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6 Decorators Show Off Their Coolest T-Shirt Designs

Sixty-two percent of Americans own 10 or more t-shirts they wear regularly. That’s why it’s no surprise the ubiquitous t-shirt has reigned for years as the number-one promotional product category. Every year, we love asking some of the most talented decorators out there to share their biggest-selling t-shirt designs, with insider tips for getting those standout results. Get inspired by  stellar t-shirt designs from six shops across the country, as they use a variety of decorating techniques ranging from screen printing to DTG to direct to film.

Tapping Into the Amish Way of Life

Devon Brabenec, owner of Superior Merch, created this “Amish Country: A Way of Life” t-shirt design as part of his shop’s in-house line, available for purchase inside his downtown Ashland, OH-based retail store. This seven spot-color t-shirt stands out in Brabenec’s corner of the country since not many of his competitors create intricate designs. “I wanted to raise the bar and do something that’s different and definitely not boring,” he says.

Pro tip: “Find a great vector artist so you get the best possible artwork to print,” Brabenec says.

Photo credit: Isaac Coffy, Coffy Creations Photography
Photo credit: Isaac Coffy, Coffy Creations Photography

 

Yes, He’s Really a Gun Drummer (Look at His Tee!)

Brabenec and the Superior Merch team created this “Gun Drummer” shirt design for a unique, up-and-coming YouTuber who makes wild and chaotic “gun covers”—covers of popular heavy metal songs using some traditional musical instruments, and yes, guns. (Check out this YouTube star’s wild cover of Europe’s “The Final Countdown.”)

This head-turning design is a full-color DTG print, but Brabenec plans to transition it to a screen-printed version soon. “This design really sums up the Gun Drummer’s personality and YouTube channel,” he says. “Lots of shops just stick to one- or two-color merch, so this one really pops.”

Pro tip: A metal fan, who happens to be an artist in Poland, submitted this cool artwork that’s now become part of the Gun Drummer’s popular merch line. “Don’t forget to look for and use talent within your existing fan base, when possible,” Brabenec says. 

 

Photo credit: Isaac Coffy, Coffy Creations Photography
Photo credit: Isaac Coffy, Coffy Creations Photography

The Retro Cool Look of Eco-Friendly Inks

 

 

Wizard of Barge created this inspiringly “magical” design, and asked the team at Night Owls Print Shop to put it on a t-shirt. “Gildan Adult Heavy Cotton T-shirts have long been a staple of streetwear and accept discharge ink perfectly,” says Eric Solomon, owner. “We didn’t use any plastisol inks in this print. Just custom-built, Pantone-matched discharge formulas to make each ink color pop.”

Pro tip: Check out the Gildan Adult Heavy Cotton T-Shirt (G500) if your clients want an old school streetwear vibe for their t-shirt style. 

 

 

Artist Jay Ryan, who heads up small screen-print shop The Bird Machine, created this Electrical Guitar Co. design and asked the experts at Night Owls to print it. “We used super-soft, eco-friendly, Matsui High Solid Acrylic water-based inks,” Solomon says. “These inks print in thin layers, so you have the softest-possible print, without sacrificing opacity.” 

Pro tip: Check out the Next Level Apparel Unisex Cotton T-Shirt (3600) if you want a soft, lived-in t-shirt (that looks great on everyone) as the canvas for your vintage-looking designs. 

 

The Pump Truck Design You’ll Wear Everywhere

This throwback design takes vintage inspiration from a 1930s Ahrens-Fox Fire Engine Co. advertisement, designed to promote the company’s “new at the time” pump truck. The company of today wanted its Ahrens-Fox dealers to use these historical-inspired shirts as memorable giveaways for their customers.  

Since Ahrens-Fox no longer had the original artwork, Charles Juarros, owner of Ragged Apparel Screen Printing, worked off a .JPEG image of the ad. Juarros’ team decided against recreating the image into a vector format, since they wanted to keep the stylized look of the 1930s drawn art. “We used Adobe Photoshop to enhance the provided graphic as much as possible, while maintaining the look of the ad,” he says. “Retaining the rough vintage look makes the printed design extra cool.”

Then, the team separated the artwork into three screens using Separation Studio, and printed them at a 61-degree angle and 55 dpi.  The inks used were all from International Coatings. “We used Legacy White for the underbase, followed by 6143 Dark Grey and 726 Gold,” Juarros says. The screens were all tensioned at 30 newtons, using Newman Roller Frames with 230 Saati Hitex mesh. The screens were coated with Saati Textil PHU emulsion with a 1-over-1 coating using the coater’s round edge.

