Designing Your Custom Merch (The Student's Guide to Starting a Profitable Custom Merch Business) - Part 4

Everest Guerra

Everest Guerra

Student designing custom merch at computer

Welcome to part 4 of an 8 part guide to starting your own campus merch business. Each week we'll release a new part until the guide is complete. Once all issues have been released, we'll make the complete guide available in PDF form. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions, please send them to me! Hope you enjoy 👋


Designing Your Custom Merch (The Student's Guide to Starting a Profitable Custom Merch Business) - Part 4This guide covers essential topics such as creating high-quality designs, tips for your target audience, outsourcing design work, legal considerations and licensing, design software and cutting-edge tools for managing the design process.

The success of any custom merch business hinges on the quality, appeal, and creativity of its designs. A captivating design can catch the eye of potential customers, boost brand recognition, and set your merch apart from competitors. In this increasingly competitive market, understanding how to develop exceptional designs that resonate with your target audience is paramount.

In this chapter, we will explore the various aspects of creating high-quality custom merch designs. From learning the essential principles of design to staying up-to-date with the latest trends, you will gain the knowledge and tools necessary to develop designs that resonate with your customers and elevate your business.

We will also delve into topics like outsourcing design work, legal considerations, and licensing, ensuring that you have the comprehensive understanding needed to navigate the custom merch design landscape with ease. Moreover, we will discuss different design software and tools to empower you to choose the right resources for your needs.

With a well-rounded understanding of the design process, you will be equipped to make informed decisions that contribute to the overall success of your custom merch business. Now, let's dive into creating those exceptional designs that will set your brand apart and fuel your side hustle's growth.

How To: Create High-Quality Designs

To create high-quality designs for your custom merch, you'll need to focus on several key elements that will help your products stand out and appeal to your target audience. In many cases, the organizations you work with as a sales rep will already have an idea about what they want to be designed, such as merchandise for an event or special occasion. Your role is to act as the liaison between the organization and the designer, effectively communicating their needs and vision to create a design that satisfies both parties. Here, we outline the steps and considerations to keep in mind when crafting or facilitating the creation of your designs:

  1. Understand design principles: Familiarize yourself with fundamental design principles such as balance, contrast, hierarchy, alignment, and repetition. A solid grasp of these concepts will help you effectively communicate the organization's ideas to the designer and ensure visually appealing and cohesive designs. In addition, pay attention to typography, color schemes, and the use of whitespace to ensure that the design is easily readable and aesthetically pleasing.

  2. Know the organization's needs and target audience: Research the organization's preferences, tastes, and styles, as well as their target audience's preferences, to create or facilitate designs that resonate with them. Consider factors such as age, interests, cultural background, and the social context in which the merch will be used. Tailor the designs to the organization's specific needs and desires to make the products more appealing and relevant.

  3. Develop a unique selling proposition (USP): Determine what sets the custom merch apart from the competition. Identify the unique aspects of the organization's vision, the designs, or the brand and emphasize them in the designs. This could be a specific style, theme, or message that makes the products stand out and creates a memorable impression on customers.

  4. Communicate effectively with the designer: Provide the designer with clear and concise information about the organization's vision and requirements. Use sketches or reference materials to help illustrate the desired outcome, and ensure that the designer understands the necessary design elements, including logos, fonts, colors, and any specific images or graphics to be included.

  5. Use vector graphics: Encourage the designer to work with vector graphics whenever possible. Vector graphics are scalable without losing quality, making them ideal for various merch items and printing methods. Programs like Adobe Illustrator or Inkscape can help create clean, crisp vector designs.

  6. Create design variations: Request multiple design variations from the designer to give the organization more choices and cater to different preferences. This can include color variations, alternative layouts, or even entirely different designs within the same theme or style.

  7. Collaborate with the garment printer: Establish a relationship with the garment printer and keep them informed about the designs and any specific requirements. Although the printer is responsible for optimizing designs for printing, it's essential to maintain open communication lines to ensure a smooth process and the best possible print quality. (more on this in chapter 5)

  8. Review and refine: Since most small-batch custom merch doesn't allow for physical samples to be made, review the digital design proofs with the organization and gather feedback. Use this feedback to refine the designs, making them more appealing and effective in attracting customers. Clear communication and collaboration between all parties will help ensure a successful end product.

