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Beyond the Etsy Graveyard: Creating Killer Merch Without the Marketplace Mayhem

I’ve always wanted to design and sell my own Horror Themed T-Shirts and, eventually, a whole line of horror themed apparel, but there’s already so much out there, and I never really had the means or resources to do it! Where do I even begin? How do I design them? Where do I sell them?

The most obvious and “easy” place to sell them would be to open an etsy shop or get onto some other established marketplace and just do what everyone else is doing, but I don’t want to do that. This might be easier in the long run, and comes with an established customer base, but there's a lot to be said against platforms like this, besides the commission fees, and/or membership fees, and/or listing fees they charge you, on top of everything else.

Instead, I choose to run my own store on my own website that I already pay for, and here’s why...

WARNING: This article contains opinions.

I started doing some market research on "horror shirts", and surprise, surprise, I was overwhelmed by the sheer amount of generic, uninspired designs that dominate the market. Shirts I have no desire to make or buy. The repetition of designs and visuals is mind numbing. It’s like everyone took out the same horror/horror movie trope dictionary and just started slapping images and words on t-shirts with no passion.

Blood spatter? Check. Horror fonts? Check. Picture of [insert horror movie villain / creepy face / skull here]? Check.

Example of a quick horror shirt design - Blair Mueller Art - blog post image

Sadly, this super generic shirt design I just created in 5 mins (on a whim because I wanted to put a picture illustrating my point here) using stock photos and a TINY bit of creativity would probably sell better than something I put real thought into. HA!

How many times do we need to see or use the same horror movie characters on a shirt? Aren’t people tired of bad design? I guess not. And if you venture away from the classic horror movie tropes and characters, you fall into a sea of unoriginality, bad graphics, clip art designs, and generally boring “mainstream halloween” stuff. Based on my research, the entire genre of “horror” [on these giant marketplaces] basically boils down to the same 5 horror movie franchises, creepy faces, blood, skulls, or other "cute" and "spooky" stuff, like happy little ghosts and cats and pumpkins.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not claiming to be an expert in horror or design, but after scrolling through literally hundreds of shirts, I don’t think I came across one single design that made me want to crack open my wallet.

A skeleton throwing money around - Graphic image - Blair Mueller Art - Take My Money

I'm not saying every horror themed shirt has to be "horrific" in nature, but is this what horror design has been reduced to?

I want to discuss the five main reasons why I think this is, and what we can do about it.

1. Overused Tropes and Clichés

The horror genre relies heavily on established tropes and clichés, but their overuse is like the horror equivalent of fast food. It's predictable, it's been done a million times before, and it's just plain gross. It’s bad for our “horror fan” health. We keep feeding ourselves with this junk and we begin to lose sight of what true horror means. To get anything of real quality, you might need to venture away from giant marketplaces and find a more specialized, independant shop.

2. Lack of Originality and Creativity

Some designers may simply be copying existing designs or relying on generic imagery, resulting in derivative and uninspired work. It feels like most designers aren't even trying. They're churning out the same old, same old without a single thought to putting their own spin on the genre. I think this is, in part, due to so many people just trying to capitalize on a genre by copying everyone else, just to make a buck, so you end up with thousands of people pumping out the exact same stuff. I wonder how many of these Etsy shops are run by actual designers and artists.

3. Poor Design Execution

Even with a good idea, poor execution can detract from the overall impact of the design. This could include things like poor typography, unbalanced layout, and low-quality artwork. That’s because we’ve got so many people out there starting up a “side hustle” because it’s trendy or promoted as a way to get rich quick! Anyone can open up an Etsy shop these days, not just artists and designers.

All you have to do is watch a few videos, follow a few tutorials, and there, you are now convinced you can make millions of dollars copying other people's work. Just choose a high selling niche market, any one you want, doesn't matter, and go to town, without any artistic or design experience, from home, without having to leave your desk... and for FREE! Imagine that!

To be fair, it's not all a scheme, it's possible, people do it, it's just a LOT MORE WORK than people are willing to do, but it doesn't stop them from trying.

I wager most of these people aren’t even fans of the genres/niche markets they sell in, they just chase the ones that are the most profitable, then copy what the best sellers are doing. Rinse and repeat. There are literally hundreds of videos teaching people to do exactly that! Step-by-step. No experience required. And as a result, you now have thousands of non-artists pumping out copies of copies of copies of designs, flooding the marketplace with mediocre merchandise at best, in hopes of becoming rich.

I told you there would be opinions in this article. Shhhhhh.

4. Misunderstanding of the Target Audience

Not all horror fans are looking for the same things. Some may prefer subtle references and dark humor. I myself have a series of horror movie reference shirts, like this one.

Can you guess the movie from this subtle reference: "Revenge is best served, in a meat pie"? Think... demon barber...

Others may be drawn to more graphic and disturbing imagery. Some might be more gothic. Some might want those classic horror movie villains or characters… like this all-over-print "Frankie" Athletic Tee featuring a pencil drawing I did of Frankenstein's Monster (then digitized and coloured in Photoshop) with a full back design too.

