10 Popular T-Shirt Design Styles & Elements to Expand Your Print on Demand Catalog

Last update on Oct 05, 2023 by Alejandro Mendoza
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If you’re looking to expand your catalog of t-shirt designs, but don’t know where to start, you’ve landed in the right place because in this short post we’re gonna be looking at 10 popular t-shirt design styles that have proven themselves to be as relevant as they are appealing for a wide range of audiences! Whether you’re looking to stock up on fun and playful designs, something more sophisticated and timeless, or you’re simply looking for inspiration, we’ve got your back.

We’ll be discussing the specific design elements and aesthetics that give each one of these t-shirt design categories a personality of their own. Components such as color palette, typography, illustrations, layout and ornamental elements all play a role into setting each design style apart from one another, and it’s important to consider them and whether or not they’re relevant to your audience’s interests. And if we got this right (we think we did) then they definitely will be!

See something you’re particularly interested in? Jump straight ahead!

Vintage Distressed Designs

a variety of vintage designs, colors, and fonts

Authentic Vintage Style T-Shirt Designs
Because some illustration styles are timeless, and who doesn’t remember that old t-shirt they used to wear on sundays? That one which had already been machine-washed one too many times, and the print was starting to fall appart. That’s some authentic vintage for you right there. But not all designs are created equal, and while a damaged illustration may look great on certain types of prints and fabrics, others scream of being past its due date a long time ago.

That’s when the classic vintage design style comes to the rescue. This trend comes in many flavors, and if we had to pick a defining trait for it, it would be that it’s main objective is to depict a specific time period, typically displaying the easily recognizable motifs like cars and motorcycles from the 60’s all the way up to the 80’s, landscape badges, whiskey label style typographic compositions using retro fonts, and, most importantly, the grainy textures that emulate a light wear and tear, without any actual damage to the fabric or to the print’s integrity.

This style of illustration has steadily remained a staple of modern streetwear for both men and women over the years, and it’s a must have for designers and Print on Demand entrepreneurs due to it’s sheer popularity among consumers.

Cartoons and Caricatures

several t-shirt designs featuring cartoon versions of real people

Caricatures of Famous Pop Culture Figures
Whether it’s dinosaurs, monsters or silly caricatures of pop culture figures, cartoon designs offer great comic relief, and allow your brand to show potential customers that you don’t take yourselves too seriously, which is a refreshing and friendly approach considering nowadays sweat pants are considered high fashion.

This style of t-shirt illustration is fun and versatile enough that you can use them on their own as t-shirt prints, or you can also pair them with satirical quotes or puns to further drive home a concept or funny idea.

While “Cartoon” is a broad umbrella term under which you can fit many, many different styles of illustration, Caricatures are a sub-category with clearly defined characteristics, such as the overly simplified or overly exaggerated facial features of it’s subjects (Victims? You be the judge).

Having sets of other cartoon illustration styles at your disposal will allow you to create your own t-shirt design compositions while maintaining a consistent design style across your catalog.

These designs are often printed on t-shirts with vibrant colors, and while Cartoon t-shirt designs in general are always a great addition to a designer’s merch illustrations arsenal, creating this kind of illustration does take a certain degree of design skills and experience, both on the drawing table and on digital design software, so unless you have a background in graphic design it is recommended that you acquire sets of ready-made designs and elements instead of creating them yourself.

Anime & Manga Style

t-shirt with black and red anime design

Anime & Manga T-Shirt Designs
Understanding the cultural zeitgeist is a necessary effort if you want your products to appeal to a wider audience, and with that in mind, I’m here to propose that we finally give this Eastern illustration style it’s rightful place among some of the most popular design styles currently in demand in Western design trends.

Gone are the days when the Anime and Manga genres were considered a niche for nerds. Well, not exactly. They’re still stuff for nerds, but the layman’s attitude towards these types of media has dramatically shifted over the past decade, and while the reasons behind that are up for debate, there’s no question about the boom in popularity that Anime, Manga, and their related products, have enjoyed.

