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7+ Secrets to Find Cool T-Shirt Design Ideas (For Print on Demand)

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Have you read the stories of T-shirt millionaires spreading around the web?

That’s what TJ Mapes and two of his friends did in 2009 when they started RIPT Apparel. Now, thousands of people are earning a good income selling cool t-shirt designs using Print on Demand.

Cool T Shirt Design Idea from Envato Placeit
This cool t-shirt design idea was created using one of the many t-shirt design templates available through Envato's Placeit.

It’s a great way to build your portfolio as a designer, because you don’t need to worry about upfront costs and you can quickly get feedback on your designs based on demand. Learn all about print on demand in this tutorial.

What Is Print On Demand and Why Does It Matter?

Print on Demand (POD) is a process where a designer teams up with a supplier to print their designs on white-label products like t-shirts, mugs, or blankets, whenever someone buys it online. 

Print on Demand t-shirts is a growing market. A 2017 report from consulting firm Credence Research shows that the custom t-shirt printing market is expected to cross $10 billion by 2025.

The only con is that you've got no control over packaging and the printing customization is limited to the methods used by said party. Shopify's post on POD has more information about the pros and cons of POD. 

Print on Demand, Not as Easy as it Sounds

It’s impossible tell which design will click. A design might look artistic to you, but your customers might disagree. And just when you think you’ve found a promising design, it might be too late because a many designers have seen it and are already copying the trend. 

cool-t-shirt-ideas-hogwarts
A popular t-shirt design from Etsy.

That’s exactly what happened when POD designers started applying the concept of this now-viral Hogwarts-themed shirt to every niche imaginable.

Without knowledge of your target market and proper research, you could waste a lot of time and money designing POD merchandise that doesn’t sell. To avoid that, this tutorial will show you different ways to research profitable designs for different POD niches, and show you where to find images and fonts to use to create those designs.

Top 7 T-Shirt Niche List and Print on Demand Product Ideas

Print on Demand has several niches. Each niche has its own set of slang, reasons for buying, and popular t-shirt design ideas, so knowing your niche makes it easier for you to create items they’ll want to buy.

Below are some of the most popular t-shirt ideas today, plus some print on demand products where you can use them.

1. Pets

People love their pet, which is why the pet industry is $72.13 billion industry last year based on data from the American Pet Products Association.

You can go for the common sub-niches like dogs, cats, or birds, but there’s also a market for uncommon pets or large animals, such as horses, lizards, wolves, and hedgehogs.

Placeit has plenty of pet t-shirt templates available to choose from, such as the one below:

pet t-shirt design template
Envato's Placeit has hundreds of great t-shirt design templates that feature pets.

2. Jokes

Statement shirts are great conversation starters. Humor-related POD merchandise could have funny images, punchy one-liners, nerdy jokes, or even memes.

funny-t-shirt-ideas
Fitness taco t-shirt from CrazyDogShirts

If you want to give potential buyers a feel of how a shirt would look like when worn, use t-shirt mockups from Placeit.

3. Jobs

You might hate your job right now, but there are millions of people who wake up every morning proud of what they do.

Not all jobs are popular though, some have more passionate employees than others. For instance, lawyers or accountants don’t get as much love compared to nurses, army, or firefighters.

nurse-panda-sneakers
Cute shoes for nurses who loves pandas via Chi-Chi and Me

4. Sports, Lifestyle, and Hobbies

Another reason people buy custom-printed merchandise is to show off their hobbies, sports, or lifestyle.

Here’s an example of a wall decal for female runners from Gone for a Run.

