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A wise art teacher once told me, “Good ideas are everywhere, like fossils waiting to be found. But the truly rare thing—the thing that makes them precious—is the patience to carefully dig them out.” This mentality is perfect when developing a preprint line of T-shirts.

A wise art teacher once told me, “Good ideas are everywhere, like fossils waiting to be found. But the truly rare thing—the thing that makes them precious—is the patience to carefully dig them out.” This mentality is perfect when developing a preprint line of T-shirts.

Like many pursuits, developing a successful preprint garment line largely depends on the way in which we engage the process. One of the critical steps in the very beginning is to define the specific goals you wish to achieve with the preprint line. Is it enough to move shirts into some stores and receive some positive feedback? Must you sell a certain number of shirts or meet a particular ROI? Defining success and what you want to happen will help you drive the effort in the right direction right off of the starting line. The more specific your goals are from the beginning, the better your chances of reaching them.

The sheer volume of graphic ideas thrown into the T-shirt market creates a lot of competition for the retail customer’s attention, so making an initial impression is a big challenge. Some buyers for large retail outlets see dozens of new lines a week presented by a wide variety of companies. The majority of the new T-shirt lines that printers bring to buyers fail for many reasons, but perhaps the most important one to keep in mind is that the people behind these designs likely didn’t have the patience and dedication to make their preprint ideas successful over time.

The other huge ingredient and perhaps the biggest indicator of likely success is the developer’s attitude, including honesty about the viability of the products, flexibility, and adaptability. Developers tend to design a line of shirts from the inside out, or as one experienced screen printer told me, “Designing preprints is often done in a bubble. The designer or developer of the shirt line only asks feedback from friends, employees, and family—all of whom are unlikely to give brutally honest opinions.”

With these concerns and issues in mind, consider the following ten tips to raise your odds of success when creating a preprint line of garments. Note that these ideas will change considerably depending on the market niche you target, but they should give you a basic foundation for bringing a line to market and making some sales.

A final note before going into the specifics is that you may or may not be aware of how dramatically the marketing approach to products is changing. Almost all of the traditional media for marketing and advertising (newspaper, magazine, radio, and TV) have become less effective in the past five years—and many have become nearly obsolete for garment marketing. Successfully marketing any new product requires a careful look at how the produce is effectively advertised and presented in light of the changing ways that people shop and make their buying decisions. Creative use of alternate marketing strategies, such as direct mail, catalogs, and the Internet, seems to be the best path to follow lately.


1. Define your drive.

The ability to push past obstacles is supported by your drive or passion for the subject. Having passion about a business venture will help keep you going when things get rough. Make sure your vision and drive align with the preprint line that you are trying to sell. If you are behind the concept, it will show in your actions, words, and efforts. This is important with decorated garments in particular because they represent such an emotional purchase. Your support will show clearly in the choices surrounding the artwork. If the art is just good enough, then that is how a buyer will feel as well. Even very experienced retailers and buyers still make emotional decisions that are driven in part by the passion and commitment the printed garments reflect.


2. Study the market and the competition.

There is a reason that this item is number two on the list. Careful review of the market and competition at this stage, before any graphics are created, will reveal how much of an effort you’ll have to make to expose your designs and differentiate them from the competition. The specifics that you should look for include the following:

• Market depth—how much demand exists for this type of preprint?

• How many competitors are selling what you want to sell? (If you are in the wild- life market, for example, be prepared for some steep competition.)

• Are there shows or events that feature this market in particular?

• What are your competitors’ experiences and how well are they estab lished in this venue? Do they have most of the market invested in them or is there room for more competitors?

• How healthy is the market itself? Is it growing and expanding, or is it con tracting from products pulling out?


3. Differentiate your company and its products.

Making a me-too brand by copying someone else’s concept rarely has any lasting life of its own. In addition, it’ll be panned—if not outright snubbed—by the bigger buyers who have seen the concept before. This can be frustrating because one of the requests you’ll commonly get from buyers is for something that looks like another successful line, but is completely original. What they mean, essentially, is that they want a style of product that has an established following so that they can take minimal risk on giving a new brand shelf space. The problem, of course, is that similarity to designs already out in the market puts a new product line behind the style curve from the start. A better approach is to find some unique way of claiming originality with your products and also have one or two safe products within your line that have some similarity to established, popular products. Then use the more original products in the line to bridge the gap into new territory.

You can differentiate your product line many different ways. Graphics and design styles are one; another is print style or special-effect treatments. In addition, many specialty lines now utilize unique garments that are custom treated in-house with garment dyes, enzyme washes, and occasionally ground edges or other specific effects. The process of creating an original look should flow from the specific marketing ideas that drove development of the line in the first place. It is essential that you not apply special effects and printing concepts after the fact to try to dress up designs. The more the art, effects, and printing come directly from the concept, the better the whole piece should sell to a buyer and the final customer.


