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Blog / Style & trends / Bestselling T-shirt Designs (and Worst)

Style & trends

Bestselling T-Shirt Designs: What to Design and What Not

Bestselling T-Shirt Designs: What to Design and What Not
Una Berzina-Pudule

By Una Berzina-Pudule

10 min read

From classic crewnecks to trendy V-necks and versatile long-sleeve tees, t-shirts remain a favorite wardrobe staple. But what does it take to create one of the bestselling t-shirt designs?

Our team at Printful did extensive research on what is and isn’t selling in the industry. We analyzed 2,774 unique t-shirt designs to find which bring in sales and which fall flat. And it’s all available to you for free!

From pop culture references to niche-specific designs, we’ll help you determine which ones the audience prefers. Discover the potential of custom t-shirts and explore our curated collection of successful t-shirt design ideas. Whether you’re seeking inspiration or a better understanding of the market, we’re here to guide you.

6 bestselling t-shirt design ideas: our biggest research wins

Let’s start with the proven crowd favorites. In our study, these design themes and elements showed success in customer demand and sales. I’ve also added recommendations for which customization technique to use and why.

Art and text combos as t-shirt designs

t-shirt example with a print design that says "you are on fire" and two dice underneath

Source: Printful

Let’s start with the most successful design in our research. This approach is based on creativity and visual storytelling. By combining artwork and text, these designs can evoke emotions, convey powerful messages, and spark inspiration.

Why does it work? Art and text combos tap into the human tendency to connect with visual and linguistic elements. The illustrations bring the design to life, capturing attention and engaging the customer’s imagination. Meanwhile, words complement the artwork, adding depth and context to the design.

How to use it? Find the connection between the illustrations and words. The currently popular classic art memes are a great source of inspiration: the unexpected combination of modern and sometimes slang-like captions with sophisticated paintings.

Which customization technique to use? Since the artwork usually involves a lot of colors, details, and often gradients, these are good t-shirts for printing.

Funny t-shirt design example with a vincent van gogh pun

Source: Etsy

 Art as the focal point of t-shirt designs

woman wearing a black t-shirt with a mushroom design

Source: Etsy

This is a similar t-shirt design style to the previous one. Except, this excludes typography and focuses entirely on the art piece.

Why does it work? Art-inspired t-shirt designs tap into our fascination with creativity and self-expression. By blending artistic expression and iconic pop culture references, these designs resonate with customers who appreciate the aesthetic appeal and deeper meanings.

How to use it? Embrace different artistic techniques and popular culture elements. Experiment with color, composition, and visual storytelling to capture the essence of the design.

Which customization technique to use? DTG and all-over printing will be the best as they work great with details and large design areas.

Statement and cause t-shirt designs

Woman wearing a queer ivy t-shirt with a print of a penguin holding a pride flag

Source: Queer Ivy

Statement t-shirt designs incorporate social or political visuals like LGBTQ symbols, religious images, political party logos, country flags, etc. These t-shirt designs aim to take a stand or show support for a cause or belief.

Why it works? Statement and cause t-shirt designs work because they tap into the inherent human desire to express oneself and connect with like-minded individuals. By displaying symbols or words that represent a particular cause or identity, these designs create a sense of community. They allow individuals to proudly showcase their beliefs, raise awareness, and engage others in meaningful discussions.

How to use it? Consider your target audience and their affiliations. Check out popular symbols or visuals associated with the cause you wish to support and incorporate them into your design. Consider the right placement, size, and color scheme for a strong visual impact.

Which customization technique to use? This depends on your design. If it’s simple and small to medium size, consider embroidery. It’s excellent for minimalistic, non-gradient designs like flags, symbols, and logos. If your design involves more details, like photos or paintings, stick to direct-to-garment (DTG) printing.

white t-shirt with an american flag and eagle print

Source: Printful

 Tie-dye and watercolor in t-shirt designs

best-selling t-shirt example of a simple gray tie-dye

Source: Printful

 These designs create mesmerizing patterns and gradients, adding an artistic flair to garments. 