By following these steps and consistently keeping the organization's needs and target audience in mind, you will be well on your way to facilitating the creation of high-quality custom merch designs that stand out and attract customers.

Design Tips for Your Target Audience

Creating designs that resonate with your target audience is crucial for the success of your custom merch business. Designs should be appealing and relevant to the people who will be wearing or using your merchandise. To ensure your designs hit the mark, here are some tips for sourcing inspiration and aligning your creations with your target audience's preferences:

  1. Analyze the organization's social media: Start by browsing the social media profiles of the organizations you work with. Their posts, photos, and engagement can provide valuable insights into their brand identity, style preferences, and popular trends among their audience. By incorporating elements from their social media presence into your designs, you can create merchandise that reflects the organization's personality and appeals to its target audience.

  2. Explore merch galleries: Many larger merch companies showcase galleries of their past work on their websites. These galleries can serve as a source of inspiration for your own designs. Browse through the galleries and take note of popular themes, styles, or design elements that you could adapt or incorporate into your custom merchandise. Remember, however, not to copy other designs, but rather to use them as a starting point for creating unique, tailored creations for your clients.

  3. Align with campus or cultural trends: Pay attention to popular trends on campus or within the specific subculture your target audience belongs to. For example, a campus trend might include specific color schemes, patterns, or iconography, while a cultural trend might involve specific themes, quotes, or motifs. By incorporating these trends into your designs, you can create merchandise that appeals to the target audience's interests and preferences.

  4. Emphasize uniqueness and creativity: To make your custom merch business stand out from the competition, focus on developing unique and creative designs that distinguish your products from the rest. This could include using unconventional design elements, creating custom artwork, or combining different styles and trends in innovative ways. By offering designs that can't be found anywhere else, you'll make your merchandise more attractive and memorable to potential customers.

  5. Gather feedback from the target audience: When possible, get input from members of the target audience. Share design concepts or ideas with them and ask for their opinions and suggestions. This can help you refine your designs to better cater to their tastes and preferences.

  6. Stay adaptable and flexible: As you work on different projects and with various organizations, be prepared to adapt and adjust your design approach based on the unique needs of each client. Be open to new ideas and techniques, and always keep an eye out for fresh sources of inspiration.

By considering these design tips and focusing on your target audience's preferences and interests, you'll be better equipped to create custom merch designs that not only resonate with your clients but also help your business stand out from the competition.

Outsourcing Design Work

While you may have a good eye for design and can effectively communicate with clients, you may not possess the necessary skills or time to create designs yourself. In these cases, outsourcing design work can be a practical solution. This section will discuss the different options available to you when outsourcing design work and how to make the most of these partnerships.

  1. Freelance Designers: Freelance designers are professionals who work independently and typically charge per project or per hour. To find suitable freelancers for your custom merch business, you can use platforms like Upwork, Fiverr, or 99designs. These platforms allow you to browse portfolios, read reviews, and compare prices. When selecting a freelancer, consider their experience, style, communication skills, and ability to meet deadlines. Be sure to provide clear guidelines, deadlines, and feedback to ensure a successful collaboration.

  2. Design Agencies: Design agencies are companies that specialize in providing design services to clients. While they may be more expensive than freelancers, they often have a team of skilled designers and can provide a range of services, including design, branding, and marketing. To find a suitable design agency, research local agencies or search for agencies that specialize in custom merch or your specific niche. When working with an agency, ensure you establish a clear point of contact and provide them with detailed project briefs and expectations.

  3. Your peers: Partnering with your peers and design students can be a cost-effective solution while also providing the students with valuable experience and portfolio pieces. Reach out to local colleges or universities that offer design courses and connect with students or professors. Inquire about possible collaboration opportunities, such as internships or class projects. When working with students, be mindful of their skill level, time constraints, and need for mentorship.

To maximize the benefits of outsourcing design work, consider the following tips:

  • Develop a clear design brief: Create a detailed project brief that outlines your expectations, goals, and target audience. This will provide the designer with a solid understanding of the project requirements and help guide their creative process.

  • Maintain open communication: Stay in regular contact with the designer or agency to provide feedback, address questions or concerns, and ensure that the project stays on track. Open communication can help prevent misunderstandings and ensure the final design meets your expectations.

  • Set realistic deadlines: Establish clear deadlines for each stage of the design process, allowing for revisions and modifications as needed. Be mindful of the designer's workload and be flexible when possible to accommodate any unexpected delays.