“A lot of printers focus on what occurs on the press, since that’s where we physically see the image come to life,” Juarros says. “However, if you focus on perfecting what happens before you go to press, everything falls into place when you put your screens on press. Pre-press is really where your wow-worthy image is born.”

Pro tip: Starting with good artwork is essential. “In this case, we were challenged by limitations of the older artwork,” Juarros says. “We could have recreated it completely, but that would have detracted from its authenticity.’  

Pro tip: Pre-press is arguably the most important part of the screen-printing process. “It’s simple: Create good screens,” Juarros says. “Account for all your variables, like proper tension, good reclaim procedures, coating techniques, as well as maintaining proper humidity levels to allow your emulsion to dry properly. These all play an important factor in the final outcome of the print.  Paying close attention to the details of the pre-press process will make you a better printer, as your t-shirt deigns stand out from the crowd.”

 

Direct-to-Film Fish Are a Great Catch

Year-round fishing resort Dale’s on Lake of the Woods chose The Visual Identity Vault to host a merch webstore for their resort. “We change up the designs for the seasons,” says Tanya Doyscher, owner and graphic designer. “These two designs are brand new to the resort for the summer season. Dale’s loves having new options for merchandise for their guests!”

Doycher used direct-to-film (DTF) printing for these designs, an imprinting technique that quickly has become a favorite of many of her clients. “Dale’s especially loves the colors DTF produces as well as the soft hand,” she says. “The colors of these two t-shirt designs are absolutely gorgeous and will be a hit with their guests. We expect the fish design to be a huge seller; the other benefit of that particular shirt is the resort’s contact information on it, so it doubles as a sales tool for Dale’s.”

Pro tip: Find a DTF vendor that has knowledge, experience and a proven track record. “This process is easy to do wrong since it requires several steps, as it’s being printed, dried/cured and powdered, or adhesive-applied,” Doyscher says. “Some companies convert aftermarket printers without understanding the science behind it and then when prints fail, it looks bad for the seller. Then, there are issues with the vendor/seller relationship.”

Dosycher encourages shops interested in DTF printing to do their due diligence and find a supplier or two that has a proven track record, as well as a backup plan if their machine has issues or goes down. “Also, understand that not all machines and materials have the same pressing instructions, so if you’re using multiple vendors, pay special attention to instructions when completing your projects,” she says.

 

t shirt designs

 

Don’t Be Afraid of Hustling, or Text-Based Design

The years 2020, 2021, 2022 and beyond are the years of the statement t-shirt. People love wearing motivational messages and their beliefs on their favorite tees. Misti Money, owner of 6Money’s Creations, created this supportive “The Dream is Free, The Hustle is Sold Separately” message t-shirt for a women’s expo. “We created this design to encourage attendees to stay focused on their goals,” she says.

For a super-soft, long-lasting tee, Money chose the Bella + Canvas Ladies’ Relaxed Heather CVC Short-Sleeve T-Shirt (6400CVC) in Navy. She used a silver heat transfer for the text. “The shirt and transfer colors complement each other well,” she says. “The silver gave the design a bit of a sheen, which made it eye-catching for people who saw it.”

Pro tip: When you’re working with a text-based design, choose fonts that complement each other to make the image interesting. You can incorporate a shape, like a box, into the design. Opting to increase the font size of the main word brings the focus to the core part of the message. “Don’t be afraid to mix and match fonts,” Money says. “Doing that can make your text-based design stand out.”

 

A T-Shirt-of-the-Month Club With Nonstop Killer Designs

Money creates new t-shirt designs for her 6Money’s Monthly T-Shirt Club, which hundreds of happy member women have joined. They love receiving attractive and inspiring t-shirt designs 12 times a year.

First up, this “All American Woman” t-shirt arrived just in time for the July 4 festivities, but recipients enjoyed wearing it throughout the year. When creating this screen-printed design, Money first reviewed the heathered shirt color and texture. “I chose a shade of blue that would coordinate best with the shirt color and text-based design,” she says. “Using navy blue and white really brought my vision for the shirt alive.” This design could also be reproduced with heat transfer vinyl.

Pro tip: Keeping the “All American Woman” design simple, but using varying font sizes helped balance this design. “I love how the three simple stars and the line gave interest to the design, but didn’t detract from the message,” Money says. Using harmonious fonts, and knowing when to use a readable script font, is always a good rule of thumb when creating any design with text.

