Idea Fuel for Your T-Shirt Designs – Never Run Out Ideas Again!

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Pretty much everyone wears one. From sports fans to individuals making a statement, this versatile garment made of cotton is worn indoors and outdoors by people of all ages. Saying there’s a market for t-shirts is certainly an understatement! You can get people wearing your designs through the lucrative print-on-design business, or POD for short.   

According to this industry report, the custom t-shirt printing business worldwide was valued at $3.6 billion in 2020. The market is continuing to grow by 9.7% each year. Interested in starting your own POD business? Or, do you already have one but feel you’re running out of inspiration? Read on to find great ideas for research and inspiration!

 T-shirt designers have become more creative. First used as an undergarment, it has evolved into a canvas for many savvy artists. Are you the a Picasso or Van Gogh? Lucky for you, you don’t even have to do any art. The beauty of this business is that you can get everything done for you. All you need is a mix of creativity and step-by-step business tips to succeed.  

It doesn’t matter if you’re a B2B or B2C business. If you want to stay ahead, you do constantly need new designs. But a flash of inspiration doesn’t always come when you call for it.  So, while waiting, here are some simmering ways to get your creative juicing flowing.   

Focus On Who You’re Selling To

It all begins with your target market in mind. Identifying this as people “who buy t-shirts” isn’t enough. Nearby everybody in the world wears one. Instead, you have to know and understand what your audience likes and will purchase. Gather and analyze the following:

  • Demographics. Age, gender, marital status, education level, annual income, etc.
  • Social media platforms they use. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc.
  • Hobbies and Sports. Computer gaming, gardening, baseball, etc.
  • Buying behavior. Habitual, variety-seeking, complex, etc.
  • Motivation. Pride, prestige, security, comfort, etc.
  • Popular issues. Equality, inclusivity, conservation, etc.

We have an entire article devoted to market research and building your customer profile. It’s no different here. Everyone has their own beliefs. Baby boomers may be more conservative and are more likely to wear simple t-shirts. The exception would be middle-aged people who’ll wear tees of their favorite bands from the 60s, 70s or 80s. Search for the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. Their merchandise still sells on Amazon. Of course, check for trademarks and copyright. You want to create and sell designs of your own, but you can draw inspiration from others.

Younger people are more expressive. They’re concerned about what’s going on around them. Millennials like to question superiors and value social relationships. Also, compared to past generations, they’re tech-savvy. They’re more likely to choose “Tweet Me” emblazoned on their t-shirts rather than “I Want My MTV.”

Once you’ve zeroed in on your niche, the next step is to determine if it’s big enough to make a profit. If it isn’t, don’t completely give up on it. How about expanding your market instead? Many designs appeal to several market segments.

Find Inspiration From T-Shirt Themes

  • Sports. Aside from team apparel, people will wear tees of their favorite sport.
  • Occupations. A plunger with two wrenches printed on a t-shirt sells. Check out the various plumber tees on Amazon.
  • Music and musical instruments. A person wearing a Bon Jovi tee probably likes rock music. The same is true if it’s an image of an electric guitar.  
  • Strong Statements. Just Do It by Nike is one example. It’s trademarked but some slogans and phrases aren’t … or come up with your own!
  • Humor. Everyone likes jokes or funny images. Often you can find ideas from the latest memes (see my t-shirt below … sorry, already taken!)
  • Artwork.  Many t-shirts celebrate the masterpieces of great artists. Most of these will be free in the public domain.  
  • Souvenirs. These t-shirts tell people the places you visited recently.  It’s also making a statement you’re a world traveler. 
  • Holidays and Occasions.  There are t-shirts for Christmas, Thanksgiving, Halloween,  anniversaries, birthdays and graduations.  
  • Animals / Pets. People love animals. They’ll wear t-shirts of their favorites. They’ll even order personalized tees that display images of their pets. There are at least a thousand shops on Etsy that print these. 
  • Get ideas from current events. Keep up to date on what is going on, and where things are going. Create your own unique twist of an event that your target audience will love.

If you can read this, you’re not observing physical distancing” – seen on a bumper sticker recently. You could print the same on a t-shirt too. It’s funny and relevant now. There’s no harm in telling people to stay safe with tees.

(I had to explain this t-shirt to my friend … who is a fiction writer … shame on her!)

Speaking of current events, remember to tread lightly on sensitive subjects. There was backlash against Pepsi’s advertising campaign because it borrowed images from the BLM movement. People might view you as someone who is exploiting current issues. For instance, if you print “Stop the Hate” tees, do so because you’re an advocate. Stand for the values you and your brand represent.