  • Build long-term relationships: Cultivating strong relationships with designers or agencies can lead to more consistent, high-quality work in the long run. This can save time and effort when searching for design partners for future projects.

By outsourcing design work effectively, you can ensure that your custom merch business has access to skilled designers who can create appealing, high-quality designs that resonate with your target audience.

When creating custom merch designs, it's essential to be aware of the legal considerations and licensing requirements involved. This section will discuss various aspects of intellectual property and licensing, particularly focusing on Greek Life licensing and how to obtain the necessary permissions for your designs.

When creating designs for your custom merch, ensure that you do not infringe on any existing copyrights or trademarks. This includes logos, symbols, slogans, or artwork owned by other individuals or organizations. Infringing on intellectual property rights can result in legal disputes, fines, and damage to your business reputation. To avoid such issues, create original designs or obtain permission from the copyright or trademark owner.

Obtaining Necessary Licenses for Collegiate Merchandise

For certain types of custom merch, particularly those related to colleges and universities, you may need to obtain official licenses to use their logos, symbols, or other intellectual property. This often includes Greek Life organizations (fraternities and sororities), which require licenses for the use of their letters, logos, and symbols on custom merchandise.

Greek Life Licensing

To obtain a Greek Life license, you can visit, which is the official licensing agency for many fraternities and sororities. The licensing process typically involves submitting an application, providing examples of your work, and agreeing to adhere to specific guidelines and standards. Once you have been granted a license, you will be able to legally create and sell custom merch featuring the Greek letters, logos, or symbols of the organizations you are licensed to represent.

It's important to note that each Greek organization has a quarterly licensing fee. To optimize your licensing costs and avoid paying fees for organizations you may not have clients for, it's best to wait until you have a confirmed client from a specific fraternity or sorority before applying for their license. This approach ensures that you are only paying licensing fees for the organizations you are actively working with, and it helps you manage your expenses more effectively. Once you have a client from a particular Greek organization, you can then proceed with the application process to obtain the necessary license to create and sell custom merch for that specific group.

Fair Use and Parody Designs

In some cases, you may be able to use copyrighted or trademarked material under the "fair use" doctrine, which allows for limited use of copyrighted material for purposes such as commentary, criticism, or parody. However, fair use is a complex legal concept, and its application can be subjective. If you believe your design falls under fair use or constitutes a parody, it's best to consult with a legal professional to ensure you're not infringing on intellectual property rights.

Keep up-to-date with licensing requirements

Licensing requirements and guidelines may change over time, and it's essential to stay informed about any updates or changes. Regularly check the licensing agencies' websites, such as, and be prepared to adjust your designs and practices as necessary to remain compliant.

By being aware of legal considerations and licensing requirements, you can protect your custom merch business from potential legal disputes and ensure that your designs are created and sold within the bounds of the law. This will help maintain your business reputation and avoid costly fines or penalties.

Design Software and Tools

To effectively create and manage custom merch designs, it's important to be familiar with the latest design software and tools that can enhance the overall design process. In this section, we'll discuss innovative design software options as well as tools that can help streamline and manage the design process.

Design Software

  • Adobe Illustrator: A leading industry-standard vector graphics software, Adobe Illustrator enables designers to create high-quality, scalable graphics for logos, illustrations, and more. With its extensive feature set, it's an excellent choice for professional design work.

  • Figma: Figma is a web-based collaborative design tool, allowing designers to work together on projects in real-time. Its user-friendly interface and advanced features make it ideal for creating responsive designs, wireframes, and prototypes.

  • Canva: Canva is a popular, easy-to-use graphic design platform with a vast library of templates, fonts, and images. It's perfect for beginners or those looking for a quick way to create visually appealing designs without requiring advanced design skills.

  • Procreate: Procreate is a powerful, intuitive drawing app for iPad popular among designers and illustrators. It enables designers to create high-quality, unique designs easily incorporated into custom merch.

Tools for Managing the Design Process

  • Trello: Trello is a project management tool that allows you to create boards, lists, and cards for organizing tasks and tracking progress. You can use Trello to manage design projects, set deadlines, and communicate with clients and designers.

  • Asana: Asana is another popular project management tool that can help you keep track of design tasks, set deadlines, and collaborate with team members. It is especially useful for managing more complex design projects.

