5 Mistakes To Avoid When Selling T-Shirts Online

5 Mistakes To Avoid When Selling T-Shirts Online

Last Updated: December 22, 2016

I’ve been selling T-Shirts online for 3+ years, and have made a lot of mistakes along the way.

Thankfully I’ve learnt from those mistakes, and now I make a decent living from my T-Shirt designs.

If you want to make a good income from selling T-Shirts online (and believe me, it is possible to do so – and has never been easier) – then you’ll want to avoid these mistakes.


But first I want to get a few things straight:

  • I am not talking here about how to make money from starting your own T-Shirt ‘brand’ – for example setting up your own T-Shirt store on Shopify or similar. (I do have a shopify site, but the majority of my income comes in the form of royalties from print-on-demand sites such as Merch By Amazon, Redbubble, Teepublic and others). If you want to start your own site and deal with customers directly – then you will still get something from these tips, but that is not the type of T-Shirt income I’m discussing primarily.
  • I’m talking here about how to make money from T-Shirt designs – not about how to design them, or how to make the best T-shirt design the world has ever seen. Design is obviously important when you want to design T-Shirts that will sell – but I’m not giving photoshop tips and tricks in this article. Rather I’m telling you the principles you need to make decent money from your work.

So with that out of the way, let’s get into the 5 mistakes you should avoid…

1. Not Enough Designs

When I started producing designs for T-Shirts, I focused on quality over quantity.

I took my time over every design, because I wanted it to be the best it could be, and I wanted it to be picked for a shirt-a-day site like TeeFury. (where the quality of artwork is especially high).

But as time has passed I have realised that the money isn’t really in one or two ‘killer designs’ – rather the money is in the list.

Or to put it another way: the more designs you have – the more money you will make.

So my single biggest piece of advice to T-shirt newbies would be: produce a lot of designs.

Set high (perhaps even unreasonable) targets for the creation of designs, and work hard to hit them (then surpass them).

In creating a lot of work, you will improve your quality, refine your style, and be almost guaranteeing and increase in your earnings – because more designs means more money (In the short and long term).

If you’re disappointed at your earnings from your current portfolio, but you only have 10 designs up – this is the problem. If you can’t – or don’t want to – produce hundreds of designs, then making a living from selling T-Shirts online may not be for you. (Or you may be better off looking into starting your own brand, investing in paid advertising etc.)

2. Poor Designs

Volume is important, but quality matters too.

It is possible to sell an ugly T-Shirt (in some cases it makes sense to make an ugly T-Shirt design) – but in most cases people don’t want to wear something that looks cheap or amateurish.

If you aren’t a competent designer, or you haven’t designed T-Shirts before – then you need to get to a decent level first.

Spend some time learning how to design Shirts (which is different from designing logos, websites or flyers) and mastering Photoshop and Illustrator (or whatever software you are going to be using).

(If you are looking for some resources for beginners, check out this article).

Compare your work to the kind of designs you see on the biggest Shirt sites online – TeeFury, BustedTees, SnorgTees and others. Does your work honestly stand up? If not, ask yourself why – and keep improving.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t try to sell Shirts until your a real Michelangelo – you should certainly be producing as you learn (In other words – put it up online anyway because hey, it might sell!). But be honest about your skills and the quality of your designs and adjust your expectations accordingly – because 100 crappy looking designs are probably going to produce less income than 50 well-designed shirts.

What are some of the design mistakes I see?

  • Over Designed Or Under Designed. A standard graphic T-Shirt sells online for around $20 – and you need to keep that in mind. Overly intricate and detailed designs may be required for sites like TeeFury (where designs are curated) – or if you are entering your design into an art gallery competition – but for the majority of my T-Shirt sales the design quality is simply ‘good enough’. Under-Designed means you simply don’t have the design skill or experience – and so your design comes out looking amateurish or thrown together. Customers can tell when this is the case, and so you need to create designs that exist in that ‘happy middle’ between lazy or unskilled work, and over-done, over-complicated.
  • Lacking Clarity. A T-Shirt design needs to be clear and understandable within a few seconds. For this to happen, the design must be readable and ‘getable’. This usually means bold lines, strong colour choices (so that everything is seen clearly) and simple, readable fonts or text. Overly intricate work or busy designs just confuse or distract the customer. You should also remember that your design needs to stand out as a thumbnail on a busy site like Amazon – so tiny detailed work isn’t going to be noticed or appreciated.

Finally on this point – volume is still more important than quality. If you had 1000 ‘ok’ designs, you are going to make more than if you had 100 ‘awesome’ designs. T-Shirts are not ‘high’ art. They don’t hang in galleries – they sell for $20 over the internet. Of course you should make high quality work – but sometimes 80% quality sells as good as 99%. Don’t let perfection stop you from creating at volume.

3. Lack of Originality

One of the big mistakes that new people make when entering the online T-Shirt market is to re-create what they see selling well elsewhere.

This may work for a while, but if you aren’t creating something original – eventually you will see your sales and income begin to drop.

By original I don’t necessarily mean ‘some idea that just popped into my head one day’ – but rather something that you have ‘made your own’ – rather than just creating or copying something you saw elsewhere.

If you go after things and designs that are already selling – and just recreate them in exactly the same way – then you’re already a step behind, struggling to compete with those who got there first. Maybe you are producing something better, and maybe you’ll win in the long run – but I prefer to focus on under-tapped opportunities, than attempt to compete in busy, crowded niches.

Finally, if you are going to compete in busy niches – you almost certainly need to be original and high quality. Simply copying the current best-selling design and changing the colours or fonts isn’t going to work in the long-term.

4. Lack of Research and Knowledge of Market

I made this mistake a LOT in the early days.

I just designed whatever I wanted to – what I thought might be a good seller or would make for a funny Shirt.

I didn’t stop to think about competition or demand – in fact I thought that if there was no competition then this was a good thing.

(Now in many ways I still think that – though it does depend on the niche and the market we are talking about.)

So by Research – I mean taking the time to do a bit of poking around within the market you are considering entering.

  • If there is competition around a design or trend – can you beat that competition?
  • If there isn’t competition – how confident are you that people will want to buy this design? Why do you think this? What is your track record?
  • Is the trend or story that is driving this design likely to fade away in a short time, or is it an ‘evergreen’ idea that people will buy for months and years to come? (You don’t want to create something that is going to be obsolete in a few months).

Finally, this research should also focus around the terms and keyphrases that customers are likely to use. You must to get in front of customers in order to make sales – and the words you use in your Titles and other listing data are the key to doing this.

5. Bad Listing Data / Technique

As just mentioned above – you need to know a little something about how to get your designs seen by customers in the first place.

This often means including relevant keywords and phrases – rather than just a random title you pull from the top of your head.

A lot of designers tend to choose titles this way – with little thought (or indeed any understanding) of how the title will impact their traffic and sales.

Don’t be that guy.

Use the words and phrases that customers are going to be punching into Google or Amazon to find a design like yours – and repeat them wherever you can. Take some time to work on your titles and your descriptions – because they can mean the difference between mediocre rankings & occasional sales and domination of ranking and regular steady sales.

Amazon, Google and others are trying to deliver quality and relevance to customers – but you need to give them all the help you can. So describe your designs with all the relevant keywords and phrases you can (without going overboard). Make it easy for people to find you, and over time you’ll reap the rewards of reliable sales.


So there you have it – mistakes to avoid in the dizzy world of online T-Shirt selling.

Think I’ve missed something? Add a comment below!


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Published by Michael Essek