 

 

Money takes into account the month and season she’s creating a particular design for, so in this case for March, she wanted to inject some spring thoughts. “March makes me think of fresh flowers and new life,” she says. “Using complementary colors as well as several different styles of flowers and elements helped this shirt come together. The ‘Live Happy’ message also fits perfectly here as an uplifting thought.”

Pro tip: When you’re conceptualizing a t-shirt design, think about when and how your clients will wear it. While this particular design is a longer one, Money knew it was perfect for March weather. “Most of my club members layer their tees with cardigans and the design works well with that styling,” she says. “Using various floral colors also allows my customers to change up the look of the shirt, just by adding different accessories or layering pieces.  It also can be worn on a casual trip to the greenhouse or dressed up for a girls’ night out.”  

 

Money created this inspirational, distressed design for the warmer months. If you use heat transfer vinyl, think about how much distressing you put on the design. “You don’t want several little cavities that need to be weeded,” she says. If you have the ability to screen print or even use another printing style such as white toner printer or DTG-style items, you can add more distressing. “You want to make sure that the roughed-up areas don’t take away from the readability or the overall look of the design,” she says.

 

 

Money created this “Small Business Owner” design for her Lady Boss T-Shirt of the Month Club. When she’s designing, she takes trending designs and colors into account. “Currently the Southwest look is super popular, so I decided to give it a try with a simple message for my small business owner members,” she says. “Finding a way to incorporate retail trends into something as simple as a font is a great way to make a statement and have your designs stand out.”

Pro tip: Using her iColor White Toner Printer, Money wasn’t limited to what type of garment she  placed the design on. “I was excited to find a heathered sunset tee that vibed with all the colors and design elements for the tee,” she says.

 

Out-of-the-Ordinary School Spirit Design Template

Money created this “Pirates” design for a local school’s spirit wear shirt. “We create one design template, and can quickly change it out for any school mascot and colors,” she says.   

The 6Money’s Creations team used an easy-to-read front but added interest to the design with lines and the school mascot. “By creating a slight slant, we make the design stand out from a standard straight chest logo,” Money says.

Pro tip: Create a t-shirt design that you can easily adapt to different school names, colors and mascots. By using a slanted design that’s different from the average chest logo, your shop will get a reputation for bringing some extra edge. “When we create templated designs for our spirit wear, we make them stand out from more ordinary designs,” Money says. “It’s also great to build designs that can quickly accommodate a color change, so you can appeal to additional schools using their unique colors.”

 

 

A Spirit Wear Design That Transcends

Money’s shop created this “Patrick Henry” design as school spirit wear. “Fans of all ages took advantage of the design because it was timeless, and it’s a design that can be worn to multiple school events, because it isn’t sport or group specific,” she says.

This vibrant design was created using a flock heat transfer material, which has created dimension and interest to the design.  We also left a space between the two mediums we used, allowing the sweatshirt fabric to show through, giving the design an extra color,” Money says. 

Pro tip: When you’re in the planning stages for a client, think about what color apparel the design will sit on. “This will help you decide if you want to use the feature shown here, allowing the shirt shade to become part of the design,” Money says. “For the Patrick Henry shirt, it works well. You can use a two-color design, but give it the appearance of three colors.”

Pro tip: Using different types of media helps create an eye-catching design. “The flock we used added dimension to the design, and is also soft to the touch,” Money says. “Texture is trending right now, and this was a way to uplevel my products for my customers.”

 

 

We Love Small and Long Dogs, to the Moon and Back

Meg Paxton, owner of TheTeenieWeenieStore.com and PaxtonPhotography.com, creates whimsical t-shirt and bag designs for The Teenie Weenie Store, a shop for small and long dogs and their favorite people. Paxton uses high-quality, full-color direct-to-film (DTF) transfers to produce her designs. “Buying the machine wasn’t right for me at this time due to upkeep,” she says. “However, using our in-house heat press and the film is quick and easy, and the designs look great.” 

Paxton absolutely loves being able to come up with her must-have designs, send them off electronically and get them back in the mail in about 72 hours. “With direct-to-film printing, you can literally go from design creation to shirts for sale in 72 hours, all depending on shipping times,” she says.

Pro tip: Finding the right DTF film printer for your shop is the most important consideration when you’re starting out. Prices and quality of films vary by the vendor you use, so do your homework. “Playing with your heat press to get the correct time and heat for your environment is pretty direct and easy to figure out,” Paxton says. “Knowing your times and temperatures is the other important part of the equation.”