But here’s the kicker: the trend doesn’t show any signs of slowing down at all, quite the opposite in fact. According to Ampere Analysis, in 2021 alone over 36% of streaming service users worldwide watched and enjoyed shows in the Anime genre. Furthermore, Sony’s acquisition of Crunchyroll (a popular Anime-only streaming service launched back in 2009) and Netflix’s increasing push towards the Anime genre are all indicators that this is fertile ground, so if you want to stay ahead of the curve on this one make sure to stock up on some anime t-shirt designs!

Grunge/Distressed Illustrations

a distressed american flag t-shirt design

Distressed T-Shirt Designs
Not quite the same as the Vintage style illustrations we discussed earlier, yet not entirely different either, this style refers to a type of illustration that’s mostly characterized by a much more pronounced distress built into the concept itself, and a wider range of themes and design elements than what you’d find in vintage style illustrations.

You could say that Grungy t-shirt designs are the natural evolutionary step after Vintage style designs. Where a Vintage themed design is limited by the design elements it can employ, and mostly uses textures and effects to add some extra flavor, it’s main focus remains on the objects depicted in the illustration itself and the time period it is trying to emulate.

On the other hand, Grungy/Distressed illustration when seen as as a design style is much more versatile since the main focus is not centered only around the illustration, but also around how “damaged” you can make the design look while keeping it attractive to your target audience, so in this category you’ll find all kinds of concepts, from quotes made on bold lettering to super hero logos, illustrations, flags, abstract shape compositions, brand logos, etc.

You can essentially turn any illustration into a cool grungy design, provided you have the right tools and just a small amount of know-how:

  • You’ll need a set of vector distress textures or overlays.
  • Vector sources for your original artwork.
  • A design software that supports layers, and a rudimentary understanding of how to work with it.

Just as an example of this trendy design style we can take a look at the iconic American or UK flags distressed t-shirt prints which can be found everywhere, from independent graphic designers’ portfolios to massive clothing brands like Levi Strauss and Diesel.

Urban T-Shirt Designs.

Urban T-Shirt Designs
Spray paint droplets, graffiti aesthetics, heavily stylized lettering and a noticeable bias towards Skateboarding, Rap and Hip-Hop themed concepts, every Print on Demand entrepreneur should make sure to stock up on some urban style t-shirt designs. This style is all about casual and hip designs, focused on sub-culture rather than mainstream trends.

The urban aesthetic has been a mainstay in people’s wardrobes for at least the past two and a half decades, and that says something about the impact these cultural movements have had on kids and young adults; most importantly, it says something about the demand that designs in this style experience in the the overall market.

Even though the designs that fall in this category often have a certain DIY message and aesthetic, they’re not easy to produce for people without a professional graphic design background as they typically depict artwork, custom hand-made lettering and complex graffiti graphics.

Still, even if you can’t create the graphics yourself, it’s a good idea to add some designs in this style to your print on demand collection.

Racing & Cars

t-shirt design of Porche 911 racing car

Car Themed T-Shirt Designs
Not specifically a style but rather a central element of a design, Car themed designs are always a great choice for Print on Demand entrepreneurs to add to their collection. These elements allow for a comfortable degree of versatility within the style that you want to go with, you can create anything from vintage style car t-shirt prints to retro 60’s and 70’s garage poster graphics, use racing cars with vibrant color palettes for eye-catching designs or use muscle cars, off-road vehicles or trucks to make bold statements.

Depending on what you want to do there are a couple of options here, you can either get a ready-made collection of t-shirt designs or you can get a set or two of stand alone car illustrations to do some hands-on design work and create your own t-shirt compositions by adding other elements like typography, frames, texture overlays, etc.

They are always a popular design element for boy t-shirt designs and, quite frankly, any male age group, so if your target audience is primarily male then you’re definitely gonna want to stock up on as many car t-shirt designs as you can.

Typographic & Lettering

t-shirt designs showing different typographies

Typography and Lettering T-Shirt Designs
This category is centered on lettering designs rather than illustrated concepts, and it’s easily one of the most widely popular and readily available styles in this list since, compared to some of the other categories listed here, this one is rather easy to produce.

Typographic designs are a great way to make a statement (pun definitely intended). They can use intrincate lettering like wildstyle graffiti or simpler fonts to display quotes, fun phrases or statements in support of causes. That doesn’t mean that they don’t use illustrations and other elements as well, it simply means the typographic element of the design is the primary element where you want to direct attention, and any other elements will be play a secondary role in the big picture.