Here are three popular niches to consider for your t-shirt business:

1. Sports Niche Ideas

  • Baseball
  • Basketball
  • Hockey
  • Football
  • Cycling

2. Hobby Niches

  • Crocheting
  • Gamers
  • Fishing
  • Bookworms
  • Gardening
  • Anime/Manga
  • Cars

3. Lifestyle Niches

  • Digital nomads
  • Entrepreneur
  • Vegetarian
  • Work-at-home Mom (WAHM)
  • Travelers
  • Yoga

5. Family and Relationships

Have you ever seen a shirt saying “Worlds #1 Mom” and thought, “who would actually wear this?” Shirts like this are popular, especially on Mother’s Day.  You can also find custom-printed items for single dads, newly-engaged women (“bride-to-be”), sibling love, newlyweds, and grandparents. There’s even a t-shirt niche list that includes friends and co-workers.

6. Location and Travel

Almost any tourist destination will have a couple of shirts and collectibles designed after their local attractions.

Travel quotes, architecture, local delicacies, and maps are also used in travel-related print on demand merchandise.

7. Seasonal Designs

Christmas sweaters aren’t the only POD item you can sell on holidays. Seasonal designs to put on a shirt include Thanksgiving, graduation, Valentines, Halloween, and other holidays. Religious holidays like Hanukkah or lesser known holidays like National Pasta Day also have their place in the market, but only if you time your promotions well.

How to Choose a Niche

POD shirts, jewelry, shoes, and other custom-printed merchandise are what people call “impulse buys,” so the best way to sell them is to tap into people’s emotions.

People purchase these items because they want to show off their individuality, whether it’s their job, pet, hobby, sport, or a country they just visited—the design shows something about them.

Another factor to consider when choosing a niche is the market size. You could have a niche you're extremely passionate about, but if there aren't enough people there you’ll quickly run out of customers. One way to check a niche’s audience size is to use Facebook’s Audience Insight tool or check the keyword search volume for your audience on Google.

Read the following tutorial to find out how to research a niche:

Selecting a huge niche also gives you room to branch out into sub-niches. If you want to sell job-related shirts, you can break it down into different categories such as nurses, firefighters, and teachers. From there, you can even break it down further into smaller niches such as pre-school teachers, or ER nurses.

How to Conduct a T-Shirt Market Research for Your Chosen Niche

Now that you’ve chosen a niche, it’s time to research what to put on your designs for them. You can use your preferred method for collecting information, be it bookmarks, Pinterest pins, or an excel file, the important thing is you find a way to save and organize the information you’ll collect during this research.

Below are different ways to research designs to put on a shirt and other print on demand products.

1. Finding Cool T-Shirt Design Inspiration through Amazon Merch

Merch by Amazon is Amazon’s very own platform for POD t-shirts.

A free tool from Merch Titans allows you to search the cool t-shirt designs uploaded to Merch by Amazon based on keywords, the marketplace it was uploaded to (i.e. Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk), and the type of merchandise (i.e. shirts or hoodies).

The search results will show:

  • Design Image
  • Items sold
  • Price
  • Brand

The results aren’t 100% accurate as they’re based on the tags and descriptions store owners use on listings. If a design is listed with multiple or related keywords, they can show up on your results. 

how-to-find-t-shirt-design-ideas-on-merch-by-amazon

You can also search Amazon’s website for t-shirt ideas using the process Dan Vega described in his video here:

2. Searching with Pinterest and Facebook

Facebook is a social platform, but it’s a good way to find print on demand t-shirts because this is where competitors are promoting their designs using Facebook ads.

Just type your niche’s keyword and the word “t-shirt” or whatever print on demand merchandise you’re selling into the search bar. You can also use promotional words like “on sale” or “limited time offer.” Some people search based on POD platforms, so they use search words like “Teespring” or “Redbubble” so they see all posts with these platform’s URL or name.

You can also filter the search results based on the date of the post, so you only see the latest designs promoted on Facebook. 

cat-t-shirt-design-ideas
A search of the niche “Cat mom” plus the keyword “shirt” filtered for images uploaded in 2019 shows the following results:

The same method can be used for to find t-shirt design ideas on Pinterest, except in this case you’ll use the number of “pins” to gauge a design’s popularity. Pinterest will also help you narrow down you search by displaying popular keywords associated to your initial search.

t-shirt-design-ideas-pinterest
Cat t-shirt ideas on Pinterest.

