You know how you’re going to print your shirts. You have the equipment yourself or you know a printer that will give you a good rate. What you need is a design that will sell.
The first thing you should do is research, shop for tee shirts. The kinds of shirts you find for sale retail represent the kinds of shirts that sell well over all. Retail has a tight profit margin, there’s little room for risk.
Now generally there are classic categories of designs that almost always sell well. The local pride design, for your state or local community. This sort of thing is a dependable seller. As are cute designs and masculine designs like those based on rock album covers. License artwork is also more of a sure thing, the commercial promotion of the cartoon or TV show will sell a tee shirt.
Next are the niche markets. The alternative band the Misfits has a very dependable selling design, being their logo. Beer drinking and marijuana smoking are popular counter culture themes and will sell shirts. Funny or sardonic ideas expressed on t-shirts will sell a t-shirt.
When it comes to niche markets, it’s good to go with your gut. If you’re a Christian, your Christian themed t-shirts may simply be better – it’s something you know. It doesn’t matter who you are, you are part of a subculture. If you love dogs, that’s a subculture. If you’re an Atheist or a Republican or Democrat – all of those represent niche markets that will sell t-shirts.
Now, it’s quite likely you don’t have the money to buy a license for commercial artwork. If you had the money to pay for a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle or Disney Snow White license, you would be less inclined to read this article.
So what do you do? Look for a vacuum, an idea that SHOULD exist, but doesn’t – it’s only a matter of time before someone else does it perhaps. That’s what you want to design around.
There’s a fella that’s made millions off a stick figure and a funny platitude. Anyone could’ve done it, if they thought of the platitude and followed through.
Now, since you’re making an investment you can’t afford to take a great chance. But you can still innovate. Remember the popular themes for t-shirts are : civic pride, cute, masculine, commercial, and counter culture. If you can work one of these themes and create a fun twist to it, you can sell your shirts.
Yes, the idea is more important the the execution. The challenge of design is that you can only know it’s good if YOU love it, but just because you love it doesn’t mean anyone else will. So you should work up several ideas for tees, draw them out and test them on people. They’ll tell you which ones are good, you’ll know for sure when they offer to pre-order a design they want it so bad.
So, I’m a graphics professional. An idea that’s strong enough will sell even a poorly designed t-shirt – but a well designed t-shirt with the same idea – will sell more.
So, let’s say for sake of argument, you’re an artist and have decided to create a Snow White design, but not the Disney version – the version you might find at an erotic dance club, a rated ‘r’ Snow White – maybe work in a street interpretation of ‘snow’ and imply a drug habit too . It takes a classic theme and gives it a counter culture twist. It could sell to hip boys and girls. After all, ‘Snow White’ is a public domain fairy tale, not the property of Disney.
That’s as close as I can come to explaining commercial creative process to you. Take something that’s already popular, and do something different with it. Such concepts could hit critical mass and make lots of money. One designer has gotten very wealthy from selling shirts with pictures of cute dogs on them, but drawn in a distorted style close to the tradition of Japanese Animation. Cute dogs are always popular, and this designer added a small twist to the theme is all.
Now, if you’re not an artist, you could do the design by using a photograph of a model dressed as an erotic dancing Snow White. Just keep in mind public standards – of course. You want to sell a lot of shirts, not limit the scope to adult bookstores.
So when the photo or drawing is going on the shirt, can it just go anywhere? Is the rectangle of the photo or the paper the drawing is on – part of the design? Can the design go on any color shirt?
There are rules of thumb for all those questions.
First of all, get rid of the rectangles. The rectangle represents the medium the image is on, paper. When the image is on a t-shirt, the t-shirt is the medium the image is on. The image almost always looks best with the t-shirt itself as a border, or some shape that doesn’t fight the fluid shape of the shirt – a circle perhaps. Sure some designs work well being in rectangles printed on tees – that’s why this is a rule of thumb.
Where should the design be placed? The design should fill as much space as possible- usually. Left chest and center chest designs should be small of course, but otherwise, bigger is better. Designs need not be front and center, but front and center is always safe, if not front and center – to the left or right on a shoulder can look cool. Designs should generally be near the center or top of the shirt, but there are always exceptions.
Should the design go on a color shirt or a white shirt? It’s usually less expensive and easier to print on a white tee. But color tees are also very popular and people will pay extra for one. The color of the tee should not be arbitrary if possible. This is the difference between a generic tee shirt and a designed garment – a designed garment, the t-shirt itself is part of the design. People know this, just not consciously. If you use the color of the tee shirt as a design element – the ocean is the blue of the shirt, the red sunset is the red of the shirt, the black line is the black of the shirt..etc – ties the shirt into the design and the total effect suggests a superior quality to the shirt – especially in comparison to shirts that don’t take this into consideration.
There is also color theory. A blue design will be harmonious on a green shirt, loud on an orange shirt, and pleasantly contrast on a warm yellow shirt. That’s how one design can become three different designs depending on the color of the shirt you put it on. The shirt itself is part of the design. Remember that warm colors (red, orange, yellow) are ‘energetic’ and cool colors (blue, green, violet) are generally calming.
A white shirt with color bands on the collar and sleeves are great to work with. Echo the color of the band in your design and the design really looks like it was meant specifically for that shirt. These shirts are easy to print on too, white after all.
Should you buy three colors of shirt and print them all? It’s been proven that too much choice can paralyze decision making, so you don’t risk much in limiting customer choice. In practical terms it’s likely to be easier to buy the bulk quantity of the one color of shirt. So choose one color that suits the design best.
There’s no sure thing in the t-shirt business. But people will always want t-shirts they feel express something that will allow them to feel a little less like everyone else. So do your research, find what’s selling and create something a little different that can capture that same market. And good luck!