Why does it work? Tie-dye and watercolor often catch shoppers’ eyes because of their implicit nostalgia for childhood and vintage style trends. They also experience seasonal trend bursts during summer, as vibrant colors and lively patterns align with shopper preferences.

How to use it? Experiment with color, pattern, and design layer variations to create standout designs. Consider your target audience’s preferences and explore various garment styles to showcase the beauty of these techniques.

Which customization technique to use? All-over printing or sublimation will be the best since these designs look best when covering a large garment area. This technique allows you to cover the t-shirt with your design seam-to-seam.

woman wearing a colorful tie-dye t-shirt with a unicorn print on top

Source: Printful

Celebration and occasion t-shirt designs

shirt design example with a blue bunny and "happy easter" print

Source: Printful

Occasion-themed t-shirt designs bring festivity and fun to clothing. With elements of humor and personalization, these designs target a niche that enjoys the spirit of special celebrations.

Why does it work? Occasion-themed shirts make festive outfits and gifts for special occasions. With big holidays like Christmas or Halloween, the designs trend around the same time every year, making them easy to prepare. There are also individual occasions like bachelor and bachelorette parties where people often order shirts in bulk.

How to use it? Incorporate iconic symbols, holiday motifs, and humor to reflect the essence of the occasion. Incorporate some form of personalization to increase your product value and appease gift-seekers.

Which customization technique to use? Most holiday-themed designs consist of illustrations or text, so DTG printing will be the best technique for you.

Jokes and memes as t-shirt designs

t-shirt design with a "is this a meme" funny joke print

Source: Printful

Funny t-shirt designs bring humor and playfulness to the fashion scene. With witty phrases, puns, and memes, these shirt designs aim for laughter and create an instant connection with customers who appreciate a good sense of humor.

Why does it work? Funny t-shirt designs have a universal appeal. They tap into the human desire for amusement, letting people express their lighthearted side and spark conversations with others.

How to use it? Look into popular jokes, puns, and memes that resonate with your target audience. You can also think of ways to make your brand part of the joke. If you’re selling to Gen Zs, don’t be afraid to explore dark humor, which they really appreciate. Just be careful not to use any content that doesn’t belong to you.

Which customization technique to use? For memes, DTG will be the best, as memes often include detailed visuals like photos. For short and witty one-liners and puns, check out embroidery.

And that concludes the bestselling t-shirt design themes of our research. See which design ideas resonate the most with your brand, taste, and design skills, and start creating your next bestseller!

Start selling custom t-shirts online with Printful

6 t-shirt designs to avoid: learning from market missteps

Of course, not all of the designs we tested performed well. These t-shirts didn’t succeed in the market and showed lower sales results than we aimed for. Check out the list and see which shirt design trends customers tend to ignore and why.

Zodiac Signs as t-shirt designs

v-neck t-shirt design with a print that says "Do what I want when I'm in the mood. -Gemini"

Source: Printful

The astrology trend online has been going strong for the last few years, so we thought it’d be a good idea to test zodiac motifs in shirt designs. Unfortunately, this didn’t work out well, and the sales were underwhelming.

Why didn’t it work? The abundance of zodiac sign t-shirts in the market makes it challenging for individual designs to stand out and attract customers. Additionally, the seasonal nature of their demand limits the consistent sales potential throughout the year. To succeed, you’d have to create an elaborate catalog for one sign, a sign group, or all of them. Since that involves a huge time investment in designs, it’s a pretty risky leap.

Movie and animation characters in t-shirt designs

shirt design with a snoop dogg illustration with the text Tha Doggfather

Source: Printful

T-shirts featuring popular cartoons, movies, celebrities, or anime characters have undeniable appeal, particularly among dedicated fans. However, sellers need to tread carefully due to high competition and copyright considerations.

Why didn’t it work? The challenge with these designs lies in the saturated market and strict copyright regulations surrounding intellectual property. Not only is it hard to land sales, but you might also face some legal obstacles. And you’re not just competing against other fans, but also the celebrities, movie studios, and their official representatives.

If you still want to do this, ensure that you navigate copyright laws diligently and consider offering unique variations or interpretations of the characters or themes. By infusing your own distinctive style, you can create designs that capture the essence of beloved franchises while setting yourself apart from the competition.

