Build Your Business:

Key Traits for Your Art Department

April 8, 2013

Since most shops don’t ship blank apparel, building and staffing the art department can be a critical keystone for a company’s success. After all, what you are putting on the shirts depends entirely on who is designing it.

Many shop owners truly are businesspeople and don’t really understand the quirky creativity that artistic people share. Granted, not all artists are beret-wearing, clove-cigarette-smoking goofs; most that I know are down to earth, intelligent, professional, dedicated and talented folks who generate ideas. As a former art director — and current occasional freelancer — I have a distinct background in this area. This article should serve as a template for non-artist business owners who are thinking about building or expanding an art department.

In some shops, one artist may wear all of the hats described below. In other shops, duties and tasks are segmented by job description, client, skill level or other criteria. This article is just a general overview on some basic concepts and terminology.

Also, T-shirt design is such a specialized craft that many fantastically creative people may not understand or know the terminology, techniques or general concepts right off the bat. They may know what color red PMS 186 may be, but how to quickly curve back some halftones on a file while the press crew is waiting, or what high-density ink means, could be problematic for beginners.

To be successful, anyone you hire must have a working knowledge of some basic creative software programs. There are other available titles that people use with success, but if you are hiring staff, the following three will be the most common:

Adobe Photoshop. This raster-based software is arguably the most powerful design tool available. The more adept the designer is with this powerful tool, the better. If you can find an expert, hire him.

Adobe Illustrator. Part of the Creative Suite with Photoshop, this software is the vector tool of choice. Most people use it to design logos and graphics; likewise, most businesses will send you their logos as Illustrator files.

CorelDRAW. Many shops use CorelDRAW instead of Illustrator. However, finding creative talent that is proficient in using CorelDRAW is another matter. I won’t debate the versatility of this software here, but I’ve always been concerned that the available talent pool for new hires doesn’t use this software, ultimately making your search more difficult.

Core Skills
To really exceed in the apparel design business, you need a core set of design skills. Maybe the person doesn’t have all of them, but these traits are valuable when handed the dreaded “Do something cool” art direction.

Old-School Drawing Ability. Everything is computer generated these days, and with the advent of LiveTrace tools, you can get away with not having this skill. I know plenty of extremely successful designers that can’t draw a lick. However, if you can find someone who can doodle up some amazing renderings, it’s a definite plus.

Thumbnail and Concept Sketching. There isn’t an idea button on the keyboard. Designers that flesh out ideas with quick thumbnail sketches usually get more accomplished during a typical day. If you operate a fast-paced, deadline-driven shop, this habit will come in handy. When reviewing a candidate’s portfolio during an interview, ask how he arrived at a specific idea. This is something you want to hear.

Great Use of Typestyles. In the apparel world, most shirts have some sort of typeset word that stands out as a graphic. Where does that come from? It’s the skill of being able to pair a design concept with a typestyle or font that fits. This is a mix of art, skill and science, and it’s extremely obvious when it doesn’t work.

Ability to Cartoon. For an upcoming tournament, your client wants a shirt depicting a fish playing golf. It’s something funny — and it’s due tomorrow. Can someone on your staff crank that out? Cartooning is a skill set that few can master, as it takes a combination of drawing skill and a sense of humor. Successful cartoonists have a style all their own, and sometimes even a large following. This is a bankable skill on which you can build commercial success with if you market it correctly.

Graphic Design. In the T-shirt business, someone — at some point — will need a logo created. Your art department can handle this and you can charge for this work, but only if you first hire someone that knows how to do design. Sometimes the logo is the entire T-shirt design. Great graphic designers have a distinctive style and can often also have a following.

Illustration. This is the ability to render a completely fresh idea that matches a core concept. Need a futuristic-looking-but-realistic dragon for that martial arts school? If you have someone skilled in illustration, you can handle this chore easily and your client will be amazed. Outsourcing this could be expensive, so this creative attribute could possibly save some money down the road.

Improving Another Person’s Art. Chances are someone will submit bad art to your company. Based on experience, this probably will happen tomorrow. Do you have the art staff on hand to take that mess and make it into a workable art file? Whether it’s the crayon drawing from the preschool class that wants a T-shirt, or from the businessman with the “only logo we have,” your staff will have to do something with it. Hire someone who has that knowledge and you can easily back up your sales team.

Simulated Process. This advanced concept isn’t taught in design school, but is virtually mandatory to run a T-shirt art department. Do you have the creative talent on staff to take that restaurant’s digital photo image of a flaming chicken and pepper burrito, and crank it down to eight spot colors for a black T-shirt order? If your art staff can’t handle it, consider hiring someone who can. Expert level Photoshop users only!

