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What Are Print on Demand Sites?

By now you’ve probably heard about "print on demand" sites. What are they, exactly, and how do they work? Muddying the waters are the “get-rich-quick” bro’s who show up in Youtube ads, screaming about how they allegedly made $100K last month (yeah, right) alone from print on demand.

Up until fairly recently, the only way you to get something printed in color—a book cover, fabric, stationery, T-shirts, you name it—was to take the artwork to a print shop. See the photo of this T-shirt? This was created via silk screening. Three colors of ink were used: black, gold and navy blue. Three separate screens were made, one for each color. First the gold design was printed on the shirt, followed by the navy, and then the black.

silk screened T-shirt

Stationery and fabrics were (and still are) printed the same way. If your floral dress has eight colors in the design, then eight screens were created and each color was printed one by one, starting with the lightest colors first and then finishing with the darkest on top. This can be done by hand (slow and laborious!) or by machine (still very time consuming and costly). This is why quality fabrics are printed on long bolts, because the set-up and printing time for all of those screens adds to the cost.

Then about 20 years ago, digital printing came into being and changed the way that many products are printed. With digital printing, a design is programmed into a computer which is attached to the printing press or machine. Kind of like the inkjet printer you have at home, the press squirts out various amounts of red, blue, yellow, black and white ink to create various colors (like squirting out white and red to make pink).

Take a look at my T-shirt with this Basquiat design on it….this was done digitally. There are so many different shades of color on this. If you were to screen print it, it would take forever and the darn shirt would be selling for $200, not the $20 I paid.

T-shirt printed digitally

Spoonflower is a print on demand site. They were pioneers in the digital printing business, starting out in the self-published book market. They used digital printing to rapidly and inexpensively create colorful book covers, plus the pages of text inside. The wife of one of the founders was frustrated because she wanted yellow fabric with oversized polka dots on it for drapes, and she couldn’t find any.

He had a brainstorm: what if they used digital printing for creating short runs of fabric? Turns out his idea was a winner and now many companies offer print-on-demand services.

Essentially, you create a digital file of your artwork and send it to a POD printer. Then you can order the amount of yardage that you want made. They print it and ship it to you, which enables you to make clothing, gifts and home decor items from fabric that you designed yourself.

Now you can send digital files of your artwork to companies that will print it on paper, such as stationery and gift wrap. Some of the companies in the POD world are Redbubble, Zazzle and Society 6.

Print on demand has expanded quite a bit! Not only can you order paper goods and fabrics with your own art on them, you can also enable others to buy your designs. Spoonflower will print your art on throw pillows, bedding, wallpaper, curtains, tea towels, napkins and more.

They do all of the printing, as well as purchasing the fabric that the designs are printed on. Things are assembled, sewn, packaged and shipped by them.

In return, you receive a royalty or commission when people buy products with your designs. As a result, this has become a side hustle for some artists, and a full time stay-at-home career for others.

What are the pros and cons of POD sites? An obvious advantage is that you don’t have to maintain any inventory. You don’t have to find printers, negotiate prices, source fabrics or paper and so on. You don’t have to package and ship products, and then wait for UPS to show up or stand on line at the post office.

One of the biggest disadvantages is that anyone who knows how to create a digital file of artwork can upload it to a POD site. It’s kind of like having a store on Etsy—tens of thousands of people go to Etsy daily to purchase something, but will they see your shop?

So the competition in POD sites is stiff. If you want to go this route, be prepared to market your designs. You can do this via Instagram, and also through competitions that some of the POD sites run. For example, Spoonflower runs a weekly design challenge that you can enter. If you win or place, this can bring a lot of attention to your work.

Remember, you have to have the technical skills to get your doodles out of your sketchbook and into a digital file. Adobe Illustrator is the program of choice for doing so. I will be teaching a free workshop in which I’ll be teaching how to do this! It’s called “Surface Pattern Design Quick Start”. I have broken down the steps into easy to digest bite-sized pieces….even if you’ve never touched Illustrator in your life!

At the end of it, you’ll be able to send your own digital file to a POD site and experience the joy of purchasing products with your own artwork on them. Here’s the link to the wait list for the next workshop:

I'll be writing more blog posts about POD sites, so be sure to check your inbox. Some of you have asked for a list of sites, so I'm going to put one together for you! If you have any questions about this post, or about a topic you'd like me to cover, shoot me an email at


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