20. Give the Shirts Plenty of Media Exposure.

Make sure that all presentations and promotions such as posters, slides, video, or web all include nice close-ups of kids wearing your own custom apparel. There is great power in repetition. The more your designs are seen, the stronger they become, and the more they are sought after. They are like walking billboards, boosting group identity and awareness and pumping up enthusiasm for your events.

May your next t-shirt experience be an awesome one!

Dave Adamson
Church Art Works | Varsity Mascot Co. | Throttle Design Mechanics

Dave is the Creative Director for Church Art Works, a company that specializes in graphic design and apparel for ministry.


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