So You Want to Be an Apparel Designer?

Bounty Hunter Design by Juan Manuel
Bounty Hunter (Star Wars fanart) Design by Juan Manuel Orozco.

It's nearly impossible to walk into a clothing store and not see a plethora of designs on the apparel being sold. Whether you're aiming to design for a specific company or brand, or license your work as a freelancer, knowing what it takes to be an apparel designer is crucial for your career to be successful. 
I interviewed several designers who work in high fashion, as an indie designer, and for various apparel brands to get to know what their work-lives have been like so far. Consider this your guide to working as an apparel designer.
Do they just create rad t-shirt designs? What about other textile prints? How much does the designer need to know about the printing and manufacturing process to create successful designs? Let's break it down:
  • Conceptual Design: The apparel designer may need not only to create some fantastic illustrations that will be applied to t-shirts and such, but also to create an entire line through a concept design. What will each garment look like? Where will the design be placed or printed onto the garment? How does one garment go with another? When creating a collection, the conceptual stage is key in figuring out how your work will fit into the final product.
  • Illustration: It's the most obvious answer of them all: the design itself. Artists who work within apparel have to create the original paintings, drawings, and vector creations that will later be reproduced onto garments and accessories.
  • Working with Templates: Depending on the designer's position, they may be asked to fit their design to a template that is either printed directly or to be used as a guide by the printer or manufacturer to make sure the integrity of the design isn't compromised due to manufacturer limitations.
  • Trend Spotting: Since the final product is something that needs to be marketable, knowing what current fashion, pop culture, and design trends are happening or gaining popularity can help a designer keep their work current and marketable. Whether this means working directly with a marketing team or keeping up on what's trending socially or with other designers, it's rare that anyone can design without outward influence if they want their work to sell (especially if you're working for a larger brand or company).
  • Know the Printing Process: Designers need to know the limitations of their artwork when designing for print. Will it be screen-printed or printed digitally? Do whites in the design get printed or are they rendered transparent? What about the size of the print itself: will it fit the garment, or do you need to provide multiple versions for each product? We'll go into this in more detail below, but knowing how your work will ultimately be represented is an important step in successful apparel design.
  • And More… Really the designer wears multiple hats. Some may only have the position of creating illustrations that will be handled by teammates or co-workers in the garment-creating process. Others, however, may have to generate print-ready content from sketch to finished product and will need to work closely with printers, manufacturers, and marketing teams to make sure their designs are ready for store shelves. Let's explore this career further!

Textile design for ZARA Basic - summer 2013 by Silvia Stella Osella
Textile design for ZARA Basic by Silvia Stella Osella.

“As a freelancer I now work as a textile and surface designer, as well as an illustrator and visual communication consultant for both big companies and independent brands, stylists, photographers, and magazines.” — Silvia Stella Osella, textile and apparel designer.
As always, this question gets a mix of answers. Some designers have formal training in illustration or design and hold a bachelor's degree or higher in a field related to their career. Other designers are self-taught and have learned their craft along the way or through online courses and other informal settings.

T-shirt design by Pellisco
T-shirt design by Pellisco.

“[I studied] Graphic Design at the University of Research and Development in Bucaramanga, Colombia. I graduated in 2012 and was always drawn to design and illustration, so I decided to study this. I like typography and illustration and try to combine both [in my work].” — Pellisco, apparel designer and illustrator.

Keds design by Ira Markova for Penshoppe x Status
Keds design by Ira Markovka for Penshoppe x Status.