This category is also quite versatile, you can find everything from Urban themed designs like graffiti and spray paint lettering to retro/vintage labels and badges, and you can create them from scratch on a drawing table or you can use pre-made fonts and lettering designs in your preferred design software and start typing!

Right now text-based t-shirt designs with 3D style lettering or with repeat-pattern words are particularly popular, and they are a rather minimalistic and simple to produce if you want to have a DIY attitude towards your Print on Demand portfolio.

It’s also much easier to create custom typographic designs for seasonal events and ocassions like concerts and birthdays than it is to come up with a fully illustrated concepts, and will also likely feature less colors and intrincate elements, making this t-shirt design style much simpler to print than any other.

Animal Illustrations

t-shirt designs showing different typographies

Animal T-Shirt Designs
Sometimes fuzzy and cute, other times fierce and noble, animal t-shirt designs are an awesome way to express concepts and ideas, specially when coupled with typography that complements the illustration style that you’re using, for example, using rounded fonts on cartoony/children’s illustrations, or grungy brush fonts on distressed realistic designs.

Also, who hasn’t owned a t-shirt with a front and center design of a wolf, a shark, or an eagle? Whether we’re talking about realistic illustrations, cartoon designs or other design styles, animal t-shirt designs are definitely a must have for anyone who’s looking to expand their collection of illustrations for merch.

Cartoon animals t-shirt designs are more popular right now than any other style of animal illustration, but more realistic depictions are also a popular choice, so you can’t go with a few sets of illustrations featuring animals as their main element.

Cute Children’s T-Shirt Designs

cartoon illustrations of animals with cute and fun designs for kids

Cute Children’s T-Shirt Designs
This is easily one of the most relevant categories, and luckily, also one of the easiest ones to include in your portfolio.

Whether it’s a calculated move or purely coincidental, your audience will almost always include young couples, parents, uncles, grandparents…you get the idea. If that’s not a good enough reason on its own, think about it this way: toddler wear covers a pretty large share of the overall apparel market, estimated to be valued at over $185 Billion US dollars, with an compound annual growth rate between 5.9% and 6.2%. It only trends in one direction: upwards. If you’re already in the Print on Demand business, why not get a slice of the pie yourself?

Now, let’s get into what separates this t-shirt design style from the rest. Children’s apparel often features a distinctive cartoon illustration style where the characters have large eyes and disproportionately large heads, anthropomorphised animals with big smiley faces, and depictions that are all about fun and games.

They’ll have lively pastel color palettes and playful concepts, or they’ll feature funny phrases designed to get a chuckle out of friends and family.

The typography itself will often be either a neutral sans-serif font, or more specialized fonts and lettering with rounded corners, balloon shapes, and candy color palettes.

Classic Badge Stamp Designs

Classic Badge T-Shirt Designs
Stamp and Badge illustrations are definitely amongst the most widely used and readily available t-shirt designs out there, you’ll find them everywhere from gift shops in tourist destinations to the shelves of big clothing brands like Diesel and Wrangler.

This style of t-shirt design will always feature both an illustration and one or more text elements, but it doesn’t put a bigger emphasis on either one of them, instead, they both contribute equally to the visual shape and appeal of the composition, and thus they are both equally important.

The illustration is often a simple silhouette, line art, or an engraving style illustration, placed at the front and center of the composition with a solid-colored geometric shape in the background, and text elements that wrap around the shape on the inner or the outer edge of the composition.

This style is more often than not used to display slogans, brand names, or logos, which is why it’s such a popular design style for businesses of all sizes, and the elements tend to be simple enough that customizing them with a choice of font, illustration, or shape to frame the composition, is a rather easy task even for people without a professional background in graphic design.

Looking for Something Different?

Alright, it’s time to wrap this up! Did you find our top t-shirt design style choices interesting? We certainly hope so! If you’re looking for a different kind of illustration we have many packages that you may also find interesting, whether it is for merch printables or digital design products, take a look at our Illustrations Collections, and see what we’ve got in stock for you!

Alejandro Mendoza

I like coffee.

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