The Lost Art of Thumbnails


No, I’m not talking about fingernails.  

I’m talking about the tiny, scribbly sketches that graphic designers use to work out creative concepts before getting to the nitty gritty of building that file in the computer.

There once was a time when folks learning design, actually learned how to design.  Any solid concept starts with some mental gymnastics first.  This comes from working out the challenges of building the layout.  Balance, use of whitespace, proportion, where things fit.  The basic nuts and bolts of the image.

Remember, there is no idea button on a keyboard.

Good ideas start fresh from concepts that you create.  Not stolen from others or changed seven ways so you won’t get sued.  (Total myth by the way)

Great creative minds truly abhor the thought of using someone else’s ideas anyway.  Would a trained chef bake brownies from a box mix?  No.  They know that fresh ingredients produce a better result.  How fresh are yours?

Also, using thumbnails as a launching pad gets you from point A to the finishing point B faster, than if you just sit and stare at the computer, or squander time trying to make some shape work in the background.  This is important, as your boss knows if you are a fast or slow designer.  Can you pound out designs that look great in no time at all?  Or are you that “artiste” that slugs their way through and cruises the internet looking for “inspiration”?

Faster designers are worth more as they get things done.  Here, have a raise.  Slower designers are frustrating to work with and are the first to get fired.  See ya’!  Believe it or not, the old adage still holds true today: Time = Money.

That’s why spending a few moments game planning the design before any work gets started is crucial.  Not just to the company, as that order has to ship soon; but to any graphic artist personally as everyone wants to get paid more.  In fact, I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t feel they are worth more money.  

Have you?

Another salient point is that when you use a thumbnail as the launching pad for your rocket ship of awesomeness, you are building the file with your visual vocabulary and style in mind.  What separates top designers from the bottom of the barrel?  Visual style, my friend.  Really good ones have that certain something that you can identify their work from a mile away.  Do you think they have sticky fingers and nabbing someone else’s idea, layout or style?  Hell no.  They want to do it their way.

Personally I like to use Post-It-Notes for my thumbnails as I can just do several in a few moments and then stick the one I like the best on the side of my keyboard monitor.  When I build the file it is just right there at a glance.  But that’s not a hard and fast rule.  I’ve doodled up some great ideas on the back of envelopes, notepads, or any scrap of paper that’s handy.  I know some designers that like to use graph paper, because it comes with all those little boxes already to use to make things fit.

Use whatever clicks your trigger.

You don’t have to spend much time on these either.  Actually if you look at the quality of the scribble, it usually sucks from a drawing standpoint.  That’s not the point.  What I’m looking for in a thumbnail is the relationships between the items that I know have to be in the design.  Words, images, a background element or two, whatever.  When you write out words that have to be in the graphic that’s basically how much space you are going to need for the text.  If that long wordy phrase won’t fit in a box on your thumbnail, you’ll be hard pressed to make it work so it looks right on your computer file too.  That’s when you’ll know you need two lines.  See, that just saved you probably five or ten minutes of fooling around with the file.  Conclusion reached in 22 seconds, a new record!

Also, you don’t need to even draw things the way they look in reality.  A circle or square can represent the client’s logo.  A zig-zaggy line can be the headline.  Don’t forget that the thumbnail is just a sketch.  Feel free to change things as you go when actually constructing your file for real.  Thumbnails are just the starting point!

Thumbnails are great to shoot off to clients that have wishy-washy attitudes too.  “Hey, am I on the right track with this idea?”  This is how you get to the “approved” and ready to print stage faster, as you involved the customer in the beginning stages.  They can tell you up front that they don’t like that layout, or please add the year at the bottom or whatever.  Some people just want to insert their ideas into things.  When you go from creative brief to finished product without giving that sort of person the chance to comment, they naturally will want to change something at the end.  Get ’em hooked up at the beginning of the process.

So, got a deadline looming?  Get crackin’ on some spirited doodling and find the solution the old fashioned way – with some work.

Your client will love it!

Here are a few thumbnails from recent work:





“A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.” – George S. Patton

“Simplicity, wit and good typography.” – Michael Bierut

“My favorite days are the days when I can get a lot of shit done efficiently and then somehow just enjoy it.” – Aaron Draplin

Stressless Distressed


This week’s blog article is all about creating easy to use distressed pattern files that you can use to add some pizzazz to your graphic files.  Nothing fancy, just solid technique.  If you have ever bought a distressed pattern you are going to wonder why you wasted your money after you read this.  Creating your own gives you the control, but also puts your creative spin on the design aesthetic.

