Increasing T-Shirt Design Output

5 Lessons From Increasing Design Output (And Why It Matters)

by Michael Essek   ·   Updated: May 27, 2020

December 2016 was my best month ever for T-Shirt sales and income.

It blew everything up to that point out of the water.

But – if I’m honest – I was somehow a little disappointed, and felt it could have been better.


Because the total number of design available on my single biggest sales channel (Merch By Amazon) was significantly diminished throughout November and December (through a combination of Amazon’s introduction of the new 60-day-rule, plus a crackdown on designs that violated Amazon’s design policies).

In other words, a lot of potential sales were lost because the number of designs I had available (on Amazon at least) dropped significantly.

Now, there’s little I could have done to protect myself against the 60-day-rule (any design that doesn’t sell in the first 60 days gets removed). Some designs sell, others don’t – and it’s very hard to predict this accurately ahead of time.

And there’s somewhat more I could have done to protect myself from the clean-up on potentially policy-violating designs – for example: staying away from controversial topics and potentially offensive jokes.

But the single biggest reason that I didn’t make more in December is this:

I didn’t have enough designs!

The more designs you have – the more protected you are from unexpected issues or policy changes.

If I would have had more designs, I would have had more margin.


In January I purposed to increase my output.

I settled on a goal of 50 new unique designs a week.

But I knew I couldn’t produce 50 designs a week on my own – so I went looking for help.

I spent a number of days scouring 99designs, upwork, behance, dribbble and others – reaching out to designers whose style suited mine, and asking them their rates.

(You could also consider a company like Penji – who will produce unlimited designs for a fixed monthly fee).

In the end I was left with about 6 who were happy to work with me.

And so we setup a system to track design jobs…and so began a significant increase in design output.

So, since January – I’ve learnt a lot.

And I thought I’d share with you some of my biggest take-aways…

1. Do More Of What’s Working

Once you have some designs that are generating income, it’s tempting to start looking around at new opportunities.

Other POD sites, maybe your own Shopify store, facebook advertising, etc.

None of these things are bad – but the surest way to increase income is to ‘double-down’ on whatever is already working.

So if something is generating income – do more of it!

  • Is a particular site or channel responsible for the majority of your sales? Then get more designs on that site!
  • Is there a particular niche or market that is out-performing your other designs? Then make more designs for that niche!

You don’t need to constantly chase new things. If increased monthly income is your goal – then simply do more of whatever is making you that monthly income.

When you have a bigger monthly income, you will be in a better position to take advantage of other opportunities. And you can even afford for some of those opportunities not to work out. You can take risks!

So, learn from my mistakes – don’t drop what is already working to go chasing after something that isn’t producing income yet. Work on what it working, and then you’ll be in a much better place to go after new things.

2. You Don’t Have As Many Ideas As You Think You Do

I thought that I could never possibly run out of ideas for T-Shirts.

After doing this for 3+ years I knew ideas were everywhere.

I had hundreds of ideas noted down from the past few years (ideas that never made it) – so I couldn’t imagine ever getting to a place where I’d be struggling for ideas.

Well, after a few weeks of assigning 50+ ideas a week to a handful of designers, I was almost out.

And these are ‘unique’ ideas by the way. I’m not talking about a single idea or phrase that you then ‘boilerplate’ to create 50 or 100 designs (eg. “It’s a Sarah thing, you wouldn’t understand“).

I’m taking about coming up with 50 new and unique jokes, visual gags, pop culture references or funny sayings – every 7 days.

It is not easy.

But it is a great way of increasing production and ultimately profit, because it forces you to give every idea a chance. Even those that may not appear ‘good enough’ at first will get a hearing – because I simply must hit my targets every week.

And because we – as humans – are so bad at accurately predicting what people will actually like – that one idea you previously wouldn’t go with – could now become a bestseller.

So – my advice is to jot down every idea you ever have, as soon as you can. Don’t dismiss anything.

And begin to make the task of ‘idea generator’ one of your number one priorities.

3. Outsourcing Is More Work, Not Less

If you’re going from 5 designs a week to 50, you’re going to hit 10-times the amount of issues.

And it’s probably going to take roughly 10-times the amount of work.

I couldn’t personally handle all that work myself – so I outsourced it.

But outsourcing work doesn’t mean you don’t have to do the work. It simply means you have to do a different type of work.

And that ‘different type of work’ is usually harder and more demanding than the original work.

What do I mean?

Designing a T-Shirt is not especially difficult for me. The concept is usually already present in my head, and I understand all the references and nuances that are required to produce that design.

Now try and communicate all of that information to a designer – who doesn’t know everything you know – and perhaps doesn’t speak perfect english – and you’ll see what I mean.

Outsourcing isn’t less work. It’s usually more work.

But if you stick with it and are willing to do that work – you’ll come out the other side with more designs, more income, and a new skill (the ability to outsource effectively).

4. Ideas Beget Ideas

I have always known this to be the case, ever since I entered the world of selling T-Shirts online.

But when you force yourself to come up with 50 ideas a week, you really begin to see the way in which ideas cross-pollinate in your brain, and lead to whole new concepts and new ways of thinking.

It’s a lot like ‘following the rabbit trail’ as I describe in my book – once you land on an idea, you carry on searching around that idea or concept, and just see where it takes you.

Push every idea to the limits. Follow every rabbit trail.

There’s also the more tangible aspect to this – which is that once you begin to see sales coming in, you can use that data to help you come up with ideas around certain jokes or concepts or trends.

Eg. ‘Oh, that Mermaid design is selling well, I’ll have to come up with some more Mermaid related designs

5. You Can’t Steer A Parked Car

Often I get frustrated because I have an idea – or the germs of an idea – but I can’t flesh it out and don’t know how to deliver it as a workable brief to one of my designers.

But once you commit to seeing something through, it’s amazing how quickly the elements come together.

Sometimes this means that I write an idea on my job sheet before I have any idea how I’m going to explain it to my designer.

Once you set the wheels in motion – even just a little – you give things a chance to get moving of their own accord.

Even if I feel like a concept isn’t as good as it could be – I get it out there anyway.

By the time my designer has had a go at it and sent something back – I’ll have a much clearer idea about what it needs and why.

Creation is a process. Even stupid t-shirt ideas take time to hash out. Don’t give up!


So there you have it, a few lessons from my efforts to increase production.

So far I would say that I’m happy with how things are going – especially considering we are at one of the quietest times of the year for retail.

Of course you don’t often see immediate returns for an increase in designs. It can often take months for designs to really ‘enter the eco-system’ and start to make sales.

But once they do – you’ll be thanking your past self for making that effort.

So get busy today increasing your output – you’ll be glad you did!

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