Minimalistic art and delicate shapes as t-shirt designs

t-shirt design example with a minimalistic face drawing

Source: Printful

Minimalistic illustrations captivate with their clean lines and simple shapes. However, achieving significant sales with these designs is tricky due to the post-pandemic market demands.

Why didn’t it work? People’s expectations have shifted, and the tiny minimalistic lines lack expression. My favorite podcaster and current Gen Z It-girl Emma Chamberlain recently touched upon the comeback of maximalism:

“We’ve also experienced maximalism as a fashion trend in terms of clothing design and the way people style themselves. [..] I think people were really drawn to excentric, extravagant, unique, avant-garde fashion choices after the pandemic, because everyone was so eager to express themselves again.”

/Emma Chamberlain, Anything Goes/

People quickly bounced back towards minimalism because it is more sustainable and nature-friendly. But the new minimalism is much more playful and less delicate than the pre-pandemic one. The “old” minimalism is now criticized for lacking soul and character.

If minimalism is crucial to your business, combine it with a bold and juicy t-shirt color.

Overwhelming all-over print t-shirt designs

blue t-shirt with an all-over rose pattern print

Source: Printful

Considering that the minimalistic art approach was a flop, something like an all-over print shirt should’ve worked, right? Unfortunately, wrong. This contestant in our design research didn’t do so well.

Why didn’t it work? While people want boldness in their style, all-over prints still miss the mark. An elaborate pattern or seam-to-seam details can be overwhelming and quickly become outdated as trends evolve.

Combining these designs with a minimalistic approach can make them work. Focus on minimal details that make a cohesive pattern but aren’t too tiring on the eyes.

Plain photos as t-shirt designs

white t-shirt with a sunset photo design

Source: Printful

Photo designs for t-shirts rely on images to make an impact. However, plain photos alone didn’t achieve the desired success during our research.

Why didn’t it work? Plain photo designs lack uniqueness and don’t stand out. People seek more creative and distinctive designs. A pattern in our findings—people want their t-shirt designs to help them express their style, attitudes, and personality. A single photo might be either too niche or boring to do that.

To overcome this, try mixed media approaches. In our previous market research, mixed media showed a promising t-shirt trend for 2023. Combine photos, text, and other elements to add depth, creativity, and intrigue to your designs.

Text with a simple clipart

  t-shirt design with a coffee cup clipart and a text that says "But first coffee"

Source: Printful

Remember how the art + text combo worked well in our research? We decided to test how far we could simplify the art part. We know that not all our sellers are professional designers or artists. Therefore many of them rely on the free graphics, including clipart, in our Design Maker.

Unfortunately, combining a single plain clipart image with text didn’t sell well enough.

Why didn’t it work? As you can see above, our tested design includes a simple coffee cup clipart and a popular expression, “But first coffee.” The plainness of the image and the overused quote created an underwhelming combo.

When designing with pre-made graphics or quotes, make sure the additional design elements are unique to you and your brand.

So that’s all of the worst-performing t-shirt design ideas. What you can learn from them:

  • Research the market saturation and see if it’s not going to be too challenging for your business

  • Don’t go overboard, as excessive designs tend to go out of style fast

  • . . . But also don’t underwhelm with impersonal and too minimalistic designs, as they bore the audience 

Start selling custom t-shirts with Printful

Will your design be a hit or miss?

That concludes our research on the bestselling t-shirt designs. I hope it gave you some design ideas for your own t-shirt and other clothing designs.

Selling merch is more than slapping some trends on a t-shirt and hoping the audience will buy it. Merch sellers must listen to their potential customers and adapt to what’s in demand.

Is there any other merch research you’d like us to do?

author

By Una Berzina-Pudule on Jun 4, 2023

Una Berzina-Pudule

Content Marketing Specialist

Una’s a Senior SEO Content Writer with a knack for SEO-friendly copywriting and building stunning landing pages. In her spare time, she's an avid reader and keeps close tabs on all things social media and mental health.

Una’s a Senior SEO Content Writer with a knack for SEO-friendly copywriting and building stunning landing pages. In her spare time, she's an avid reader and keeps close tabs on all things social media and mental health.