Quotes, whether read, heard on the air or social media, are also sources of design ideas. These can be serious or witty. Famous people have committed errors on live T.V. Entrepreneurs are quick to take advantage. A married couple made an entire business around Trump’s “covfefe” tweet! Practice good judgment on what you print, though.

Search On Amazon and Merch Titans

There are at least 100,000 results when you search for tees on Amazon. You could narrow it down with specific keywords like animal t-shirts. You’ll still get 10,000 results. Amazon and other ecommerce giants are one of the best ways to see what is selling, finding trends, and otherwise getting inspiration. You’ll find out what sells on this platform and what people like (and don’t like) from the reviews.

If you’re a member of Merch, why not invest in Merch Titans too? Amazon had a print-on-demand businesses in mind when it created both. The latter isn’t only a tool for selling, but research as well. It will help you find profitable niches and supports POD platforms like Merch, RedBubble and TeePublic. Merch Titans will cost you $29/month at least. It’s a worthwhile investment if you’re engaged full-time in your POD business.

Partner With A Designer

We earlier mentioned that you don’t have to be a designer or artist to get into a POD business. Most POD owners aren’t. They simply do sketches or write down ideas, then hire freelancers to actually create the designs.

Here’s one site of designers around the world. You can browse through their portfolios and find a few candidates you can work with. There are many other sources as well, including:

Read our article on outsourcing if you have never done this before.

Run a Design Contest.

If you have fans, host a contest. Customers have great ideas. But they don’t have the time and equipment to print their designs. Let your audience choose the best entries. The next part is tricky. Do you pay one-time fees or royalties to the winners if you use their designs? Personally, I pay a one-time fee to the winner, and have in a disclaimer about the rules and payment.

Consider Nostalgia

Millennials love throwback products. They’re among those who go for the vintage look. Take note – they’re responsible for the greeting card industry’s revival. Yes, those things you write on with a pen, place in an envelope and send by mail!

Aside from diehard fans of the bands I mentioned above, don’t be surprised to see young people wear tees of Snoopy, AC/DC and the original Star Wars. This article suggests that the past stirs up memories of better times, even if they didn’t live in that era. Maybe it does, depending on your point of view.

Look for inspiration from the past. Check online for the most sought-after vintage clothing. Thousands of people still buy Coke’s Classic vintage logo t-shirts. Go through your closet or your parent’s attic. There could be a reservoir of ideas hidden in forgotten boxes.

Look at Etsy and Pinterest

There’s no need to log in on Etsy to search for trending tees. Again, be specific with your keywords. If you look for trending animal t-shirts, you’ll get at least 1,500 results. If you replace the word “animal” with “dog,” there are about a thousand tees to see. Read reviews on why people like the trending designs.     

Use the same search method on Pinterest, which specializes in visual products. You’ll know which designs are popular and selling by the number of pins.

Explore on Social Media

There are millions of posts about t-shirts on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Use #hashtags to narrow down results with specific keywords. I know that going through posts is time-consuming. However, do the research now and every once in a while to stay fresh and grow your business.

Run a survey. Maybe your followers can help you. Also, ask them to post pictures of their favorite t-shirts. Look at the social media accounts of your competitors. I’m sure you’ll find their newest products. Definitely do not copy, but get ideas on what designs sell well.

 Reddit and 4Chan are the main wellsprings of trending and upcoming memes. These can inspire your future t-shirts. (Careful to not go down rabbit holes on those sites!)

Use Design Tools

There are only a few tools that offer free design templates. Test these or other software that offers free trials first before buying.  

  • Placeit. Free downloads are limited. Most reviewers give this tool an above-average rating. Access to an unlimited number of templates will cost $90/year.
  • Canva. This is another user-friendly tool that provides free templates. Most reviews are excellent as it’s also a mock-up tool. More features are available at $12.95/month.
  • Inkscape. This is excellent for the budget-conscious. There’s no paid plan for this software. You can use free designs of other users in Inkscape’s community.  People love it because it’s an alternative to Adobe Illustrator.
  • Fatpaint. There’s nothing to download because it’s all done online. This free software allows you to create 3D texts and logos. There are over 900 templates and vector clip arts to choose from.  Shift to a paid plan if the ads are distracting you.

Offer Customized T-shirts

Finally, fulfill your customers’ requests for designs they want. It shouldn’t matter if they’re ordering one or several tees. You open your doors to more opportunities and ideas if you provide customized services. Think of conventions, competitions, reunions, etc.

You can get more ideas if you follow your passion like any other artist. The tips above can boost your creativity and inspiration.  So try some now. Do you know of more ways? Please share in the comments section below.

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