How To Come Up With T-Shirt Ideas

T-Shirt Design Ideas: How To Come Up With Original Ideas

by Michael Essek   ·   Updated: November 11, 2021

Every T-Shirt design starts as an idea. And the more T-Shirt design ideas you have – the more great designs you can create.

It doesn’t matter if you’re an independent artist trying to make sales on Redbubble, or a brand owner sending Facebook traffic to a Shopify store, or an Instagram ‘influencer’ selling Merch to your million+ followers – we all need ideas.

And the better your T-Shirt ideas are…

…the better your T-Shirt designs will be…

and the more sales you’ll make.

T-Shirt Design Ideas Are Not The Same As T-Shirt Designs

T Shirt Design Ideas

T-Shirt Ideas are intangible – they are concepts, or ‘briefs’, that could be articulated in a few words, or in a simple sketch.

T-Shirt Designs (on the other hand) are finished, print-ready artwork (PSDs, Ai files or PNGs).

T-Shirt Ideas come first, design comes second.

Design is the act of taking an existing idea (a concept or a brief), and turning it into something ‘real’ and visible.

…and just like a T-Shirt design can be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ (eg. poor illustration, bad font choice, wrong colours) – a T-Shirt idea could also be bad (eg. poor phrasing, weak concept, no appeal to buyers).

As the world gets smaller, and the cost of decent design and illustration work comes down and down – it is often your T-Shirt design ideas that will set you apart.

Better T-Shirt design ideas will give you a stronger connection with your potential customers, and an advantage over any potential competition.

To put it another way – an average T-Shirt design can still be succesful – if the IDEA behind it is strong.

But even tip-top design work won’t help a T-Shirt IDEA that is terrible.

When It Comes To Generating T-Shirt Ideas – Your Subconscious Cannot Be Trusted

T Shirt Design Idea Generation

Sometimes great ideas will just pop into your brain.

That may happen pretty regularly, and it’s great. (Usually it happens when I’m falling asleep / waking up – so thank you, Mr Subconscious – or Mr Semi-Conscious.)

However, in order to improve as artists, designers or illustrators – and in order to maintain or increase our sales and our income, we should be continually creating new designs.

And that means having a lot of ideas (from which we create new designs).

More T-Shirt design ideas = more designs = more sales.

Better T-Shirt design ideas = better designs = better sales.

But how do we come up with better T-Shirt ideas – if we can’t rely on a steady stream of them from our subconscious or semi-conscious brains?

Well I believe it is actually possible to generate original ideas ‘on demand’ – so that you always have a healthy ‘pipeline’ of potential ideas.

(and not just any old ideas – but really good ones – ideas that turn into designs that are much more likely to sell).

Becoming An Effective T-Shirt Design Idea Machine

Best T Shirt Design Ideas

There are a few key principles to mastering ‘on-demand’ T-Shirt design idea generation – and they include:

  • intentionally trying to come up with new ideas (not just leaving it to your subconscious)
  • developing systems to store new ideas, research those ideas, and develop those ideas
  • understanding that there are different ‘types‘ of T-Shirt designs – and understanding why, when and where they work

If you put those fundamentals to work, I think you’ll be surprised how many great T-Shirt ideas you can come up with, on-demand.

I have a lot more to say on the topic, but in this post I want to give you some practical tips and advice to help you become the T-Shirt Idea Generating Machine that you need to be.

So let’s hit it…

1. Save Every Idea

You’ll never remember that idea, so make a note of it NOW.

  • Use Evernote (or a similar, simple note-taking app) to save ideas, whenever and wherever they strike.
  • Set aside time each week (or even daily) to open up Evernote and ‘revisit’ your ideas. Try to evaluate each one – using Google to help you discover if (a) this idea has been done before, (b) if there’s any kind of existing market for such and idea, and (c) to figure out the best way to ‘render’ this design.
  • Once you’ve been saving ideas into your note-taking app for a while, try occasionally taking a break from scrolling Facebook or Twitter (!), and instead scroll back through your old ideas (I rarely delete ideas from my Evernote). I find this often sparks new ideas, combinations, or revitalises old concepts long since forgotten.

2. Build Your Own Personal T-Shirt Ideas ‘Swipe File’ Or ‘Cheat Sheet’

When you’re running low on ideas, you need something to help you ‘jump start’ the process.


  • Whenever you see a T-Shirt design that you like – save an image of it to a folder on your desktop, or a google drive folder or something like that.
  • After a few weeks (or once you have, say 20-something images saved) – open your folder and start analysing, categorising and ‘reverse engineering’ these designs. What is it you like about them? The design? How you would describe this design style? What about the joke? What makes the joke funny? Is there a way you could take this design and make it work for a different subject, or a different joke?
  • After a while you should begin to spot patterns in these designs, and you can begin making a list of T-Shirt ‘idea’ categories. Then the next time you have a topic, trend or subject you want to create designs for – you can open up your list, and start running through it to generate new ideas.

3. Become A Pun Connoisseur

Funny puns, wordplay and witty saying are fertile breeding ground for T-Shirt design ideas.

Learn what makes a good pun, and many T-Shirt royalties could soon be chasing you down.

  • Take note of any puns you see. These could be in memes, in TV adverts, magazines, movie scripts, marketing emails, on twitter – wherever. Try to analyse what makes these puns work – and then come up with your own puns based on the same subject.
  • Like the ‘Cheat Sheet’ idea above – begin building out a list of popular T-Shirt ‘sayings’ (like “Death Before Decaf” or “World’s Best Dad”) – and begin categorising those. Over time you’ll have a list of text-based ideas you can re-engineer and adapt to any trend, topic or subject you throw at them.

If you practice the techniques above – you’ll begin to develop those systems (and skills) that will help you come up with original, funny T-Shirt design ideas whenever you need them.

I recommend using Airtable for building out your Cheat Sheet / Swipe Files, but you can use whatever works for you.

The main thing is that you have some kind of reference list you can quickly scan through to help give you the idea ‘spark’ or jumping off point.

How To Generate Original Ideas [Video]

For a realtime example of how I generate original T-Shirt ideas, watch my Ideas Livestream below:

Ok – that’s all I got on this one – so until next time – Happy Idea Generating!

Struggling To Come Up With Original, Funny Ideas?

If you’d like to fast-track your T-Shirt Idea generating skills, then you need my Little Book OF T-Shirt Ideas.

It contains 14 proven T-Shirt Idea Frameworks, complete with step-by-step instructions to help you come up with original ideas superfast.

It also includes original illustrations to help you visualise potential concepts – and brainstorm the development of your new ideas.

It’s available now – and you can grab yours right here.

Further Reading On Idea Generation:




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