Screen Printing:

Staying Focused with Custom Apparel Design

A guide to using focal point to make your decorated apparel designs more engaging

By Dane Clement, Contributing writer

Having a single tree that is much larger than all the others gives this composition focus. Photo by Dane Clement

April 27, 2023

When it comes to creating a layout for decorated apparel, whether it be screen printing, embroidery, heat pressing or direct-to-garment (DTG), there are some basic concepts it’s important to keep in mind to create a design that’s pleasing to the eye, catches your attention and draws you in. One of these concepts is focal point.

Trees illustrating focal point in decorated apparel design

With its two equally sized trees, this image doesn’t have a strong sense of focal point.

A layout that contains a variety of elements, all with the same visual weight, can be boring or even confusing. There should be a kind of hierarchy between the elements, so that your eye travels throughout the layout from the main element to its secondary and background elements in order of importance. The main element is the focal point and should attract your eye first.

There are a variety of ways of creating a focal point, including size, color and placement. Size is probably the most obvious way of making something the focal point of a design. When something is larger than everything else, your eye will tend to notice it first. By adjusting the size of the elements in your layout, whether they be an image or text, you can direct the viewer to the most important object first and then other elements down the line. Larger text, like a headline, for example, will be read first, and so on and so forth.

Image with flower illustrating technique for establishing focal point

The bright red of the flower in this image establishes focal point.

In the photo of the snowy trees above, the roughly equal size of the two trees provides no real impact: nothing in particular jumps out at you. The photo at the very top of this page with the one large tree has more appeal. The reason is the size of the tree compared to everything else in the photo makes it pop. You immediately notice it when you look at the photo.

Playing with color is another way to direct the eye to the focal point in a layout. In the full-color version of the graveyard photo I took at left, there was nothing in particular that jumped out at you. Everything just kind of blended together, leaving your eye with no sense of direction. However, when the image was changed to grayscale with the roses toward the right of the frame kept a bright red, your eye is immediately drawn to them. Using contrasting colors, making areas monochromatic, saturating or desaturating colors of various objects are all ways of manipulating color in a layout to pull the focus to a certain area or object and make it the focal point.

football design for decorated apparel

The large size of the central football player in this design provides plenty of weight.

Where you place an object in a layout can also create a focal point. Isolating an element from the other areas of a design will make that element stand out and pull focus. As an example, you could have a single sunflower popping up above all the other flowers in a photograph to give your eye something to focus on and thereby make the image that much more satisfying and effective.

Of course, these same techniques can be applied when creating illustrated layouts as well. In the football layout at left, your eyes are initially drawn to the largest football player. From there they travel to the slightly smaller players in the lower lefthand corner, which have been further emphasized by the red color of their uniforms.

Image with strong focal point

The bright green of the bookworm helps focus the viewer’s attention.

Similarly, the bookworm at left attracts your attention because of his bright green color. The color isn’t used anywhere else in the layout, and the saturated green makes him pop dramatically from the rest of the illustration. Same thing with the surf wagon in a beach design I did in which I intentionally placed the car in the foreground and made it especially large to attract your attention–drawing you in toward the tree that was also there and finally the beach in the background.

Of course, as you may have already noticed, multiple attributes can be applied all at the same time to an object to reinforce the focal point. In the case of a fishing image I once did, the background was intentionally done in an array of dark blues, so that the bright, contrasting yellow and green color of the fish in combination with its size and placement at the bottom in the foreground would catch your attention, thereby making it a that much more powerful image in general.


Case Study: Establishing a Design’s Focal Point

Now, let’s apply these principles to a real-world example of the kind you might encounter with an actual customer. Let’s say a customer comes to you looking for a design for a classic car show he or she will be participating in, and they want some shirts designed featuring their car. They provide you with a photo of the car (shown at the top of the facing page) and ask you to come up with something. Where do you start?

car imaged prepared for T-shirt design

Using the path tool to trace out the car to be used in the Big Red design.

First get as much background information on the job as you can. What’s the name of the event, what kind of copy does the customer want to include? Are there any other elements that need to be incorporated into the layout? Once you know everything you need to include, you can determine the hierarchy of elements and what needs to be your focal point.

Every year in Biloxi, Mississippi, there is a huge auto show called Cruisin’ the Coast. For our make-believe scenario, let’s say that’s our event. Keep in mind this is not a shirt being offered for sale by the event itself. This is for the customer who wants to show off and promote the car that they call BIG RED. So, what’s going to be your focal point?  The car! With the secondary element being the headline–BIG RED!

Placing the car for a T-shirt design

Placing the car for the Big Red design.

To begin putting together our design, we’re going to use the path tool to make a selection around the car and extract it from the photo. Next we going to create a new document for our layout and paste the car into the document.

Now you can begin arranging your elements. As the focal point, Big Red will be the largest element. Its color also makes it pop. To push the car even further forward as the focal point, it’s going to be positioned in the foreground of the design with the back half pasted inside a shield shape, with the front coming forward breaking the border.

To paste an object inside another in Photoshop, make sure the layer of the object you are pasting inside of is on top of the layer of the object it will be pasted into. Move your cursor on the line between the two layers in your Layer Panel, hold down the Option/Alt Key and click. The top object will automatically be pasted inside of the bottom one.  You can then click on the layer of the object inside and move, resize, rotate or make any other adjustments required to position the object where you want it.

Adding words to T-shirt decorated apparel design

Adding the words “Big Red” to the design.

Once you have the object positioned, duplicate it and move the duplicate layer outside the shape. Use the lasso tool to select the back area of the car and delete. The goal is to make the car look as if it’s coming out of the shield.

The words BIG RED are going to be the secondary focal point. In other words, after you’ve taken in the car, your eyes should move to the text. To do this in the design in question, a large, bold font was used and colored bright red, same as the car. A texture was then created out of a line of long thin points, colored with a darker shade of red and pasted inside the letters. Outlines and drop shadows were added next to complete the text.

Since the event is known as Cruisin’ the Coast, we added some supporting beach-themed elements in the background. In this case, they were taken from a separate photo of a beach and pasted inside the shield shape behind the car, so it looks like the car is somewhere on the coast as well.

Finished design for T-shirt decoration

The finished design. No missing that car, or the words “Big Red!”

With the main elements complete, final details like the strokes around the shield and the supporting text can be added. Any additional or remaining text should be done in a smaller type size, a thinner font and with less pronounced colors, so it won’t pull away the focus from the main object.

Regardless of whether you are using photos, creating an illustration from scratch or using stock art as the foundation of your layout, always remember to keep the focal point in mind. What’s the most important thing you are trying to convey or promote in your layout? What do you want the viewer to notice first?

Once you’ve decided what your focal point is going to be, you can utilize image size, color and placement, and arrange the elements in your layout accordingly so the viewer’s eye will travel throughout the layout as you intend. 


Dane Clement is president of Great Dane Graphics, as well as vice president of creative for GroupeSTAHL. He has been speaking and writing for the decorated apparel industry since 1987 and has authored several artwork-training books for various garment-decoration methods. For more information or to comment on this article, email Dane at