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I Hate Your T-shirt. (How to Fix your Merch Design)

"It’s overly simplified; It’s cliche; It’s Tone Deaf; The graphic is poorly placed, and the tie-dye is faded because you placed it too close to the window. I’m not buying it, and your customer isn’t buying it. More importantly, I’m not buying you. Your business took the time to decide that this was what you were going to show the world, and now all the worst attributes of this garment; I am attributed to your business. I made this decision in less than 5 minutes of being in your establishment. This is the power that apparel has over your brand and your target customer."

Tye Dye T-shirts on a Rack as a part of a Merch Design Display
Properly Displaying your Merch can Do wonders for Sales.

Why Your Merch Design Failed.

You walked over to your local screen printing shop with excitement. You opened the door wide and proclaimed proudly to the chemical and ink-stained room or garage, 'I Want Shirts.' The overworked technician and their underpaid design assistant peered over their computer screens and exhaled slowly.

'What kind?' they ask.

You don’t know; you’re no Merch Designer. You are a business owner and a busy one at that. And so you begin the process of catalog mockups and color swatches. Things begin to stretch out, and the design associate begins to grimace each time you return. Eventually, you begin to accrue 'Design Hours.'

'This is a bit much, don’t you think?' you ask.

You have a vision, and the designer just can’t seem to see inside your head. Finally, you cave in. You insist on just your logo and something fun and eye-catching. Then you receive the invoice.

13 design hours + Custom Merch Design Fee + Apparel + Production + Tax.

You suddenly do the math and realize that the markup to make a return is going to be absurd. You negotiate, but the shop holds firm as they remind you of the 6 revision cycles you requested. You settle at a 12pc 'Test Run.' The product is delivered in a rush since you needed them yesterday.

You settle up and bring them to the shop. You hang one over the cash register near the entrance with a handwritten sign and stash the other 11 under the counter where they remain to this day. When talk of merch is brought up, you roll your eyes and scoff.

A Full Set of Merch Design Tye Dye T-shirts in the window of a brewery store
Be Careful Where you Place Your Merch Design. Natural light can Fade your apparel.

What Went Wrong.

Firstly, you assumed that a screen printer could handle a custom order. Merchandise manufacturers operate on thin margins. Between ordering the apparel and placing the imprint, the design can only go through a few revisions before it enters the 'Design Hour' zone. This means, that to recoup the cost of hiring a college student with a laptop on an hourly basis, they need to markup your project. This will slowly deplete your budget until you are no longer able to arrive at an effective solution and have to settle on a design.

Secondly, you didn’t consider the cost of markup and fell for the test order trap. A $36 Gildan tee with a 3” pocket graphic isn’t going to excite anyone. The only way to achieve proper margins is by ordering big and varied sets of garments. This can be intimidating, and it may be better to wait and strategize before investing. However, if you work with a designer or design agency first and line up a set of powerful and well-thought-out concepts, once you can make that investment, it becomes a no-brainer.

Thirdly, you didn’t consider how you were displaying your merchandise. Every decision you make reflects subconsciously to the consumer. A handwritten sign equals unconscientious, and a sun-faded garment equals forgetful and poor sales. All these details are read like a book and play a part in whether or not a customer will even return to your establishment.

What Can Be Done?

Firstly, agencies like offer monthly flat-rate subscriptions, providing you with a predictable and manageable budget. This model eliminates the unpredictability of hourly design fees, allowing you to collaborate with a team of creative designers without the fear of spiraling costs. This not only ensures financial stability but also encourages an iterative design process that refines your vision without the looming threat of additional charges.

Secondly, working with an agency brings the advantage of a dedicated team of creative minds. Unlike relying on a single designer, a team offers diverse perspectives and expertise, enriching the ideation process. Monthly subscriptions often include consultations, ensuring that your concepts are not only visually appealing but also aligned with your brand identity and marketing goals.

Lastly, a well-established agency can guide you in making informed decisions about the scale of your merch design orders. They can help you strategically plan and execute large, varied sets of garments, maximizing your chances of creating an impact in the market.

By opting for a subscription-based model with a creative agency like, you can transform the way you approach merchandise design and overcome the obstacles that have hindered your previous endeavors. This proactive approach ensures not only cost-effectiveness but also a comprehensive and well-thought-out strategy that resonates with your target audience.

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