“A lot of things are unclear in the creative world, especially if you grew up in an engineer's family, studied to become an economist and suddenly decided to change your course completely and become an artist, without any experience and art education. I actually have no formal training in anything I draw, it was difficult to understand where to direct my creativity. I started learning how to create vector graphics. [...] Now it’s my lovely job, I do that full time and travel around the world non-stop.” — Ira Markovka, microstock and textile designer.
Let's take this in two parts: in-house and freelance (with freelance including indie designers). 
For in-house designers, you may work for a specific fashion brand or a company that produces all sorts of products including apparel and textiles. If you work for a specific brand, your design work will be under that brand name, and the challenge of adhering to that brand's image will be among your daily tasks when creating concepts for apparel designs. The same goes, really, for being contracted to create work for an existing brand.
In the case of working for a larger company that manufactures apparel and textiles in addition to many other products, you may not only be an apparel designer, but also a surface and print designer of many items. Or you may find that your scope is quite wide in the types of designs you create. 
Let's say you worked for Disney in their consumer products division. While some of your tasks may be working on an upcoming line of clothing designs, the wider scope of your work may be creating additional products under that line or working on multiple properties within the span of a season. The short of working in-house is your client base doesn't change unless you're in-house at an agency of sorts and your company takes on new clients as a whole.

Swimwear textile pattern design for the brand Always for Me
Swimwear textile pattern design by Elena Belokrinitski for the brand "Always for Me".

“I am now in my first months of being a completely freelance designer. For 7 years I was working as a textile, interior, and toy designer in different companies, combined with small and large scale freelance projects. About half a year ago, I quit my day job, and moved with my husband to another country for a long term adventure. That's when I concentrated on doing only freelance work.“ — Elena Belokrinitski
Freelancers, however, and indie designers have more wiggle room when it comes to their design scopes. Your client base may change monthly, weekly, or even daily depending on what sort of schedule you've created. As such you may work for a children's apparel brand one day and an adult sporting goods brand another. 
Indie designers may be focused on their own personal brand, in which case your design demographic may be entirely up to you if you find you're successful in marketing your own work. The short of working as a freelancer, contract worker, or indie designer is your client base may change often, and who you work for is quite variable.
Any company, brand, or retailer that needs design work may hire a designer or take on wholesale products to sell (in the case of indie designers producing their own products). Considering how popular apparel is (we all need clothes, right?), it's no wonder that this question is answered with a wide variety of companies and clients.

T-shirt design by Belle Hissam for Gametee featuring Zelda fanart
T-shirt design by Belle Hissam for Gametee featuring Zelda fanart.

“At the moment I am a freelance artist, but I work for companies doing designs for them (such as Gametee and others), as well as doing freelance work with conventions and online stores.” — Belle Hissam, freelance designer.
Specifically, in what media do the designers I interviewed work? Really, whatever works and whatever a printer needs is what will ultimately be used. Knowing what others who are successful work in often, however, can be informative and guide those who may be asking, “How do I get this doodle onto that shirt?”

Jerboa tote design by Anneli Olander Berglund for Pale Cloud Girls
Jerboa tote design by Anneli Olander Berglund for Pale Cloud Girls.

“In most of my work I start with traditional illustrations, mostly ink/watercolor on paper, and then I bring it to the computer and do touch-ups and color adjustments or add elements later. This is so much easier when working with clients too because sometimes they ask something like 'Can we move the hand and change the pose and maybe use a different hair?' on the finished character, which is a real drag if you only work traditionally. Sometimes one does have to remind the client you don't work with magic; Photoshop is not magic.” — Anneli Olander Berglund, freelance designer.
Most answered Adobe Photoshop or Adobe Illustrator, which is understandable considering they're industry standards. Often printers need designs to be saved in layered formats (especially if they're screen-printing artwork and need each layer to correspond to a separate screen) or large, high resolution formats (often both). 
For file formats you'll find .PSD, .AI, and .PDF to be commonly requested formats for printing. The former two are layered and can easily be saved in high resolution formats. The latter, however, will ensure that a flat image is printed exactly as intended (when it comes to typefaces and layer order used). For more specific answers, however, I defer to some of the designers I spoke to below:

Mekas t-shirt design for PRIDE clothing
T-shirt design for PRIDE Clothing by Meka.

