Build Your Business:

Wearable (Bankable) Art

Get your artists involved in the process so they can learn how their part of the work translates to either easy setups or frustration because art doesn’t look right on press. Sample courtesy of Anderson Studio, Nashville, Tenn.

September 11, 2015

Regardless of whether a T-shirt is destined for a retail rack or created for a one-time event, the quality of the garment’s design can impact sales.

“Wow! I need that!” is the reaction you want when anyone sees the shirt for the first time. A well-designed graphic makes a blank shirt come alive and elicits that gut-level, wallet-busting response.

Translation: Art creates value.

This is why companies invest in building a stable of skilled and talented artists, as they know they can leverage their creative eyes to drive sales. It is less of a hardline labor expense and more of an investment. But all designers aren’t created equal. A talented graphic artist doesn’t necessarily understand everything about designing and separating an image for T-shirt printing that will drive more sales to your door or be production friendly.

Jay Berman, owner, Visual Impressions, Milwaukee, knows the value of having a staff of on-site artists. “Being a contract printer and not having any salespeople, we believe our in-house art department is one of [our] major selling factors,” he says. “First impressions count, and having a talented and creative art staff we can use to help our customers pitch programs often wins us contracts over other [screen] printers in the marketplace.”

Bruce Jolesch with Pony Express Printing (PXP), Dallas, has a similar viewpoint. “One of the values of building and having an art department in-house is that the artwork can start catering to production,” he says. “Files can be set up in a way that [they] are easier to print; and obviously having an in-house graphic department allows you to respond to the customer in a much more timely way. Candidly, we use our in-house graphics team (three full-time graphic artists) as a selling tool. We help distributors design a shirt, or we educate them on what can and cannot be printed.”

However, not everyone uses just their own core employees. Sometimes you need a different creative style, or maybe the techniques are beyond your staff’s skill level. Andy Anderson with Anderson Studio, Nashville, Tenn., agrees. “There comes a time when the same client walks in and has an idea that is beyond the vision or capabilities of the in-house staff,” he says. “This is when freelancers really pay off. Over the years, we have used several to help with giving us a great variety of styles and designs for a customer to chose from. [This is] especially [true] when we are creating a new line or another idea for a band tour or retail design.”

Other shops have had similar experiences. “We typically don’t print a lot of racing-style shirts and [one of our clients] is race themed,” says Tom Rauen of Envision Tees, Dubuque, Iowa. “So we decided to contract this out to an artist who specializes in racing designs to give it the feel and look for the [client’s] target market.”

One key is to understand your team’s talent level and be honest about whether they can handle the work. Sometimes it’s a technique that’s elusive; other times it might just be the amount of work on the schedule.

So what do top artists think about how their rolls add value to the process? Nancy Strackbein, a Tallahassee, Fla., freelance artist with Chromaseps, has a firm understanding of what is needed from a logical, production-friendly point of view.

“Artists who will give consideration to the screen-printing process while still being creative will get the best results for their efforts,” she says. “Topping the list of those considerations is the garment color and color palette, followed by image resolution, special ink effects and placement. Without consideration to these key points when buying art for screen printing, you run the risk of spending too much time [and] money, and ending up with disappointing results.”

That’s an important point. It won’t do you much good to spend money on a great design that becomes a nightmare to produce. For freelancers, or even your own art team, have separations that are technically correct, or better yet, can be set up for an easy print.

Time is money, so the more time you spend tinkering with registration for a job on press, or worrying about better coverage or how a halftone is printing, the more money the job is costing you.

It is important to train artists so they thoroughly understand the screen-printing production process. This includes print order for screens, mesh selection and even how the choices for squeegee durometer can affect the print. The more time they spend with the presses and learn how things work mechanically, the better separation files they can create.

Following are some tips to help raise the bar with your shop’s art:

For In-House Art Departments
1.Provide time for artists to train with the screen-room and production crews. The more they understand the mechanical process of printing, the more technically sound their art separations can be.

2.It pays to experiment, but not on customers’ work. Set aside time for some skill stretching. Learn to handle simulated process, four-color process, high-density and discharge printing, or other techniques that you have been wanting to try. Master these techniques before you mention them to your sales team as potential revenue streams.

3.Mistakes are going to happen. Instead of chastising someone who messes up, find the learning opportunity. Top creative talent can add a lot to your art department, but it will take some time to learn the technical aspects and mechanical vocabulary in detail.

4.Break down key skills into thought experiments. Print a gradation scale from 0% to 100% on different meshes and with a manual or automatic press. It will be the same file, but have different labeled results. Or, try printing a solid block of color — such as yellow — and over printing it with a halftone of red. Does it look orange? What happens when you print the halftone first and then print the block of yellow over it wet-on-wet. What looks better? Isolate these types of scenarios and use what you learn to build your print vocabulary and skill.

5.Have your artists build good communication and rapport with your production crews. Sometimes it pays to have the artists on hand when setting up a job or when the screens are being locked into place. Get them involved in the process so they can learn how their part of the work translates to either quick and easy setups or frustration.

Using Freelancers
1.Be exact with instructions. If they are starting from scratch, provide an accurate, creative brief that outlines what you are looking for in a design. Sometimes, it pays to get rough thumbnails back from an artist to see if you are on the same page. Specify shirt color, final number of screens, final art dimensions and, of course, the deadline for the finished art. Clear expectations produce better results.

2.The contract should state that you own the finished artwork. Pay freelancers fairly and on time. This is a business transaction. If you are doing spec art to get a client or start an apparel line, it could even be an investment. While everyone has different rates, the adage “you get what you pay for” often is true in this case. Veteran, experienced freelance artists can give you separations that will be a breeze to print; but they will be the most expensive. Don’t be fooled into thinking a cheaper rate can save you money if it becomes a huge problem on press.

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). He also is a PromoKitchen chef. For more information or to comment on this article, email Marshall at