I’ve been creating distressed patterns for years, and have found some great ways to build new and interesting distressed graphics just from my surroundings.  What makes it even easier is that you can get started with just using your camera phone.

Ready?  Here we go!

First Step

Grab your camera phone.  If you are one of the six people on the planet that doesn’t have one, just use a digital camera.  The benefit of using digital photography is the immediacy of the image.  You can tell right away if the shot you took is what you wanted.  Don’t like it?  Take another.  Or twenty.  Get what you can use.

For our purposes, we are looking for interesting patterns, textures and contrasting elements that can be the basis for creating Photoshop textures that we can apply to graphics.  The best are those that have strong light and dark juxtapositions, interesting positive and negative shapes, forms, and even some direction in their patterns.  You want to look for something “different”.  If you are trying to choose the right thing to take a picture, think about how you might use the image or how it might form the foundation for something else.

In about five minutes of walking around outside I found a few textures that I think might make some good candidates.  For the sake of simplicity for this article, I’m going to apply the same technique in Photoshop to each of these so you can see how the patterns might differ.  If this wasn’t for the article I might play with these some to create different effects, but I’ll just keep it simple today.

The six photos chosen will be Asphalt, Bush, Carpet, Concrete Aggregate, Grass, and Shrub Shadows.  Here they are.  These are all taken with my camera phone, and not altered in any way.  After I opened each in Photoshop, I resaved them at 300 dpi, at 8” x 4.5” file size.


As you can see, nothing special.  You can take these.  In fact, you probably can take better shots of more interesting patterns.  But I’m lazy, and went with the first thing I saw when I noticed.

In Photoshop you can spend a lot of time messing around with each of these to get the perfect balance of dark vs light, edge definition and all sorts of image improvements.  I’m not going to do any of that.  What we want here is quick and dirty, and ultimately, some unique patterns.

Second Step

For each of these photos, I converted the photos from RGB mode to Grayscale.  While these patterns are already somewhat interesting, they are going to take on a entirely different feel as we want the randomness of nature and found objects to influence our look.  The Grayscale mode is important as we’ll ultimately be converting each file to a high contrast file we can use.  It will simply be black and white.  If you aren’t happy with the tones in your Grayscale file, here’s your opportunity to change them by applying a quick Curve to them and get it the way you want it.  For me, I didn’t change anything for any of these shots.

Third Step

Now, here’s where the fun begins.  Another mode change.  Go from Grayscale to Bitmap.

This is going to completely remove all gray tones in your file and make everything either black or white.  The trick here is to use the “Method” pulldown in the Bitmap mode command, and each of the selections offered produces a different type of look for your file.  I would suggest trying them all out and seeing what works for you the best.  For our purposes though, we only chose two.

50% Threshold, which just removes all of the gray and midtones completely and leaves a black and white pattern.  There is no ambiguity here.  This is the boldest selection and if you have the right pattern, often the most starkly creative looking in the bunch.

  • Carpet Halftone was created using this method.  I needed to punch up the texture first so I ran an Unsharp Mask on the file before converting to further delineate the shapes in the carpet.
  • Concrete Aggregate Halftone was created, but this time I just went right from Grayscale to Bitmap, without any file adjustments.
  • Shrub Shadows Halftone was created the same way as the concrete texture.

Halftone Screen, which converts your file to a halftone that you can use.  The cool trick here is that you can select different types of halftone shapes, angles, and frequency (the amount of the halftone per inch).  For my selections I chose to show some different patterns so you can see how they look.

  • Asphalt Halftone was created using the Bitmap Halftone at 30 lines/inch, 0 angle degrees and with the Line shape.  This produces a great effect that looks like old fashioned scratchboard, or maybe woodcut if the lines are thick enough.  The 0 angle makes the lines go horizontal.
  • Bush Texture Halftone was created the same way, but the angle was set to 90 instead of 0.  This makes the lines go vertical instead of horizontal.
  • Grass Halftone Texture was created by not using lines, but dots instead.  The number variables where the same.  30 lines/inch, 0 angle, so the pattern is horizontal.

Here are the actual halftones I made.  Compare with the shots above.  Each of these files took maybe twenty or thirty seconds to process.  These are huge time savers if you are looking to create something unique for a creative piece you are working on.


Below are the same textures, but with enlargements so you can see how each was affected by the choices made.  What do you think?  Could you use these for something in your design?


Fourth Step

So you are asking yourself, “That’s great Marshall, but how do I use these?”

