Getting started with merch design

Maybe I spoke too soon last week about things starting to pick up – since those initial 2 sales, it’s been crickets over here. It’s tough – I’ve been getting decent engagement (views, likes, etc) but no conversion. I know the t-shirt/merch market is extremely crowded these days, but I do think I have decent products aimed at a couple narrow niches, so I’m thinking it’s more a marketing problem than anything else. I’m now experimenting with new marketing tactics (building a social media presence, instagram paid ads, giveaways, etc) so more to come.

In more exciting news, I also finally got cleared into Merch By Amazon, so more to come on that program as well!

When I talk to people about my new Side Hustle, the first reaction I get is – how do you come up with designs? Especially since it’s so easy to use Print On Demand partners, so many people want to get started but don’t know where to start with designing. So today I’ll break down a few components of that.

1. Do some research & browsing. Before you get started with your first design, build a baseline knowledge of what the market looks like – browse Etsy, Amazon, Teespring, and other platforms you may be considering to see what some of the common designs looks like – themes, words, colors, visuals. Look around you in the real world as well to get a lay of the land.

2. Pick a niche. It’s tempting to want to make that one killer t-shirt that everyone wants, but from a marketing perspective it is much easier to reach one specific niche than trying to go broad. I’d suggest picking an area that 1) you have some knowledge/familiarity with, 2) is growing/gaining followers or is very topical at the moment (e.g., Christmas designs in December), and 3) is either not an overly crowded market, or you think you have space to differentiate. For example, the 2 niches I’m going after right now are the Ketogenic community (somewhat crowded, but growing), and the Side Hustle community (less crowded but smaller)

3. Start by writing out some ideas. Phrases, sketches, or even just words – do some very rough brainstorming of what comes to mind for you when you think of your niche. Then go back to doing some more browsing (un-related to your niche) and see if any inspiration strikes on how to combine some words/phrases into something catchy.

4. Consider outsourcing your designing! Like all things side hustle, it’s easier than ever to outsource various parts of the process – including making your designs. Platforms like and make it easier than ever to hire free-lance workers around the world to make designs for you from anywhere in the world for as low as $5 a design. I would recommend this option for people who are unfamiliar with design software and who are 1) doing more than text-based designs (for text designs, it’s worth taking some time to learn PhotoShop basics!), or 2) have very rough ideas for a design but need help from a designer to bring to life (e.g., you have a phrase or inspiration, but not a good sense of what the design should look like). If you use this tactic, I would recommend being very clear up-front with guidelines & provide supporting images as much as possible (style of fonts, etc.)

5. If you are going at it alone, start with simple text-based designs. Yes, they may seem simple – but in a lot of cases, very simple text t-shirts can do quite well! Plus it’ll give you time for getting used to experimenting with fonts, placement, colors, and mock-ups before you move on to more complicated designs.

6. Read up on Trademark or Copyright law!! I can’t stress this one enough! Trademarks apply to things like brand names or phrases used in commerce associated with a brand (e.g., Nike’s “Just Do It.”). Copyright protection applies to creative works – song lyrics, quotes from movies/books, images, etc. This means 1) you should avoid using any brand names in your designs, and 2) any images or designs must be original or you should have a license to use commercially. While it may be tempting to re-use someone else’s images or have a t-shirt that says “Netflix and Chill”, you don’t want to get into trouble for copyright/trademark infringement – also many POD companies (like Printful) or Merch By Amazon will reject designs or refuse to print a trademark, so better not to waste time and be flagged as a potential risk by those partners!

7. Once you have a design, test it with friends/family. Try alternate versions of fonts, placement/size, colors, or wording and get opinions from people in your life (or online through various communities) to help improve your designs before you start selling.

Hope that helps you get started towards becoming a t-shirt design millionaire!



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