 

 

 

How to Grow Your Customer Base Effortlessly With Referral Clients

Did you know that 54% of business owners say referral programs for their companies cost less per lead, than any other form of marketing in fact? In your screen-printing print shop, you might not be happy with your leads pipeline. The good news? If you create a compelling referral program built on an amazing customer service experience, you’ll start getting new customers faster than you expect.

The reality is that your next big client could be closer than you think. Your existing customers do business with others and are friends with other business owners. They can refer you to other high-volume clients if they like your work.

“If your customers refer you to someone they know, it helps you gain another great client who’s typically like them: easy to work with and who pays on time,” says Howard Potter, CEO of A&P Master Images. “It’s also cheaper to invest in a referral program, which has a higher ROI and carries little to no risk. With a great referral program, you’ll end up spending less on advertising overall.” 

We break down how to build a referral program that will work hard, on repeat, for your shop.

Why Spend Time On a Referral Program?

First, using referrals to gain business should be a no-brainer. It’s one of the lowest-cost methods out there when it comes to getting new customers in the door Beyond that, there are still more reasons to invest in this strategy:

1. Setting up a referral program is quick and easy. Once you set up your shop’s plan, all you have to do is manage it by rewarding those who refer new business to you. It’s pretty simple.

2. It’s a pretty sure bet. A whopping 92% of consumers trust recommendations from friends, family or business associates. All a new customer needs to take a chance on your shop is a feeling that you’re credible as a decorated products business. A referral will give them that extra dose of confidence to trust you with their first order.

“Your referral engine literally starts with that old school great customer experience,” Potter says. “Produce quality artwork and put it on a quality product. Give them a great product selection. Get the order done on time or ahead of time. Treat them with respect. Your customers will naturally promote you without you asking.” 

3. Referrals create more referrals. If you get a new client as part of a referral program, they’re able to refer others and so on. In fact, the numbers can grow almost exponentially as the average referring customer invites an average of 2.68 people.

“There’s no glaring secret sauce when it comes to repeat business,” says Lucas Guariglia, co-founder and CEO of Rowboat Creative. “If you follow through and offer superior products, your referral business will continue. With our music industry clients, our team continues to deliver when they’re in a pinch time and again. The word spreads like wildfire because there are a ton of facilities that over-promise and under-deliver. Once a client gets burned, the likelihood that they’ll come back or put the name on the line to refer you is slim to none.”

4. Customer referrals also help you retain the customers you already have. By knowing that their referral matters to you, you keep your current customers happy, leading to a 37% higher customer retention rate than other businesses.

9 Tips to Get Started With Referral Marketing


#1 Develop a business plan. It’s impossible to succeed if you don’t have a plan. “When you develop your approach, you’ll understand your hardline costs,” Potter says. “For example, if someone gets you a new customer who places a $500 order, factor in a percentage for a discount on their next order or a voucher to help them save money on their next order.”

Start by creating a plan that addresses the following questions:

  • What do you offer to your customers and clients that make them want to use your business?
  • What sets your shop apart from similar companies? (Or can you figure out a way to differentiate yourself from the pack?)
  • Who’s your ideal customer? What brings them in and makes them buy from you?
  • Who’s your main competitor? What do they do to bring in customers?
  • What means of production are most in demand by your customers?
  • What are your operating expenses, and how much profit do you hope to make?
  • What avenues do you use to market your shop?
  • What is standing in the way of achieving your goals?

By coming up with the answers to these questions, you’re on the path to improving and strengthening your shop overall. Revise this plan regularly so you can stay fresh and current.

#2 Pick a referral program platform to make things easier. Whether you’re a newer, smaller or larger shop, managing a referral program can get tricky. That’s why it makes sense to take a look at referral program software that helps you manage your referrals and rewards. Sometimes, referral program software will allow you to enter your clients into the software so they can receive a unique referral link or code to share with their network. Then, once the new referral places an order with your shop using the link or code, then your referring customer receives an email with their discount code or reward.

“If your customers refer you to someone they know, it helps you gain another great client who’s typically like them: easy to work with and who pays on time. It’s also cheaper to invest in a referral program, which has a higher ROI and carries little to no risk.”
Howard Potter, A&P Master Images

#3 Know who you’re targeting. When you worked on your plan, you identified your typical customer. Now, look closely at this definition and identify the customers who place your biggest orders. These are the ones you specifically want to target for referrals. Sure, it would be great to get one or two new small-order customers. But it’s those bigger (or more frequent) spenders that you need to target to bring in more like them.

“This strategy can work as well,” Potter says. “Also consider promoting to clients or industries that have easier work and consistent volume to gain growth, but never limit the program to others.”

