How to Design for the Apparel Market

This article was originally posted in 2009. I was rereading it the other day and it has some amazing insight from an artist who knows the industry

Art Doesn’t Sell
by Jimiyo

In my experience as a designer and curator, there is a truth about the apparel world that has become apparent. If my hunch is correct, this probably spans the whole world of art:

Artsy fartsy doesn’t sell in a mass consumer market.

I don’t wish to discourage any artist from designing in their own voice, but typically, people enjoy simplicity; generic ideas, easily understood and recognizable.

By artsy farty, I am referring to esoteric ideas, themes, and execution.

Death_on_a_Pale_White_UNICORN!-t4kii3-sFor example, my best selling shirt at was Death on a Pale White Unicorn.

Whereas Death took only 1.5 hours, the piece over which I labored most, Plunder All, was received with only mild enthusiasm by the shirt.woot market.

Whereas Death on a Unicorn is easily understood, “haha, I get it, its… Death on a Unicorn, plain and simple, but whats this pirate about? He has brass knuckles but he has Love tattooed on his fist? And whats with the octopus with the keyhole in the head?”

plunder_all_by_jimiyoPlunderall is not.

One may argue that shirt.woot is a vacuum in which the preferences of the consumers are very specific, but this is not the case.

In most avenues I’ve observed, there is rarely an exception. started out attempting to be like their sister company Designbyhumans by starting out selling very artistic designs, then over time, the market tended to gravitate towards a Threadless-y Woot-y genre but uniquely Teefury-y.

It seems every business tries to dictate it’s theorectical market, but eventually the consumers from the web will eventually put them into a niche.

At Teefury, since we sell a different shirt every 24 hours, we still have a wide selection of genres we offer, but the obvious winners are pop culture related.

I’ve sold over a dozen shirts through Teefury. In the beginning, I started with artistic designs which took hours to create, and years of refining my skillset.

bottom_cocoandleno boom doom star trek redrum ghostbusters

But to date, wonder what’s been my best seller? Ceiling Cat and Darth Tut. Both pop culture references.

ceiling cat darth tut

What made my artsty fartsy designs fail? Frankly, unless you are in a niche market like Design By Humans, the majority of the population does not have the palette or affinity for esoteric expressions. They simply don’t have the ability or desire to understand a different language.

We are still very much like animals. We still exhibit the fight or flight tendencies in our decision making. We desire social validation and acceptance as community beings so if you apply this theory to products, we want a product that communicates a positive and acceptable message to the rest of the world. We don’t want to scare anyone into thinking we are different.

To wear something that is difficult or even unable to be understood, you might as well be wearing something with a foreign alien language.

We live in a world of symbols. Male/Female bathroom signs are universally understood. The color red, a sign of urgency, skulls typically represent death, etc.

As artists, we can help to create new symbols, but we must teach the world first before they understand it and are at ease with it. So there are two paths.

  1. Design using symbols that already exist.
  2. Be the forerunner in defining a new set of symbols, or way of expression, until it becomes accepted, if ever.

The latter is the true artist’s journey, so it is most difficult.

But it seems, that once you define a way of expression, you will have defined your niche, so you can rarely deviate from it once settled into popularity.

BTW, did you know that even with gallery art, the top selling designs are typically generic? Landscapes, abstracts, dogs, and portraits.

So what should you design to be successful?

It depends on your market, but typically

  1. Look at trends. If you observe enough of the market, you will see consistency, an affinity for certain topics, or specific design aesthetics.
  2. Include pop culture references. It’s a no brainer for Marc Ecko and Adidas to be partnering with Lucas Films to create products that are Star Wars related. Star Wars is widely understood and enjoyed.

Immediately, when people see the symbols or imagery related to Star Wars, cha-ching. You know it’s $$$$ MONEY $$$$.

If you look at Threadless, you will see alot of other topics that are pop culture/cult following related products.

Video games, zombies, tv/movies, etc.

Piggy-backing on something that’s already popular is the easiest route to getting sales, and attention.

There is a legal issue here. You must parody, or coyly design in a manner in which will allow you to skirt copyright infringement issues. Thankfully, parody is a route.

3. Keep it simple stupid. Don’t deviate too far from the normal way of expressing ideas, and don’t be complicated in artistic expression. Solid low color designs are king. You want to create a design in which, someone walking by in a second understands what they are looking at. This is related to symbols. Symbols are simple images. Just as we recognize a smiley face with a cirle, two dots and a semi circular line, you want your image to be almost just as simple.

