There are lots of software options out there for creating graphic illustrations for t-shirts, and if you ask 10 different designers what their t-shirt design software is, you might get 10 different answers. The reason there are so many options is that there are so many graphic styles and applications you might need, different software platforms have emerged to specialize in different areas.
So if you want to create eye-catching designs to put on t-shirts, here’s a sampling of free and paid options available to create memorable vector and bitmap images.
Best Paid T-shirt Design Software
1. Adobe Illustrator
This is my go-to for all vector-based graphic design. I’m biased, but I’ve been using it for about 15 years and it feels comfortable to me, and it has just about every feature I could ever need. You can create intricately detailed vector graphics, incorporate bitmap images and convert photos to vectors with this comprehensive software package. You can also both open and export files in a wide range of file formats including JPG, SVG, PNG and PDF.
Adobe has changed the Adobe platform in the last few years. When I first started using it, it was part of Creative Suite, a software package that included Photoshop and InDesign and it cost several hundred dollars for a permanent license. These days, however, Adobe has move to a subscription model, and you can pay for Illustrator on a month-to-month basis, saving you the sticker shock of a full license.
Illustrator may have the steepest learning curve of any app I describe in this article, but there is pleasure in learning and mastering this useful software over many years. Tutorials and explainers abound for just about every possible function available, as well as textbooks and detailed manuals.
Illustrator is also available for PC and Mac, and an iPad version is slated to be released before the end of 2020.
2. Adobe Photoshop
Photoshop is a great complimentary tool to Illustrator for graphic design, especially if you want to create t-shirt artwork that combine photo images, vector illustrations and text elements. Photoshop lets you edit photos, apply tons of filters and effects and add layers to your projects.
The limiting factor is that Photoshop works best with bitmap images like JPG or PNG (unlike Illustrator, which deals with mostly vector graphics). That said, you can create truly beautiful artwork for t-shirts, hoodies or bags in Photoshop and use that for print-then-cut jobs with your vinyl cutter.
Adobe sells subscriptions to Photoshop for a monthly fee as either a standalone software or as part of a bundle of creative apps. This can be a little pricey over the long term, but Photoshop is excellent software worth paying for.
CorelDRAW is another stalwart of desktop graphic design, tracing its roots back to the late 1980s. The software is primarily a vector graphic editor, like Illustrator, but it also comes bundled with Corel PHOTOPAINT, a bitmap editor like Photoshop.
Historically, CorelDRAW has bee used for document design, but creating t-shirt artwork is certainly within its capabilities. It has also been Windows-only for the past 20 years, but a newly redesigned version for MacOS was release in 2019, plus an online app for project collaboration.
CorelDRAW offers over 10,000 clipart images to jumpstart your creativity, as well thousands of templates you can use as the foundation of your artwork.
Corel offers this software for either a flat fee or subscription. It’s not cheap, but the software is very high quality with enough features to last a lifetime.
Best Free T-shirt Design Software
Inkscape is a free, open source vector graphic editor for desktop and mobile devices. It has a great array of tools for drawing, shapes, text, object manipulation and color editing. It has all of the basic tools at Illustrator and is definitely up to the challenge of your next t-shirt design.
Users can import and export artwork as SVG files and use bitmap images in designs. Inkscape also has a robust user community with chat forums, Facebook groups and its own subreddit. There’s a lot of potential with this free vector editor, and you could certainly have more than enough features to create stunning graphic t-shirts.
Perhaps one downside is that Inkscape is there is no mobile version for tablet or smartphone.
GIMP ( or GNU Image Manipulation Program) is a free, open source alternative to Photoshop. It is primarily a bitmap image editor, and users used to more rudimentary interfaces of other apps might find GIMP foreboding.
I have been using it for about 18 months since my old version of Photoshop stopped working with my current version of MacOS, and while I can manage to go the basics with GIMP (edit layers, adjust colors, rescale images), I am still in the weeds on more advanced features that I used to have no problem with on Photoshop.
But, free is free, and if you want tons of features and you have time to invest in learning this software, GIMP can be a very powerful piece of software for you.
Photopea is a web-based bitmap image editor designed to replicate most of the functions of Photoshop. It’s a fun, intuitive program that is quite feature rich. It allows you to export your work as a bitmap image or SVG file.
Photopea comes loaded with hundreds of fonts, but it also allows you to load your own font if you have a specific typeface you want to use. You can also save the files to your own computer when you’re done, and it’s not watermarked by the site. This is a great relief, as I have used too many free image editors that insist on applying a watermark unless I upgrade to a paid version of the software.
There are lots of templates, free graphics and fonts to help you design artwork for t-shirts or other projects. This is a great alternative to Photoshop and I would definitely recommend this as a free photo editor for beginners.
7. Cricut Design Space
Cricut Design Space is the bundled software that comes with a Cricut craft cutting machine. As far as a design platform goes, it’s very rudimentary for creating new artwork from scratch, since it only offers users shapes and text to design with (no freehand drawing).
But users can weld, slice and layer different objects, and with some practice, you can make fairly complex designs that you can cut by color or layer with your machine.
Cricut Design Space lets you import SVG files you create or download on other sites, but you can’t save your creations as SVGs to share. It works on mobile devices and there are tons of tutorials, both from Cricut and a huge user community.
Cricut Design Space is the gateway to cutting on Cricut vinyl cutters, and even if you don’t want to create your designs on this platform, it pays to be knowledgeable in how it functions.
8. Silhouette Studio
Silhouette Studio is the bundled software that operates Silhouette craft cutting machines (the Cameo 4, Portrait 3 and Curio). It is a more robust design software than Cricut Design Space, offering users line-drawing tools and vector point editing.
There are lots of great functions you might find on Illustrator or Inkscape; the big drawback for us is that you cannot import SVG files from other applications with the free version of this software.
Silhouette studio has 3 paid upgrade tiers, starting at $50 to upgrade from Basic to Pro, and with it the ability to import SVG files. You can design fairly complex and intricate designs for t-shirts with Silhouette Studio, but you definitely need to know it’s ins and outs if you want to cut your designs with a Silhouette cutter.
In the end, choosing a design tool for making shirts is a matter of your own personal comfort level and the user experience you prefer. Don’t be intimidated by comprehensive vector editing tools like Illustrator or CorelDRAW. Graphic designers spend their entire careers refining their skills on these programs. You don’t have to worry about mastering it in a weekend.
Free tools are also getting better and better. Try a few and see which platforms let you import and save the filetypes you want (and also check to make sure your work isn’t watermarked by the app).
Image editors, both vector and bitmap, are getting more sophisticated and more accessible to everyone. Take advantage of these tools to create beautiful images to cut, print and share.