#4 Keep your program simple to understand and use. “Referral programs can be too complicated,” Guariglia says. “Our shop’s feeling is that clients and partners should be willing to refer other potential clients to you because they truly feel you offer superior service and experience, as opposed to being solely motivated by monetary or ‘perks’ elements. If you just rely on referrals for perks, you can quickly lose that customer once another competitor offers a better perk. We prefer to align ourselves with solid business based on strong relationships, as opposed to just handouts.”

That being said, you can ask your clients what “perks” they’d enjoy most. Discounts on future orders? Free samples? Free rush order? Depending on what motivates them most, you can create a simple structure for your clients, along with a referral code they can use once they’re eligible.

#5 Focus on customer service. Customer service should drive almost everything you do. “Simply by producing a quality product and getting the order done on time or ahead of time can get you a free customer referral,” Potter says.

Communicate clearly what your customers can expect from you, and do everything you’ve promised to make your customers happy. Then, they’ll be delighted to provide you with a referral because they know that anyone they send your way will be treated right as well.

#6 Make sure everyone on your team works toward the same results. A top-notch referral program isn’t a one-person enterprise. When you set your goals for the referral program, make sure they’re SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-Bound). That could include emailing or phoning each new client to thank them for their recent order and tell them about your referral program. For example: If you refer a new client to us and they place a $500 order, you get 20% off your next order. 

“Gather your team and simply explain the pros and the end goal of marketing your referral plan,” Potter says. “When your team communicates your referral program benefits to your clients, they get excited to learn how they can save themselves money while helping your company grow and gaining other great clients. You might even offer your team incentives for getting new clients through their referral conversations.”

#7 Make your program mutually beneficial. Your rewards can do double duty for both the referrer and the referred. For instance, if you give one a discount or a promotional item to your referring client, send the same discount or benefit to the new client as well.

#8 Monitor your progress. Now that you have your program in place, constantly update and monitor your data. Make sure you’re reaching your goal that you’ve set. If you haven’t, adjust your staff’s approach and rewards to improve your program’s performance.

#9 Promote your program. Finally, it’s essential that you promote your program consistently and thoroughly. No one will be able to take advantage of the program if they don’t know it exists!

“Promote your program in person or via a personalized email,” Potter says. “Otherwise, you look like you’re begging for help by promoting it all over. Plus, if everyone starts promoting your shop at once, you won’t be able to keep up with the volume of new customers. Instead, set benchmark goals for your desired number of new customers and end sales goals.” 

A Few More Ways to Promote Your Referral Program 

This last point is a huge item, so let’s break it down further. If you have a referral program, you need to promote it. Here’s how:

1. Reach out to all of your customers. One of the best ways is to include it as part of your post-order emails. When you send your paying customers a message thanking them for their order, include information about your new referral program in that email. Make sure to spell out all the benefits that come from referring your shop to others.

2. Let them customize the program. When you give your customers a referral link to give out to friends and family and other associates, let them customize the page that the link takes them to. If they can put their own spin on the layout and message of the referral page, they’ll be more invested in it themselves.

“There’s no glaring secret sauce when it comes to repeat business. If you follow through and offer superior products, your business will continue.” Lucas Guariglia, Rowboat Creative

3. Include testimonials. As part of your referral program, be sure to include actual customer testimonials. This can be in the form of text, or you can get creative and use pictures and video to tell the customers’ stories.

4. Include program information with every purchase. When your customer receives their package, include a referral program guide and code with the purchase. You can also follow up with them a week or two later with a thank-you gift that also includes the referral information.

5. Use your data wisely. Give your sales data a review to determine your top customers. You want to target your best clients to make a part of your referral program.

Word-of-mouth has actually gotten bigger in our internet age. By telling others about your business, you’ll not only expand your sales to include these new customers, but also make your current customers happier and more likely to stay loyal.

“We just keep doing what we do with the same focus, care and attention to detail as when we opened 15 years ago,” Guariglia says. “That’s what makes Rowboat who we are: nimble, fluid, creative and committed. Figure out what makes your shop superior, and keep on doing that to prime the referral pump.”

7 Marketing Trends That Will Grow Your Shop in 2022

The way we do business has changed dramatically over the last year. The way we market our print shops has also morphed. Now is the perfect time to look at seven on-fire marketing trends (hello, chatbots) that you can incorporate in your 2022 plan. We lay out the trends your shop can’t afford to ignore in 2022, with industry experts weighing on how to make them work in your shop.

Continue reading “7 Marketing Trends That Will Grow Your Shop in 2022”