Build Your Business:

Is Online Design in Your Company’s Future?

November 21, 2013

Online design capabilities didn’t come true until just before the dawn of the 21st century. In 1999, Philadelphia native and Harvard grad Marc Katz, then 23, left his career on Wall Street and, with the aid of classmate Dave Christensen, some friends and a little family financing, was born. Around the same time, both and CafePress, which have gone public on NASDAQ, were launched as well.

During the first decade of the new century, more competitors — including DecoNetwork, and Inksoft, among many others offering online design software — surfaced in the trade, with several beginning to exhibit at Imprinted Sportswear Shows (ISS) events. Numerous others began selling e-commerce software as well in our industry.

While these developments were taking place, independent embroiderers and screen printers all over the country were busy writing their own online design software and e-commerce applications. And during the past several years, as all this action has been happening and continues to advance, only a small, single-digit percentage of custom apparel decorators have yet to initiate their own online design software (or shopping cart software) for their customers’ usage. That percentage is about to explode.

If your company is among the huge group that still doesn’t offer either online design software or a shopping cart on its website, allow me to offer a little historical insight about how that technology has been absorbed into our industry over the years and how it’s going to impact your enterprise.  

When the industry began in 1977, graphics for screen printing were accomplished with what seems downright primitive today. Lettering was achieved by photocopying, burnishing letters from a wax paper sheet onto a clear film or paper, or hand cutting with an X-ACTO knife from sheets of Rubylith, shooting lots of orthographic film or using a phototypositor.

In the late-1980s, the first computer graphics programs emerged. The text or images on computer monitors were neon green, the background was black and, as the mouse hadn’t yet come on the scene, you used a “cursor” to create effects. It took several minutes to generate even a simple design, and seeing it merged with text was nearly impossible and took seemingly forever to populate on the screen in front of you. A lot of guesswork was involved and a lot of expensive film was burned up along the way. By today’s standards, the process was still nonetheless quite cumbersome and expensive. A simple, quick job back then took an hour or so to complete.

But by the 1990s, for any commercial operation, the question of whether to invest in computer graphics had been answered by quantum leaps in technology, declining software prices and radical reductions in operating costs. Embroidery digitizing in the way-backs involved a huge plotter (a 3′ x 5′ vertically mounted board for starters) and an investment of $20,000-$30,000. Add a very tall learning curve and it’s easy to see that doing digitizing in-house was a real pain.

Remember when you first learned about the possibility of having your very own website? Fifteen or 20 years ago, a website cost thousands of dollars to construct. Today, it can be accomplished for peanuts and, for many, there’s a huge trove of DIY programs for beginners. Simply put, can you imagine being in the custom decorated apparel production business today without owning your own computer graphics or digitizing software? And how many companies don’t have a website of any kind?    

As a consultant and ISS speaker, the questions I hear decorated apparel professionals pondering today about online design software come down to two: Do I really need it? Can I afford it? Well, you can get along without a website if you’re strictly selling locally or fulfill only monster-sized orders sold to monster buyers. For the rest of the industry, though, having a website is, at the very least, a matter of credibility, especially when selling to corporate buyers who won’t be ready to do business with them if no website is available.  

You may ask, “Given that corporate accounts often provide finished graphics for their custom apparel orders, do I really need to offer online design software?” Well, you can continue to get by without it, but it begs the question of for how long? I can safely predict, based on seeing how the other aforementioned technologies took root in our business, that it’s only a matter of time until having online design capability becomes essential — for both large and small buyers alike.

You’ll be adding online design, if for no other reason, to validate your own credibility to a prospect. But in time, you’re certain to find that an increasing segment of your customers will prefer to handle as much of their ordering online and at a time of their own convenience. And where will your company be in that marketplace without online design software?

As for the “Can you afford it?” question, the more germane question to ask is “Can I afford not to offer it?” That’s because the cost of online design software has been decreasing thanks to increasing demand and the joys of capitalism and competition. Today, you can have it for free if you don’t mind working within the context of a vendor’s product offerings.

This year, with our industry marketplace clamoring for online design resources, Bodek  & Rhodes, SanMar, and Alpha Shirt Co. customers already have begun to avail themselves of the wholesalers’ online design software. The cost? When used in conjunction with a given wholesaler’s website and other vendor-specific Internet products, the programs are either free, almost free or virtually next to nothing in cost.

The industry’s wholesalers have done a yeoman’s job in providing — at little or no cost — websites and shopping cart programs, among many other value-added services. The advent of online design software from our major garment vendors is just the latest — and one of the very best — available. Yes, you may be confined to using only the specific vendor’s garment selections, but that’s a minor issue. And where you elect to purchase garments not available from the vendor, at least the graphics part is largely accomplished.

So if the cost of investing in online design software was an impediment to delving into this field for your customers, money is no longer a real issue. Yes, you still can avail yourself of great higher-end online design programs from a host of sources within and outside of the industry. Each has its own whistles and bells, but the basic online design software being offered by wholesalers and the ease of use are quite good. They’re also a great place to start offering this benefit to your customers and at a very reasonable price.

So, might this mean decorated apparel artists and illustrators are about to become obsolete? No, not by a longshot. Good design, when it’s a critical part of your sale, is still a necessary component of doing business with a demanding customer. However, since artwork can be uploaded to the vendors’ online design sites, the necessity of providing upgraded custom graphics for certain key accounts remains undiminished.

Are talented artists on staff still necessary on basic designs? For most companies, not really. When you consider that — by my estimate — some 95% of all graphics destined for garments entails little more than the intelligent manipulation of artwork and text into customer-pleasing images, most jobs don’t require the services of gifted professionals. And virtually all of the online design software programs include respectable libraries of stock art, icons and lettering effects.

Most screen printing companies have been handling most art jobs in-house for decades, but most of the graphics work is more along the lines of a mechanical process, not complex illustration. The current generation of online design software makes the task of doing basic designs easier and faster than ever, saving the company time by all but eliminating this typical bottleneck in production and mitigating the need for most customer approval of proofs (except, of course, where you’ve made efforts to improve or modify the design).

Two or three years ago, my prediction about the impact and future of online design software was that within 10 years, it’ll be as commonplace as websites. I was way off. In fact, I’ll venture that within just a year or two, a solid majority of apparel decorators, as well as those companies selling the product (but decorating in-house), will have online design software available for their customers to use. And I’ll venture that it’s only a matter of time — months, perhaps — until practical shopping cart programs are offered by many of our industry’s leading vendors as standard offerings.

If you can’t find or make time immediately, earmark time after Christmas to at least explore, if not install, online design software. You’ll get the added benefit of having it working for you when the onset of high season arrives.

Mark L. Venit, MBA, is president of the Apparel Graphics Institute LLC, a decorated apparel management and marketing consultancy. He has published more than 400 articles on apparel decorating management. His latest book, “The Business of T-Shirts: A Textbook for Success in Marketing and Selling Decorated Apparel,” is available at For more information or to comment on this article, email Mark at