This shirt design found on Pinterest has over 1000 pins, a good sign that cat lovers would purchase a shirt with a similar design. 

cat-hair-t-shirt-design-ideas-pinterest
A closer look at a cat t-shirt on Pinterest.

You don’t even need to design a cat from scratch to create something similar to this design, as there are lots of graphic options for cat t-shirts on Placeit like the ones below:

cat t-shirt-inspiration
You can choose to customize one of the many cat t-shirt template designs on Placeit.

3. Search Unique Mug and Shirt Design Ideas via Etsy

Etsy is a marketplace for handcrafted products but you’ll also find print on demand products there. To find creative t-shirt design ideas, just type your niche’s keyword in the search bar. You can also try different keyword combinations like “niche + joke” or “niche + another niche” to get unique shirt design ideas.

Etsy Results for POD ideas for “Mermaid mugs

Take note of the designs with lots of reviews, but make sure the reviews are for the item you’re viewing and not for another design. The reviews below are for the item “Reasons to be a mermaid mug,” but you’ll see that last review is for a different product. 

mermaid-mugs-review
Etsy reviews for a mug.

4. Search for Cool T-Shirt Designs via POD Platforms

You don’t need to create a website to sell your POD designs because there are dozens of marketplaces that'll allow you to upload your designs on their site, so you can earn when someone purchases it from them.

Not only can these sites help you sell your designs, they can also help in your POD and t-shirt market research. Just type the keywords for your chosen niche, then filter the search results based on hot t-shirt designs or the newest listings added.

Search results for bags on Redbubble for the job niche “teacher.”

Below are other POD marketplaces where you can find design inspiration:

You can also search for t-shirt ideas on Teeview, a website that consolidates designs from Teespring, Sunfrog, and Teezily.

5. Searching for Unique Shirt Designs  via Google Images

Finally, there's the tried and tested method of searching for t-shirt design inspiration using Google Images. Go to https://images.google.com then type the niche you’re trying to research.

Try a combination of different keywords, such as:

  • Niche + funny
  • Niche + joke
  • Niche + quotes
  • Niche + slang

Google Autosuggest will also show you other phrases to use in your research.

The search results may not be limited to shirts, but some of these quotes are short and snappy enough that you can easily fit them into a mug or hoodie. 

A Google image search results for “Running Quotes” shows several ideas you can put on a wall decal for runners.

Caution: Many of the images you'll find on Google images are copyrighted. Be careful not to use an artist’s images or copyrighted items to avoid a lawsuit. Use the results of this search for inspiration only. 

Combine some of the quotes here with a professionally-designed running t-shirt template design on Placeit, and you’ll have some wall decal or t-shirt ideas ready for a promo test.

running t-shirt template design
Envato's Placeit has professionally-designed running designs to put on a t-shirt.

6. Searching T-Shirt Design Ideas via Reddit and Other Social Platforms

Your niche doesn’t have to be news or politics for this tip to be useful for you. Whatever is trending in your niche, there’s a good chance that you’ll find a clever quip about it in one of these platforms.

Platforms where you can search trending, viral, or meme items:

  • 9Gag. A website and social site where you can publish and curates jokes and memes for a variety of niches.
  • 4Chan. It’s similar to Pinterest in a sense that it’s a bulletin board for images, but the difference is you don’t need an account and you’ll see lots of comments on some images, which might be helpful in your research
  • Reddit. The site is divided into different communities, and some communities will have sub-groups (a.k.a. “sub-reddit”) to further organize the conversations. The best posts get the most replies and votes (a.k.a. “upvotes”) from community members. 

Not everything you find in these websites is applicable to POD, as majority of the information you’ll find here aren't yet commercialized. These are just content people talked about, so you’ll need some creativity to imagine how the information can be translated to a hoodie or POD blanket design.

The relationship category on 9Gag is full of jokes and complaints about relationships. But there are posts like the one below where the image’s concept or a text version of it might well on an apparel design. It’s also a good sign that the post has over 2600 points and 100 comments.