Designers who don't understand their target audience may miss the mark. I've probably missed it dozens of times... probably still am!

The real issue here is when you get a pile of sellers and “designers” who aren’t true horror fans, and are just trying to capitalize on the market, they create what they think horror fans want, and do so by copying everyone else. This only perpetuates the problem and the market keeps growing in the wrong direction… towards quantity over quality of well designed products. As a horror fan myself, I’d gladly spend $50+ on a fantastic horror shirt by a true artist than buy some generic clip art design printed on the cheapest shirt available to the seller who’s opened five shops, trying to capitalize on niches they don’t care about.


5. Varying Personal Tastes

It's all a matter of taste, really. What you or I think is totally lame might be someone else's crem de la crem. That's what makes design so cool and diverse. There's no one-size-fits-all definition of "good" or "bad" design. Well.... that’s debatable. There are definitely some basic building blocks, like composition, color theory, and visual hierarchy, that make a design work well, and that’s where we have the problem. So many of these “designers” aren’t driven by a passion for art or design or the niche they’ve chosen, they’re motivated by money. And fast money… because a Youtube video told them it works that way.

So, what can us real horror fans do about this?

I’m not gonna tell you to stop buying what you like, if you like generic, tired designs, or don’t care for originality, and are just looking for something, anything remotely “horror” related, for the cheapest possible price, then by all means, have at it. You do you! Etsy, and marketplaces alike, await you! But, if you are a true horror fan, and have a passion for good horror design, try to support other horror fans and help enrich the niche with demand for better products so we can change it. You can do this by not giving your money to those who don't care, and instead, spend time looking for original, unique designs, created by artists of the genre with a deep passion and love of horror, not someone who’s just trend chasing in order to make a bit of side cash.

I Just want to point out, I don't believe this is the case for EVERY seller on these marketplaces, but it does seem to apply to a whole lot of them. There are some truly amazing and talented artists and designers who make a good living using these services and websites to generate revenue.

Which brings me to the point of all this.

Why I only sell on my own website.

It's this very oversaturation of uninspired, mass produced, quantity over quality mind frame that makes me continue to just use my own website store, instead of trying to sell on etsy or ebay or any of these other massive online marketplaces, because I don't have anyone else competing on my own store. It's just me and my designs. Not to mention, my own site takes enough of my time to maintain.

Blair Mueller Art - Online Store and Print on Demand shop - Promotional Image

Does this mean that my prices might be a little higher? Yes, because I have more overhead costs to consider, and I spend more time on each and every item in my shop. I’m not using automation to pump out 50 text designs in an hour, or just grabbing any old royalty free stock image off Pixabay. And even if I do sometimes use a bit of AI assistance in some of my shirt designs, I put great thought into them, then I tweak them in Photoshop, add to them, refine them. I wouldn't put out a shirt design that I wouldn't personally wear myself. If I LOVE IT, then I know others will too.

Blair Mueller Art - Print On Demand - Horror Shirt - Night Howler Graphic Tee
Night Howler - Graphic Tee

Here is a recent design, now available in my Gift Shop "Horror Threads!" section.

I also use Printful, a leading, reputable print on demand service provider that prints and ships all their items in house, instead of outsourcing to hundreds of smaller printing companies, which means my service is a little bit more reliable. I don’t have to worry about my orders being outsourced to 20 different shops that could result in 20 different problems that I can’t resolve directly with the printing company myself.

I’ll make a separate post about why I choose Printful as my Print On Demand service provider, even though it’s one of the pricier options, another time.

I realize that my choice to only sell on my own store, a store that I control, a store that I already pay to have through my website hosting provider, is the harder path to take in terms of getting discovered, but building trust with my customers is crucial to me, and that trust flourishes in an environment of authenticity.

The Loch Ness Monster swimming in a lake - Blair Mueller Art - Graphic Image.
I don’t want to be one of many fish in the sea, I want to be the Loch Ness Monster of my own private lake.

By selling my custom print-on-demand products directly from my own website, I cultivate a space that's uniquely mine, fostering a deeper connection with my audience. Unlike massive online marketplaces where my products are just one offering amongst thousands of others, my own website allows me to control the narrative. I get to showcase my creative vision in a way that resonates directly with my target customers. This personalized experience builds trust and loyalty.

Furthermore, owning my own online store empowers me with complete control over my brand identity and customer experience. From the product descriptions and visuals to the ordering process and shipping options, I can tailor every aspect to reflect my unique style and values. And as service providers and marketplaces change, or increase fees, or shut down, I’ll still be here, unaffected by things out of my control. 

This level of control is invaluable for establishing a strong brand identity that resonates with my target audience and sets me apart from the competition. By selling directly from my own website, I invest in a powerful marketing tool that empowers me to tell my story, connect with my customers, and ultimately, build a thriving business.

If you want to support me in my journey, you can VIEW MY GIFT SHOP HERE.

Thanks for reading.

Until next time…


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