“I work with dotted notebooks for the primary sketch in order to conceptualize and put to paper a thumbnail of my design. That helps me ensure that I find the perfect composition with the perfect dynamic. After that I work with my Wacom Cintiq Companion, where I upscale my sketch and refine it with more details. The next part is the inking of the artwork and the selection of my color scheme (2 or 3 colors).” — Thibaut "Meka" D├ęsiront, illustrator and textile designer.
I find you can learn a lot from the processes of other artists. As such, I asked those I interviewed what their typical process for apparel design was, and I have a few examples for you to learn from below:

Commissioned t-shirt design by Asher Benson
Commissioned t-shirt design by Asher Benson.

“Depending on the client, they’ll usually tell me how they want the final file set up. [One client] asks that I make all the separations with square or diamond shaped registration guides. A few of my clients merely want the Illustrator file and work from that.” — Asher Benson, freelance designer and Tuts+ instructor.

Pop culture t-shirt design by Juan Manuel
T-shirt design by Juan Manuel Orozco.

“Once I have a sketch that I like, or the client approves, I start with the inking process. Normally I do this process in Adobe Illustrator. Once inked, I begin coloring. The technique of depends on where you go to print: if I need vector format, I work in Illustrator, and if not I use both and color with Photoshop with a very good resolution and a rather large size.” — Juan Manuel Orozco, freelance designer.

Designed for ZARA Man by Silvia Stella Osella
Designed for ZARA Man by Silvia Stella Osella.

“The initial research process is probably the one I enjoy the most: field trips, trend and color analysis, it’s such a fascinating world! I had no idea before starting working in this field that so many things such as sociology, anthropology, sciences, etc. could merge and influence even what color we are going to wish to wear next season!
“It’s very important for our job to be constantly aware of trends. And I personally think that being conscious [...] of what happens around us, and not just regarding the direct subjects that we work on, truly makes the difference. Then everything is translated into a mood board or declined to a brief, if designed specifically for a customer.” — Silvia Stella Osella

T-shirt design for Anthem Culture by Bryan Shelmon
T-shirt design for Anthem Culture by Bryan Shelmon.

“When I first got started with designing, after completing an image, I thought that was the end: send to the designer and wait for new shirts! I soon realized that measurements should be taken for each aspect of your design to ensure that the print comes out the way you intended. For our process, this includes measuring out physical shirts and even pre-printing designs on paper to ensure an accurate design when it’s finalized.” — Bryan Shelmon of Anthem Culture

Textile design by elena for OHMAI bags
Textile design by Elena Belokrinitski for OHMAI bags.

“I have a very strong bond to my designs. When I see people on the street wearing my patterns, I have the strong urge to come and hug them. The highlight of this was a few years ago: I had designed a collection of surfing shorts for a rather low cost brand, and went on vacation to a beach town in the country where those shorts were produced. On the same day I saw dozens of teens in "my" shorts, and later the same day my pattern as wallpaper in a hair salon! Boy, what a day! I felt like the queen of patterns." — Elena Belokrinitski

Wetsuit pattern design by Ira for Kos-Suits
Wetsuit pattern design by Ira Markovka for Kos-Suits.

“Keep a sketchbook always in your pocket and draw whenever you can. Don’t criticize yourself for the first steps. When you practice a lot you become more confident in your lines you make and little by little drawing becomes an important part of your life.” — Ira Markovka
So you want to be an apparel designer? It takes an understanding not only of illustration and design, but also of what your client needs in order to print the product to your original concept's specifications as well as the manufacturer's specifications. Through experience you'll learn the ins and outs of textile and apparel design.
Ask questions, learn from your clients, and work with printers, marketers, manufacturers, and fellow designers when possible so your artwork meets the standards each item needs in order to be ready to be sold. Get a taste for apparel design with print services like Society6, RedBubble, and TeePublic, where you can print on demand and design a variety of items for your fanbase as well as learn more about designing garments.
I hope you found this article informative and inspirational. Got questions, anecdotes, or advice about apparel design? Share them in the comment section below!
Many thanks to the artists who took the time to answer my questions and give us a peek into their lives and experiences as apparel and textile designers. You can check out their work or gallery spaces in the links below:


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