Screen Printing:

Elevate Designs with Specialty Inks

Thinking beyond the flat print will create a better product and add higher perceived value.

By Jeremy Picker, Contributing Writer

Brands like True Religion have integrated many specialty inks, such as holographic foil, into their apparel designs.

October 17, 2019

Specialty inks have been used for many decades. When I was a kid, I had a vintage Mickey Mouse tee embellished with puff ink, which introduced a great touch to a nostalgic design.

Since then, specialty-ink capabilities have advanced dramatically. Ink manufacturers are pushing the boundaries of what is possible with decorated apparel and giving us creative types new media with which to create masterpiece garments. Although specialty-ink trends ebb and flow, the constant intended use is to elevate a garment.

Mastering your craft means going beyond the standard screen print. Too often, T-shirts are treated as widgets instead of something that actually should be worn to make people feel great and look fashionable. Because specialty inks are harder to perfect, they present a greater opportunity to set yourself apart from the competition.

Wearer-First Mentality
Apparel businesses ensure the printing process is streamlined, blank products have been vetted and the immediate customer is serviced properly, but what about the customer’s customer? Sourcing and logistics are not your clients’ main concerns. Instead they want to ensure the final product represents their brands in a way that contributes to their own bottom lines while pleasing their customers.

We all have a T-shirt from 10 years ago — maybe even one that is barely holding on to life — that we love wearing for various reasons. There must be underlying factors of why we wear it, and that’s what decorators should remember. Take the time to help your client figure out how to make the best-
possible product that’s within his budget.

The simplest way to create a unique shirt that gets people excited is by tactfully and strategically adding specialty ink to a design. Adding high-density, foil, metallic or glow-in-the-dark inks to the right design will take your customer’s T-shirt to the next level. Not only does that extra tactile feel come into play, but there also is a higher perceived value. It can be a great conversation starter if done correctly; it also advertises to the wearer that the shirt is truly custom.

Go Beyond Flat Prints
Advocating using specialty inks doesn’t mean a standard water-based or plastisol screen print is never ideal for a job. Rather, think more in terms of layers instead of a flat product.

Almost anyone can print a custom design on a shirt. That’s the basis of the barrier to entry into the apparel-production world, but why stick with an entry-level skill set when there are so many possibilities to be creative?

This mentality is analogous to an athlete learning to dribble a basketball and nothing else — no shooting, passing, rebounding, dunking or playing defense. It’s too easy for our industry to be comfortable at the dribbling stage.

To boost creativity, go beyond the flat print. When specialty ink is added to a design and executed correctly, it not only enhances the product, but also shows that more development and intention went into the design process. Being purposeful during creation is the foundation to making a better product.

For example, one of our clients — a local distillery — typically was satisfied with a basic printed logo on a shirt. But we wouldn’t be doing our job if we stopped there; just because it sold well doesn’t mean it couldn’t sell better.

Being a distillery, the oversized copper stills in its tasting room augment a distinct atmosphere for the overall customer experience and suggest this company cares about aesthetics. We wanted to take that same “wow” moment and cohesiveness from the tasting room and weave it into the distillery’s apparel.

Some of the most frequently used specialty inks in my clients’ rotation are high-density, puff, metallic, glow-in-the-dark, clear gel, flock, foil, reflective, scented and thermal-activated. For the distillery, suggested changing the logo — previously printed in white — to a copper foil print for men’s shirts and a color-shifting, fine-glitter print for ladies’ shirts. It was a nod to current retail trends and a unique shirt that wearers would appreciate and keep in heavy rotation. The distillery sold three times as many specialty ink-printed shirts compared to those with the basic white logo.

Study Retail Brands
The mall may be the best place to get your creative juices flowing when it comes to designs with specialty inks. Major brands plan their in-store collections one or two years in advance, so each season is a great time to soak in what will trickle down to our industry. Observe the trending design styles and how they integrate specialty inks.

My favorite brand that assimilates popular specialty inks throughout its collection is Superdry. It features enhanced, classic and trendy designs that are carefully curated with garment fabrics and colors in mind. While many of Superdry’s techniques are done overseas in specialty shops, getting inspired and adapting those concepts into your clients’ apparel will make them happier.

Brands like Lucky Brand, True Religion and — in this latest season — Levi’s have integrated many specialty inks into their apparel designs. Holographic foil, high-density and crackle inks are some of my favorites.

It’s easy to identify the retail appeal these major brands create with their collections and the accompanying higher prices. Simply adding specialty ink can yield an extra $5-$10 per piece at retail.

While specialty ink isn’t the end-all be-all for creating a retail-worthy garment, explore the possibilities, incorporate them into your offerings and take a design to the next level. Use your ink and equipment suppliers to get tips, tricks and best practices so you minimize the learning curve.

Also, join a community group of printers to get real-world suggestions and input on pitfalls to avoid. If you’re actively using specialty inks, push yourself to offer more techniques and mixed media. Follow other decorators and industry professionals — Danny Gruninger of Denver Print House, Milosj de Groot of Mad Specials and Michelle Moxley of M&R, to name a few — to see the cool things they’re creating with specialty inks.

Not all these techniques are production friendly, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get inspired. Use self-branded showroom samples to test, design and produce something out of the box.

Jeremy Picker is the creative director and CEO at AMB3R Creative, a Colorado-based apparel-design firm. He has more than 20 years of experience in the fashion industry and brings a depth of knowledge in custom design, screen printing, embroidery, appliqué, finishing and promotional products. He has helped numerous brands launch, grow and manage merchandise for major-label brands. For more information or to comment on this article, email Jeremy at