Four-Color Process Printing. This CMYK file is a different animal than printing that magazine cover. Do you have the art staff that knows how to prepare the file, adjust the colors and get the separation plates ready for printing? How about working with your press crew so you know which squeegee to reduce the pressure on when the first proof looks “off” for some reason? This advanced skill is difficult to master, but key to a lot of shops’ success when printing this work. Expert level Photoshop users only!

Industry Knowledge. Finding someone right out of design school or community college is pretty easy. At the end of every semester, you may get flooded with applications. Finding someone who already knows how to choke back an underbase plate or select the mesh count for metallic ink, however, is different. You can train someone, and after a few months he may understand what you are talking about. A better, abeit more costly, approach is to hire someone who already has the industry-specific knowledge that will help accomplish your art department goals.

Web Design. A lot of shops are seeing the advantages of getting their designs online, and more and more creative people are learning this skill. If your art department is moving in this direction — or eventually may be there — someone with this skill could be a huge benefit to your company.

Now that these basic skill sets have been identified, let’s consider a few different staffing positions you may need filled in your art department. Again, these are just general terms; a lot of shops have staffs that roll these positions into one person’s job.

Intern. This usually is someone who is working on a degree at the local college and wants some practical experience. Staffing interns can be a great idea for seasonal work or basic needs to flesh out your art department’s workload. Using interns will require more handholding and direction than any basic artist on your staff, as they are still learning how to do things. Give clear and concise expectations, as well as the training they need to succeed. While some interns may just be happy with getting the credit and experience, please try to pay them!

Freelancer. This is a great resource if you want to limit your art department labor. Many outstanding industry veterans are available and usually are constantly looking for work. They will either work for a flat rate per job or be paid by the hour. I’ve hired freelance artists and also have done freelance artwork with shops from around the country, so I know both ends of the spectrum. If you are considering hiring a freelancer, be warned that there is a wide knowledge gap between the skill of someone “off the street” without any industry separation knowledge versus someone who is fully capable. An industry veteran may charge more for their services, but if you calculate the potential cost of downtime while you adjust the screens from a rookie, it could end up being a bargain.

Production Artist. This is the basic or entry-level designer who handles easier tasks, corporate logos, files from agencies and low-level basic design work. The art director should be constantly training them in industry knowledge and skill set building. Keeping this person busy with the grunt work may mean your higher-end designers have more free time for bigger projects or the time to invest in more complex work.

Graphic Artist. One rung down from being a senior artist, a graphic designer handles a lot of the workload in a busy shop. The art director or designer can rely on this person to design creative work based on their direction. This person chugs along daily, working on your customer’s designs for work orders. Usually, graphic artists have only a few years of experience and are still learning the industry. A good art director will constantly train graphic artists, giving more complex designs to work on to develop their skill.

Designer. This person is a creative thinker and usually handles the conceptual designing on programs or projects. You want someone with good knowledge of apparel, separations, print techniques and special effects. A good sense of style and what is trending also is a plus. A good designer can work up thumbnails and ideas for your creative team to construct later. The designer also will work alongside clients, so this person will need effective customer service, active listening and communication skills. Having a staff designer adds value, as your clients will come to you to solve problems and hand you projects that could mean print jobs that last all year. A designer differs from an art director in that the former doesn’t have management responsibilities.

Separator. Many shops have separated (no pun intended) this task into a specialized position, rather than have the artists that created the image tackle the chore of breaking the file down into individual plates. This allows the shop to more effectively move large volumes of creative tasks through the art department. The separator has specific working knowledge of screen mesh selection, printing techniques and inks, and is an expert software user. Separators are detail oriented and focused, and also possess good communication skills, as they have to work with teams of people and resolve challenges.

Art Director. This management-level designer has to juggle many different roles. All work flows through the art director, who is responsible for scheduling and assigning work to staff members. An art director should have customer service skills, as he must communicate with staff members and customers. Most art directors I know are usually the most skilled and veteran members of the art staff. They also are charged with teaching subordinate members of the team and developing their skills. They also should have good working relationships with the customer service/sales teams and the production department.

As complex and varied as art departments can be in this industry, this general overview should provide some valuable points to ponder. Some shops need staff on hand; others simply farm it all out to avoid the cost of expensive talent. Regardless of your market niche, having someone to create your graphics is a necessary and vital part of your business.

Marshall Atkinson is the chief operating officer of Visual Impressions Inc., and Ink to the People, Milwaukee. Atkinson has lectured on sustainability at ISS trade shows, and webinar industry panel discussions regarding the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA). For more information or to comment on this article, email Marshall at or follow him on Twitter at @atkinsontshirt.