Photoshop vs Illustrator for T shirt design

Photoshop VS Illustrator For T Shirt Design: When To Use Each

Photoshop VS Illustrator For T Shirt Design: When To Use Each 800 470 Nick Saporito

Considering that Photoshop and Illustrator are two completely different applications, the tool that you should use depends entirely on the type of design work you’ll be doing. This is also true when it comes to designing apparel, such as t shirts. Choosing between Photoshop vs Illustrator for t shirt design simply boils down to what kind of t shirt design you’d like to create, and in this post we’ll be examining the differences between these two apps so you can determine which is more suitable for what you’re trying to do.

In short, the truth is that either application is suitable for creating t shirt designs. However, each tool has different intended uses, and they function in a fundamentally different way because of it. This is something that should be taken into consideration beforehand.

Table of Contents

Differences Between Photoshop and Illustrator

Photoshop VS Illustrator For T Shirt Design

Differences Between Photoshop and Illustrator

Before you can choose between Photoshop vs Illustrator for t shirt design, it would be helpful to have a basic understanding of what these tools are intended for, because this will largely determine which you should use.

The difference between Photoshop and Illustrator is that Photoshop functions in a pixel-based environment that is ideal for working with photos, textures, and various effects. Illustrator, on the other hand, functions in a vector environment that is ideal for drawing, illustrations, and stylizing text.

Continue on for more details

What Photoshop Does

Photoshop is Adobe’s flagship product, and it’s widely recognized as the most advanced and comprehensive tool for editing photos.

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A clipping mask with text

Photoshop is ideal when editing photos and various of pixel-based imagery.

Photoshop is a raster image editor, meaning it functions in a pixel-based environment. Pixels are the individual colored boxes that a digital image consists of.

Because of its pixel-based nature, Photoshop is ideal for editing photos, applying textures, and various other advanced graphical effects. However, it wouldn’t be ideal for creating logos, icons, stylized text, and various other graphical illustrations.

What Illustrator Does

Illustrator is Adobe’s vector graphics editor, and it’s widely recognized as the industry standard when it comes to vector design.

Finished exports logo

Illustrator is ideal for creating graphical illustrations.

Unlike raster images, which are made of pixels, the properties of a vector graphic are dictated by a series of coordinate points on an X and Y axis. This makes Illustrator ideal for creating graphical illustrations, such as:

  • Logos
  • Badges and icons
  • Cartoons, characters, and avatars
  • Stylizing text

Another benefit of working with vector graphics is that, unlike pixel-based images, they can be scaled up infinitely without quality loss, which can be very useful when creating t shirt designs.

The downside of working in a vector environment is that you’ll be limited in what you can do as far as editing photos goes.

Photoshop VS Illustrator For T Shirt Design

Choosing between Photoshop vs Illustrator for t shirt design boils down to what kind of design you’d like to create. Photoshop would be ideal when working with photos and pixel-based images, whereas Illustrator would be ideal for creating illustrations and stylized text.

In order to create a usable t shirt design that can be printed, your design application must be able to do the following:

  1. Set the size of your canvas: Your print service will specify a size — whether it be in pixels, inches, cm, or otherwise — that your document should be. I have a guide on sizes by print service here for more info.
  2. Set the DPI of your document: DPI stands for “dots per inch”. Your print service will require that your document be set to a specific DPI (usually 300 DPI) that you’ll need to apply beforehand.
  3. Account for document bleed and safe area: Bleed represents the extra space that will be trimmed off your document once printed. The safe area is space where there is no risk of your design being cut off.
  4. Work in the CMYK color space: By default, most design applications work in the RGB color space, which is ideal for screens and digital displays. However, when designing for print, you’ll need to work in the CMYK space to ensure that your design looks the same in print as it does on your screen.

Considering that both Photoshop and Illustrator possess all of these abilities, let’s have a look at some use cases where they can be used for t shirt design

When To Use Photoshop for T Shirt Design

Photoshop would be the ideal tool to use when designing t shirts that include photos and various other pixel-based images:

Photoshop t shirt design

In this design, a photograph was used to turn the subject into a GTA-style load screen.

You should always use Photoshop vs Illustrator for t shirt design when your designs will contain any of the following:

  • People and individuals
  • Landscapes
  • Skylines and buildings
  • Pixel-based special effects

Although you can design t shirts in Photoshop, it’s usually not necessary for the types of designs typically used on t shirts.

Generally speaking, if your design does not contain any photos then there is no need to use Photoshop to design your t shirt. You can if you want to, but in most cases Illustrator is preferable.

It should also be noted that one of the downsides to using Photoshop for this sort of design is that, unlike Illustrator, graphics created in Photoshop cannot be scaled up without quality loss. Therefore it is important to ensure that you are always using high resolution imagery in your designs, otherwise the finished design may be low quality and/or pixelated once printed.

When To Use Illustrator for T Shirt Design

Now that we’ve gone over some common use cases for designing t shirts with Photoshop, let’s have a look at when Illustrator would be preferable.

Illustrator is the ideal tool to use for t shirt designs that will include any of the following:

  • Character illustrations
  • Stylized text
  • Logos and brand marks
  • Icons and various other illustrations
Illustrator t shirt design

Illustrator is the ideal tool to use when designing t shirts that will contain vector illustrations.

Another good example of when to use Illustrator for t shirt design is when you’re creating a text-based design, as I did in a recent tutorial demonstrating how to create a classic athletic-style t shirt design:

Illustrator’s advanced features for transforming objects makes it a more complete and comprehensive tool for designing text.

Another benefit you’ll enjoy when using Illustrator to design your t shirts is the scalable nature of vector graphics. This means that you can take a design you’ve already created and scale it up as large as you need it to be to fit the t shirt design, and without and quality loss.

Using Both

You may be wondering if it’s possible to use both Photoshop and Illustrator to design a t shirt, and the answer is yes.

Considering that both tools are perfectly capable of formatting properties such as bleed, DPI, and embedding CMYK color profiles, there’s no reason you can’t switch back and forth between the two to make a design to your liking if needed.

This provides for an opportunity to create designs that incorporate features of both raster and vector design:

Using both Photoshop and Illustrator for a t shirt design

This example combines raster and vector elements.


Thanks to the advanced nature of each, choosing between Photoshop vs Illustrator for t shirt design is simply a matter of personal preference. Although each tool has their intended uses, these uses can be interchanged to some degree. You can create character illustrations in Photoshop, and you can also make basic edits to photos using Illustrator, so the choice is yours. Go with whichever application you’re most comfortable with.

If there’s a specific type of t shirt you’re trying to design and you’re still unsure which application would be best, drop a comment below and I’ll help you out!

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Nick Saporito

Hi, I'm Nick— a Philadelphia-based graphic designer with over 10 years of experience. Each year millions of users learn how to use design software to express their creativity using my tutorials here and on YouTube.

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