  • Slack: Slack is a messaging platform that allows for real-time communication and collaboration between team members. You can create channels for specific projects or clients and share files, updates, and feedback with designers and clients.

  • Google Drive or Dropbox: Cloud-based storage and file-sharing platforms like Google Drive and Dropbox allow you to easily store, share, and collaborate on design files. Sharing design concepts, revisions, and fin al files with clients and designers ensures everyone is on the same page.

  • InVision: InVision is a design collaboration tool that enables you to create interactive prototypes and gather feedback from clients and team members. It helps showcase design concepts, iterate on ideas, and keep clients involved in the design process.

By staying informed about the latest cutting-edge design software and incorporating these tools into your design process, you can improve organization, communication, and collaboration between all parties involved in creating your custom merch. This ultimately leads to a more efficient and successful design process, setting your business apart from the competition.

What should you charge for design work?

It's essential to choose a pricing strategy that's both fair to you and your clients while maintaining profitability for your custom merch business.

Charging by Design

One common way to charge for design work is by charging a flat fee per design. This method simplifies the pricing process and ensures that you're adequately compensated for the time and effort spent creating each design. When using this method, consider the complexity and detail of the design, as well as the time required to complete it. You can also offer package deals for clients who need multiple designs or variations of a single design.

Charging by the Hour

Another option is to charge clients an hourly rate for your design work. This method is ideal when the scope of the project is uncertain or if the client requires ongoing revisions and updates. Be sure to track your time accurately and provide detailed invoices outlining the work completed and the hours spent on the project. It's important to establish a reasonable hourly rate that reflects your skills, experience, and the market value of your services.

Building Design Costs into the Final Product

Some entrepreneurs choose to bundle design costs into the final product price, making it appear as if design services are provided at no additional charge. This approach can be attractive to clients, as it simplifies the pricing process and makes it easy for them to understand the total cost of their custom merch order. To do this effectively, you'll need to estimate the average design cost for your products and factor that cost into your product pricing. Keep in mind that this approach might make your products appear more expensive compared to competitors who charge separately for design work.

Each of these methods has its pros and cons, and the best approach will depend on your specific business model and target market. It's crucial to evaluate your pricing strategy regularly and make adjustments as needed to ensure you remain competitive and profitable in the custom merch market.

Pro Tip: In my own experience running Greek Dressing, we found that offering "free" designs was an effective way to attract new customers, particularly college students who often lack the budget to pay for design work upfront. We incorporated the design costs into the final product pricing, making it easier for students to understand the overall value of their custom merch orders. This approach also helped eliminate the barrier of upfront design costs, which can be intimidating for budget-conscious students. As a result, Greek Dressing was able to create a customer-friendly pricing model that appealed to our target market and helped us establish a competitive advantage in the custom merch space.


As you set out on your custom merch business journey, it's essential to understand that managing the production process is both important and manageable. In the beginning, it's perfectly okay to rely on online companies like for your custom merch needs. However, keep in mind that while these platforms may offer convenience and simplicity, their costs can be much higher, making it difficult to scale your business as it grows.

Selecting the ideal printing technique and building a strong relationship with your manufacturing partner are crucial steps towards delivering high-quality products to your customers. Although the production process might appear intimidating at first, with some preparation, open communication, and attention to detail, you'll find it quite achievable. As your business expands, transitioning from online companies to a more cost-effective and scalable production process will be essential for your long-term success.

By following the guidance provided in this chapter and focusing on optimizing your manufacturing and delivery processes, you can lay a solid foundation for your custom merch business. A reliable and effective production process is the key to producing exceptional merchandise that wins customer loyalty and drives your business growth. So, as you navigate each stage of production, remember that you're creating unique and meaningful products that bring your creative vision to life and resonate with your target audience. Embrace the learning process, enjoy the journey, and adapt as you build a successful custom merch business that you can be proud of.

Thanks for reading Part 3 of our guide on how to launch a campus merch business as a student. If you enjoyed reading this, please consider sharing it with others you think might be interested. If you have any suggestions for how to make the guide more effective, I greatly welcome and appreciate feedback

Next up

Manufacturing & Delivering Custom Merch (The Student's Guide to Starting a Profitable Custom Merch Business) - Part 5Learn crucial aspects of the custom merch production process, including selecting the right manufacturing partner, ensuring seamless delivery, comparing printing techniques, and managing production errors. Learn how to optimize your production and delivery processes to create high-quality merchandise and scale your business.

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