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5 pro tips to improve your custom merch

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So you want to make some t-shirts?

One of our most commonly requested design projects is branded merch (aka custom apparel). And with good reason! When done right, branded merch is one of the most powerful, personal, and cost effective pieces of marketing that money can buy. Whether you’re selling them or giving them away, people walking around wearing shirts and hats with your art or logo on it is great for brand awareness, brand loyalty, and team building. The hard part is creating something that people will actually want to wear. Folks are picky about their clothes, so how do we make something that will be someone’s go-to, not stuffed in the back of a drawer and forgotten about?

Before starting the Design Shop, Hannah and I spent years on the creative team at Trust Printshop. We watched thousands of brands come through the doors getting custom shirts and hats. We’ve seen a lot of things work, and even more things not work. The following are 5 tips, tricks, and leading questions to help make your first merch foray a successful one.

1) Keep it simple

The first tip for anyone planning out their first set of merch is quality over quantity. Designing, producing, and selling merch is a hard process, and a common mistake is biting off more than you can chew. Just because you’ve got 10 fun shirt ideas doesn’t mean you have to do them all right away. My advice is to focus on a solid, core set of designs and remember that 3 great shirts are better than 5 good ones.

2) Learn your audience

So you’re going to keep it simple, but how do you know where to start? Whether you’re selling shirts to skaters or giving them away to your office staff, they are only effective if they actually get worn. Put in the time up front to identify and learn about the people you’re targeting (especially if you’re not in that demographic). What types of shirts do they wear? What colors do they avoid? Do they like giant graphics or subtle logos? Don’t make the mistake of spending time and money to get a great design and high quality printing, only to put it on a deep v-neck that you later find out is sooooo 2009.

3) Quality Quality Quality

This is tip number 3, but it’s probably the most important one. Yes, I put the most important tip third, because it's the third one I thought of and it rewards all of you that are still reading and didn't give up after the first two. The biggest advice I can give you for your merch is make it good. That may sound silly and obvious, but people wear the garments that look good, feel good, and fit good (don’t check my grammar on that last one). No matter how great the design is, a scratchy, thin, or ill-fitting shirt is simply not going to make it out of the drawer into the world! It can be scary to invest more up front on quality design, quality garments, and quality production, but the focus needs to be return on investment. And the ROI of a cheap shirt stuffed in a trash bag in the back of a self-storage container is ZERO.

4) Brand Focused vs Design Focused merch

These are the two basic genres of custom merch. Whichever you decide to pursue, or even if you go after a mix of each, it’s an important distinction point to think through and decide before starting the design process.

Brand Focused

The company logo is front and center, often presented without a lot of decoration. A true walking billboard, brand focused merch usually works best as a giveaway item, either handed out at events or as gifts, or sent to your team to wear in their free time. To actually sell brand-focused merch, you first need to create a brand that people know, love, and would want to support (think Nike, Vans, or a local sports team).

Pros: Easy to create, excellent for marketing, great team building and brand awareness

Cons: Hard to sell, mostly relevant for people that know and love the brand already

Design Focused

Less focused on the brand, but instead looking to create something that people will identify with and want to purchase and wear. This could be a piece of art, a funny slogan, or something relatable from your industry or target audience (think of a North Face shirt focused on rock climbing that a climber would relate to regardless of whose logo is printed on the back).

Pros: Relevant to people that don’t yet know and love your brand, more reach, marketable and sellable, freedom to get creative and fun with designs and approaches

Cons: Harder to design, harder to get right, less brand recognition / marketing potential

5) Design for production

Working at the printshop, we were often faced with designs that didn’t translate well to screenprinted garments. It was clear that we were the first people who had actually thought “how is this design going to get on that shirt?” We always tried to make it work, but often the final product was much weaker than it could have been. Before you start the design process, think about the finished product and design with those details in mind. “Does this design need to also be embroidered on hats?” Then avoid small text, intricate details, and gradients. “Do we need to reduce costs by screen printing in 2 colors or less?” Then design from the beginning with a reduced palette. “Are we going to put this on a black shirt because our team prefers it?” Then don’t design the whole thing on a white canvas with black shading.

For even better results, work with a design team that has extensive experience in the production process, a team that can help guide you through the process, bring relevant questions to you before they become issues, and create print-friendly files that any production team would be pumped to receive. Maybe even a design team that grew directly out of the art department at a respected screen printing and embroidery shop? (You had to know that was coming.)

*5th grade book report voice* In conclusion, custom apparel is a land of contrasts; a fun, difficult, frustrating, rewarding process. If you put in the time and the work to do it right, it can bring tremendous value to your brand or your team, but if you treat it like a throwaway, something that needs to be done because it’s something that everyone else does, then it will indeed end up thrown away.

If you'd like to talk to us about custom apparel, branding, or anything design related, contact us here. We'd love to chat.