Whether you want to get hired designing merchandise for brands, or start your own side-hustle selling custom products, it’s important to think about what kinds of designs will resonate most with people. What concepts, colors, subjects, etc. will get people excited about buying your products?
Lisa McCormick is a graphic designer and illustrator specializing in the outdoor industry. Her brand collaborations have been in REI, Walmart, and at several National Parks around the United States. Based on her experience designing merch and apparel for large brands, Lisa shares her top tips for coming up with both beautiful and meaningful designs.
I love designing for merchandise! Merchandise is something that exists in the physical world, which is really cool especially in our day and age where most things seem to live online. It’s art that is available to everyone—you can buy it for $25 on a T-shirt instead of having to drop thousands of dollars on a painting. It’s something that helps others express themselves as well as being a practical and useful object.
Find inspiration offline
I’m mentally always on the hunt for inspiration. I like looking for inspiration in the physical world since these are physical products that I’ll be designing for. With that mindset, you really can find inspiration anywhere you go, even if it seems like the most mundane or uninspiring environment. I do this by choosing one element of design to really pay attention to—i.e. color schemes, shapes, lettering, space, etc.
You really can find inspiration anywhere you go, even if it seems like the most mundane or uninspiring environment.
Here’s an example: A few years back, I was walking around in Seattle intentionally looking for color schemes. I remember seeing these two buildings next to each other with a black and white street sign in front of them. The paint on the buildings and sign were weathered down and turned the colors into earth tones: weathered navy, charcoal grey, creamy white, mustard yellow and burnt sienna. I took a picture on my phone of that scene and have been using that color scheme in my work for a year or so now.
You can really start to see beautiful details in the everyday things and appreciate little pieces of things that you would normally walk right past.
Go with your gut
When it comes to merch, sometimes it can be hard to think of what subject to design, but this is something I recommend not overthinking. Everyone has things that they’re naturally drawn to and chances are that if you like something then there’s probably at least a couple thousand (if not million!) other people on this planet that also like those things!
Your work is always going to be better when it’s something that you are particularly interested in.
Trust your gut, go down a rabbit hole of researching things you like, and use those things for your design content. Your work is always going to be better when it’s something that you are particularly interested in. It’s that concept of “making the thing that you wish existed.” A good prompt for designing a t-shirt is asking yourself what t-shirt you would want to wear today?
It’s important to be aware of how your designs will hold up in the context of design trends and up and coming ideas. You can study this by seeing what other brands are putting out into the world. One of my favorite things to do ever since I was little was going window shopping. I didn’t necessarily care about buying anything, I just enjoyed walking around from one shop to the next to see what new styles of clothes were coming out.
Be aware of how your designs will hold up in the context of design trends and up and coming ideas.
I study the details, feel the types of fabrics, and pick up on themes that kept popping up in each shop. This would get my wheels spinning and that’s something that I still do today. I study a whole variety of different genres of clothing brands and products to see what people are doing in different industries, at different price points, and in different parts of the country and world.
Look to the past
This might be a more personal-style thing for me since I love vintage things, but I think looking into the past is really helpful when creating for the future. Chances are, if something worked visually 100 years ago (or whenever), it should still work today in a new-reimagined way.
People have a lot of the same basic fundamental needs, desires, and likes across periods of time.
People have a lot of the same basic fundamental needs, desires, and likes across periods of time. You can take a design concept from the past and use the same root idea with a new aesthetic to match our day and age. There’s a really good chance it’s going to still resonate deeply with people on a human level. This is a great way to dig into an endless supply of inspiration as well as a challenge to make something you don’t see anymore in our day to day lives. I personally love looking at advertisements from the 1920s-1960s.