Helpful Tips: Printing Artwork onto Merchandise

(c) Nicki Black

November 23, 2019: Part of what I do for our company's clients is design branding, and then take that branding and put it onto merchandise. Over the last 24 years I've done branding on items as small as pens, mousepads, and shirts, all the way up to stage backdrops and highway billboards. I've been a professional graphic artist long enough to have seen the industry evolve from print shops who only do color separation screenprints or ironed transfers, to today's wonderful world of baby soft water inks, dye sublimation, and even fabrics integrated with sound and light.

Rejoice! If you want to put your artwork onto apparel and other other merchandise, it's never been easier and more affordable. But before you take the plunge, there are some very important details you need to weigh before you commit to the investment of your money, time, and also your name behind your brand. You can have an incredible idea and piece of art, only both to be diminished or poorly received because of a low quality vendor or lessor customer service. As in all things, you need to do your due diligence and consider your options with wisdom.

However, before I go further I'd like you to also weigh this: If one of the reasons you're looking at print on demand vendors for a lighter workload and lower cost threshold on your end, if you plan on having a website to market yourself and products you still have to spend some money to register as a business, incorporate (optional for some) and file and keep up with the appropriate taxes, as necessary. Don't forget there's promotionals and business cards to design and distribute. And you should still have a business related phone number for handling issues with your customers, if you have products. A fair number of consumers don't want to be limited to email correspondence when service needs arise, especially those customers who aren't computer or tech savvy. Money is necessary in all of those endeavors, so make sure you know what you're getting into, and have a solid business plan in place ahead of time.

One last thing before I discuss printing; the costs and functionality of a website vary the spectrum, as do the platforms and the expertise and real world knowledge of who designs your site. Cheap cookie cutter trends don't necessarily equate to a strong return on investment. As in branding, my husband and I have been developing and hosting websites for just as long, and we want to help others see the realistic whole picture. I will talk about the options and costs of having a web presence for yourself in another blog at a later date.


Okay, let's say that you have a design that you want to put on some merchandise. Let's also assume that your artwork is already in the correct format, and you're ready to research next steps. Below is a breakdown of the pros and cons of going with either a print-on-demand or offset/bulk direction to get your products to the people who want them.

"Printing on demand" is a printing technology and business process used for a wide array of products from books to apparel, to bags and blankets. It essentially means that you can have a product printed without the need to order that product in large quantities all at once. Those items are not printed until you actually place the order, and there is virtually no printed inventory sitting around your own facility, collecting dust and damage. If you're the designer of said product, it means that your customer goes to a print-on-demand website that offers hundreds, but more likely thousands of different designs from different designers/sellers/resellers. Usually the different designers/sellers have a "shop" on this website, like Etsy sellers have a "shop" on Etsy. Customers choose from a list of substrate options in your shop - sizing, color of apparel or other merchandise, style, etc. They then order your design(s) on their desired item(s) directly from the site. You've made the sale as the designer. Their website takes a cut of your sales. You do a mutual business handshake, and hope the customer is happy with their transaction.

Here's the fine print you should not overlook:


  • You don't have to handle online orders.
  • You don't have to handle shipping.
  • You collect your portion of the sales after the site keeps their percentage.
  • You don't have to maintain an online shopping cart (SSL/financial gateway) on your website.
  • You don't have to maintain/order/store a large inventory.
  • You don't lose money on your inventory if you do not have sales, because inventory does not technically exist until the buyer places an order.
  • You would show your pictures of your designs and list the items available on your site, but you would link over to the print on demand website for ordering.
  • Unless you're collecting personal information from your customers via an online newsletter or email blast subscription of some sort, you don't have to worry about the serious legal ramifications of GDPR/PII data protection and compliances.

  • You have no control over the quality of the actual printing. Is the design or item cracked or damaged? Will the design weather, fade, or peel over time? Is the ink and material soft?
  • You have no control over the quality and fit of the piece of apparel or other items printed with your design.
  • You have no control over the quality of the shipping materials.
  • You'd have to make make sure that your website's content matches the product availability on the print on demand site.
  • You have no control of the site's customer service or turnaround or policies if there's a problem with the order.
  • You don't know if the customer service will be from inside your own country, and if language will be a barrier.
  • You don't know if customer service is actually coming from prison inmates (this made the news some years back with a credit card company - I'm not joking.)
  • You don't always know where your items will be printed, or from where they are shipped. We once ordered chairs from a popular online retailer. The chairs were procured from a desert country overseas, and they came with actual sand inside of them that we couldn't get out.
  • You don't know if your designs won't end up being stolen, as copyright laws don't necessarily apply outside of your country. This is particularly true if you live in the United States. Stealing designs from print on demand websites is actually quite common overseas, where you will probably never see the theft of your design on other items.
  • You don't keep 100% of the sales.
  • You may not receive your sales money when each items sells, meaning you may have access to your sales only quarterly, monthly, or however the parameters of the site dictate.
  • There may be an ongoing membership fee or other fees associated as being a seller on a print on demand website.
  • You should still have shirts on hand in your inventory to sell in person and wear yourself as advertising, anyway.
  • You still have to track your sales and taxes.

Printing with offset/bulk vendor means that you print your inventory and retain all of your inventory. You are the one controlling your brand from beginning to end.

  • You are overall more in control of your pricing, availability, and aspects of your brand.
  • If you don't like the vendor's quality and selection, you can reject your order and have the vendor redo the shirt(s), and/or cancel the order, and/or find another vendor.
  • If the printer is local, you can visit them and see samples of their work first hand, and look at different styles, brands, fits, and blends (all cotton, part poly, etc). If they are not local, you can request samples.
  • You keep 100% of your sales, less taxes, credit card processing fees, and normal business costs.
  • You are the one talking to your customers, so you know they will (hopefully) receive excellent customer service.
  • You control your customer's website experience. Many of the popular print on demand sites have a lot of really vulgar and overtly unchristian designs from other sellers that your customers will see as they surf their site and catalogs. Ask yourself if this is the direction God is leading for you to take with your products. Do you want your audience to wade through all of that, too?

  • You are responsible for the costs and time associated with your online catalog and website.
  • You will maintain/store your inventory, and assure it's kept in pristine shape.
  • You will process the financial transactions.
  • You will handle the shipping, including any returns.
  • There are generally minimum orders required and printer set up fees with each design. If you have numerous designs, this aspect alone can be expensive.

Here's a viable alternative to think about:

If you don't want to use a shopping cart directly on your website and deal with the higher security/SSL costs, you can set up a sales site on Square. On your Square site you will have to input and maintain pictures and content of your inventory for every item. And you will have to ship your items from your inventory, and you get to choose your shipping costs and details. But you don't have to deal with actual financial transactions. Square does take a small percentage as a transaction fee on each sale, which is normal when using any payment gateway. I use Square for selling my jewelry, art, notecards, music, and books from my website.

To see how my Square site looks, click on the "Available Earrings" drop down link on the main jewelry link on the toolbar, or look at my "Notecards" drop down link on my Artwork link. Scroll through my products and click on any of the "purchase now" buttons. It will take you to my Square site. If you click on any of the images on my Square site, you can see what it looks like as if you're purchasing an item. You do not need to complete the order, just "x" out of the pop up box for ordering.

I hope the above was helpful and gives you some insight you didn't have previously. All new ventures require an investment in money, time, wise counsel, and a good project plan. I personally believe it's better to be cautious than to make costly, ill researched decisions ahead of God. I have a number of creative ideas that I've been waiting over 20 years to bring to fruition, but I'm patient and waiting for the right time, not just a "good" time.

All in His excellence and integrity! God bless.