*** Addendum by @Hydro74 Twitter
4. Emulate popular styles/trends. “uniqueness is rare and not demanded by consumers or companies thus emulate what sells with a splash of creative twist.”


Recently, these are a few submissions I’ve seen at different sites which are obvious winners if they are printed. These are full of win. Obviously, it doesn’t take a expert to recognize them as good sellers.

Although, the skills exemplified by these pieces are professional, I would chance to say that, concepts sell most shirts, so these could have been done by a crappy artist, and they would still sell.


This is the way of the world peeps.

One of the only places I’ve been successful with my own brand of art has been, as it’s market gravitates to being somewhat esoteric and artsy fartsy. It’s built its consumer base as such, but if you notice the shirt of the weeks/months, you will also notice that it’s not necessarily the most artistic designs that win. It’s mostly allovers, abstract designs, and designs that have a wide appeal by being mildly trendy, but not overly similar to trends already existent in the apparel market.

It doesn’t necessarily take extraordinary artistic ability to win.

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  • marc

    Interesting piece, i’ve struggled w/trying to figure out where i fit in this game, this definitely brings some clarity. Thnx for sharing.

  • DefunktOne

    Great post. You are spot on. True artists travel a lonely path and sometimes they do not become famous until after death. On the other hand, if you want to make a few bucks, best work towards the middle ground!

  • UmbrellaCustom

    Thanks for this great blog piece Jon. We’re starting afresh with our custom t shirt line and this is now our Bible for mainstream launch

  • Cottonmouth

    We’re struggeling with the same problem…

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  • Philiq18

    This was pretty enlightening. It definitely gave me some much needed insight and I may have to rethink some of my designs. Thanks again man. Much success on your definition of a generic market.

  • SignifyingNot

    Very interesting article. I like to think though that while what the author of the article is saying holds true for mass market, there is still room out there for the little, more eccentric company.

    With my tee brand, I am actually focusing on the niche market with the understanding that my designs are not made with mass appeal in mind. I think it can be done. My company will never been at a level like threadless or TeeFury, etc and I am happy with that fact. I don't think that people wanting to do shirts of a more artistic, less mass-consumer-driven appeal should necessarily change their designs, but rather they should keep realistic goals and expectations. If you want to be the next big tee company, then yes, by all means, you are going to need to take a good look at what popular culture wants.

    Another thing to consider is that while mass culture may be into one thing today, there are thousands of brands focusing on it. And mass culture can be fickle. What it likes today it may hate tomorrow. The market gets over saturated and looks for something new and different. If you are doing something outside the current trends, you could become the current trend.

  • jonkruse

    Just because you are doing something outside the current trends doesn't make you the current trend. There really had to be a market that loves what you are doing and that's usually how new trends are created. People embrace the new and different but you still have to be focused on a core niche to succeed.

  • jonkruse

    Just because you are doing something outside the current trends doesn't make you the current trend. There really had to be a market that loves what you are doing and that's usually how new trends are created. People embrace the new and different but you still have to be focused on a core niche to succeed.

  • SignifyingNot

    That is exactly what I was saying. I am not saying that you will be successful simply by being different or that you should do something different and just hope that it will become the trend. All I am saying is that you should take the trends into account, but just because what you are doing doesn't follow current trends doesn't necessarily mean that there is no place for what you are trying to create.

  • Band T Shirts

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  • Band T Shirts

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  • Peach

    Excellent read. This really give me a good insight about the industry. Keep it easy and understandable by just a glance. Thanks for sharing.

  • jonkruse

    Jimiyo is a master. All of his advice is appreciated.

  • Funkee

    Very interesting stuff. I'm in the process of brainstorming and market research for a tee and skateboard brand. I've stumble on this website and so far every articles I read gives me good tips and makes me understand how the markets works.

    Thanks for sharing this good knowledge.

  • thedude

    tight post… the pirates got his brass knuckles on backwards tho 😉

  • silencer8

    thanx for sharing this great advice. yeah im also in preparations of opening my own lifestyle webstore and i found this very2 useful.

  • Anna

    Great article. Articulates the convergence of business and design very well.

  • Dave Simpson

    Very interesting read, never dawned on me after wearing tees for years but this is so true.