4. Contact the market for real feedback.

One preprint line I’m aware of was developed through extensive polling of potential garment shoppers. Individuals were asked to rate more than 400 slogans and an equal number of simple graphics, then the marketing group conducting the poll identified the saying and graphic that continually rated the most popular. Next the phrase and image were combined in a limited print run and field tested through sidewalk sales. In a sense, you could think of this as the American Idol method of choosing the final designs that can make it into a preprint line.

The important elements of this style of marketing and development are patience and persistence. Adding the final step of testing is equally as important because customers make many inconsistent statements regarding their true buying habits when surveyed. It’s easy enough to experience this: Next time you have a set of graphics on paper, stop a few individuals and ask them what their favorites are off of the paper examples. Present them with a real sample for sale immediately after they make their decision and see what happens.


5. Pool, organize, and tabulate all information about the market.

Information achieves its real strength when it’s organized and then structured to demonstrate priorities and trends. Take your market research and real buying-trend results and put them in a spreadsheet or table. The patterns you’ll notice after organizing your research results are often very surprising. Lots of emotion and reactionary behavior may be represented by the purchasing patterns you uncover and may make it difficult for you to choose a clear direction for your preprint line. However, if you conduct your market research thoroughly and record every detail carefully, the data will point toward the ideas with most potential for success.

One client that I know of used the popular auction site eBay and placed all of the shirts from his proposed line in online auctions for two weeks. Afterwards, he organized and tabulated the results. Not only did he have a clear way to gauge the popularity of various preprint ideas, but he also gained additional useful data in the form of consumer questions about his products and some after-the-sale feedback options, such as the ability to survey the winning bidders about why they selected a particular product.


6. Make final decisions about design styles.

If you have waited until this point to begin developing the products for your preprint line, then you will already have a significantly higher chance of success than most developers. Instead of shooting in the dark, you will be creating something for a proven market that has demonstrated real buying interest in your products. This is similar to creating custom art for clients who have already placed orders because of a known demand.

How to complete designs at this stage is all about putting the successful trends and tests together and making sure the final product fits the model that tested the best. Among other decisions, you’ll need identify fonts for any text in your designs (Figure 1) and finalize and lay out your selections of shirts and colors (Figure 2).


7. Lay out finished designs on chosen shirt bodies for final presentation.

Don’t make the mistake of saying your line is mostly finished or still under production. At this point in the process you should have more than enough feedback to finish the first tier of designs for a final presentation (Figure 3). Having everything complete allows for a professional buyer to view it with a sense that the designs are ready to be printed should they be selected.


8. Decide on a production model.

This decision flows from the demands of the market and how you’ve determined the preprint line will be sold and distributed. Using a process that minimizes inventory and allows for just-in-time printing, like direct-to-garment technology, may be a better solution for an online production model than ordering a large inventory of each garment size and color size and then having the garments sit and wait for the buyers. Inventory turnaround is the most important factor in any preprint line. This means that you must sell any amount of inventory that you produce in certain amount of time to make room for more. Use a production model—screen printing, transfers, direct-to-garment, or a combination—that allows the most flexibility in producing the right amount to achieve quick inventory turnaround.


9. Micro-test products and be reactive.

Depending on your market and production model, you might benefit from completing a small run of inventory at this point to see how well it performs in the marketplace. Now is the time when it’s crucial to be as objective as possible. Just because the initial reaction and sales aren’t mind blowing doesn’t mean that the line is bad. And if the beginning run performs well, that doesn’t mean that you can’t improve upon it. One thing about the fashion and decorated-apparel markets is consistent: everything changes. What was in fashion will go out, and what is out may come back in eventually. The most important factor is to learn why things work out the way that they do so you can react and make changes to adapt and come out ahead in the next round.


10. Produce limited inventory and systemize the process.

If the inventory test works out well, then it’s time to work on the system of estimating and staying ahead of the demand vs. the production. Properly estimating demand for a market so that excess money isn’t sitting on shelves is a fine art. In many ways an attitude of budgeting and containment helps with this concept. Make sure to address the production model and product performance on a regular basis so you can stay ahead of the curve and not get dragged down when one or two designs don’t sell as well as projected.


Maintain the right mindset

These ten tips are meant as a guide to help mold an effective pre-production marketing mentality. The guidelines can save a lot of money in the long run by helping you pre-test your ideas so that they will attract attention in this age of diminishing advertising results. If you’re positive and patient, you can develop successful preprints for your chosen market and, with the right attitude, launch the next top-selling shirt line. n


Thomas Trimingham has worked in the screen-printing industry for more than 15 years as an artist, art director, industry consultant, and head of R&D for some of the nation’s largest screen printers. He is an award-winning illustrator, designer, and author of more than 45 articles on graphics for screen printing. Trimingham can be reached through his Website,






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