Caution: Be careful not to use an artist’s images or copyrighted items to avoid a lawsuit. 

You can find many unique quotes on sub-reddit threads, and almost none of these quotes are trademarked because these are from ordinary Reddit users being their sarcastic or funny self. Unfortunately, digging into Reddit to find puns and jokes is a chore because there are so many active conversations to track.

Simplify your research easier by searching for “pun trains,” the term used when users play off on each other’s puns. Another way is to look up Reddits dedicated to jokes. You can also find a detailed tutorial of using Reddit to search T-shirt designs on MerchPursuits.

t-shirt-market-research-on-reddit
Posts on a Reddit community for dad jokes

7. Combining Niches to Create Cool T-Shirt Designs

Combining niches allows you to hone in on a more specific target customer, while giving your designs are more unique and authentic feel.

One typical example of this is the “Niche + Born in (month)” combo, where you combine a positive trait or niche with a target buyer’s birth month. Designs like this makes buyer feel special, because they think they’ll be the one of the few with an item like it.

print-on-demand-merchandise-mugs
Mermaid mug from Etsy.

Here’s a combined niche idea: Mermaids + birth month via Etsy. Use a different image or icon then combine it with a unique typeface and you’ll get a unique design ready to sell.

You can also combine relationship and job niches, like this design for a “Mom who raised a firefighter shirt from Etsy.

t-shirt-market-research-on-etsy
T-shirt design from Etsy.

A Word on Avoiding Copyright Issues and Using Mashups or Parody

Some designers and POD entrepreneurs use mashups and parody to avoid copyright problems. Since ideas are too vague to copyright, a different execution of one idea from a popular franchise or trademarked character like what happens in parodies and mashups presents a gray area for designers.

For instance, the idea for a hilarious dad can’t be copyrighted, but the plot and character details that makeup the character’s personality can be protected by copyright. That’s why Peter Griffin of Family Guy can’t be considered a copyright infringement of Homer Simpson. Whatever similarities they have, they also have differences in storylines and character traits, which makes both of them independently, and could separately be copyrighted..

That’s why ‘fair use’ is a typical defense against copyright claims.

Unfortunately, "only a legal court can decide whether a design falls under fair use and because lawsuits involving copyright claims are usually complex and involve heavy fine plus settlement, they are tried at the Federal level", according to Atty. VikasBajaj

Of course, you want to avoid getting into court in the first place. Teespy has a few pointers that can help you avoid in this post.

Where to Find Images, Fonts, and Mockups for Your Chosen Designs

Former Graphic Designer now Bootcamp Media CEO Jimi Shabir, says, “It’s always better to create unique images, especially if you’re creating something to be sold. But sometimes, using stock photos is a necessary shortcut to multiply your design output.”

Shabir has a point. If you spend days perfecting one design, you’ll find it hard to test new designs fast, and your designs may already be a saturated trend by the time they hit the market. Using stock images creatively will help you design more items faster.

Vladimir Gendelman, Founder and CEO of Company Folders, Inc. also works with customers who uses stock images on the items they want to print for their business. Because of this, he always advises clients to get their stock image from a reputable provider.

He adds, “Most stock image services label their images so you know which ones you can and cannot use commercially, or if additional protection or ‘rights’ should be purchased. Using a service will not only protect you from breaking the law, but you’ll also get high-quality images that will print nicely on your products.”

Placeit is a good source for design templates, mockups, and other design elements you may need. 

Why Wait? Get Started Now

Remember what famous writer Austin Kleon wrote, “Steal like an Artist.” Don’t copy other people’s designs; use it as inspiration to create something better or unique. I hope you've gotten plenty of inspiration from this tutorial.

In the case of designers, this means trying a different font, angle, icon, color, or a different image. With proper research, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel to come up with a unique and profitable design. Try the research methods mentioned here and don’t forget to use images safe for commercial use such as those found on Placeit. 

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