You know I wouldn’t let you down.  For the purpose of demonstration I created a “Property Of” graphic to test out each of these files and see how it can change the look of the type by clipping it into the file.  At the end of the process I could separate this two ways, and I’ll show you how to do that.

So here’s my graphic.  It’s just a simple file, nothing fancy.  It sorta looks ok already, but once we throw some of our new filters on this, it’s going to look even better.


For our demonstration I’m just doing this in Photoshop.  It’s easy.  I just copy and paste each of the final textures, and select the dark areas of the graphic.  Invert that selection and choose the texture layer.  Then click delete.

The texture layer is applied to the graphic, and I can choose the opacity of the file until I’m happy with the resulting pattern overlay.

Here are the results.  I’ve zoomed in so you can see the detail.  Which do you like the best?



So I liked this one the best for my file, Grass.  There are two ways to separate this file for usage.

The first is simply to just flatten the file and save it as a .tif and bring it into your vector program to print.  This will make the Grayscale elements of the file print with the correct halftone dots and patterns you normally use.  This would print as a one color.  All day long.

Another method would be to separate this in Photoshop into two colors.  One gray, one black.  This gives you more control when printing, and you won’t be reinterpreting the halftones in the design.  I like this control, but it’s two colors instead of one so your production costs will increase going this route.  It is a little more work to get this, but in the end, it will be a better print as you have more control of the aesthetic as you can choose the colors you will be printing with in each screen.  By the way, these are exactly the same steps I use when separating a file for simulated process seps.  It’s ridiculously easy.


Here’s how to do this in ten easy steps:

  1. First, merge the graphic and the texture layer is it is just a single layer.
  2. Then, while still in Channels, click up and select the RGB channels.  You are selecting your art file on the Layers now.  At the top menu selections, choose “Select”, and then pull down to grab “Color Range”.
  3. In Color Range, you can select as much or as little of the area you want to grab.  This is controlled by the “Fuzziness” slider.  For our purposes, we are going to use the eyedropper tool and select the gray area we want to make into a channel.  Make sure you have “Invert” checked so the background in this tool will be white.
  4. Select the gray area and pull the Fuzziness slider until you are happy with your selection.  This grabs everything you want for the channel.  This will have the “Marching Ants” show for your selection.
  5. Click the create a new channel button at the bottom of the palette.  A new channel will be created and it will be automatically names Alpha 1.  It will be a solid black square, but the “Marching Ants” will be visible.  Just invert the art (“Command “I”), and deselect the “Marching Ants” (“Command D”).  This will now show the graphic selection you have chosen on a white background.
  6. Double click the Alpha 1 channel.  The Channel Options palette will open.
  7. Check “Spot Color”.  Double click on the red square, and the Color Picker palette will appear.  Choose Color Libraries, and pick the PMS color you would like this spot color to be.  Back on the Channel Options palette, make the solidity 95%.
  8. Choose the RGB channels again to select your original art.  This will unselect the new spot color channel for viewing automatically.
  9. Repeat steps 2-8, except this time you choose the Black areas of the design, not the Gray.
  10. Review and make sure everything is ok with your files.  Then to split the channels to get them into a format you can use, just delete the RGB files and leave the two new channels.  Choose “Split Channels” in the channel command section and save each as a .tif file.  Each plate will be 100% to size and register with the other.  Make screens with each and print away!


Thanks for reading!  If you want to play with these files and try them yourself here are all of the original and final versions of the files for this article.  Enjoy!

Click Here to get the files.


“A camel is a horse designed by committee.” – Alec Issigonis

“Good design doesn’t date.  Bad design does.” – Paul Rand

“Anytime you see a turtle on top of a fence post, you know he had some help.” – Alex Haley

LAB Mode Mojo


Do you use Photoshop for creating the image for t-shirts either digitally or with traditional screen-printing?  How adept are you at setting up a foundation for amazing print results with just a few simple clicks?

Many creative digital artists struggle with Photoshop because there are too many choices to adjust the image; they simply don’t know the tools or get caught in a rut when processing their files.

Like working with pizza dough, they simply overwork the image.  (Sorry, but you do not need a lens flare.  Just stop it.)

What if I told you there was some secret Photoshop magic, that’s easy to use, has only two steps and takes two minutes or less to get to amazing results?  Today you are in luck, as we are going to unleash the power of the LAB channel.

Say what?

That’s right.  The LAB channel.  It’s not a bundled cable package you get with Showtime or HBO, instead it’s a very powerful image color space in Photoshop that can save you hours of time tweaking your files for print.

You’ve bypassed this powerful tool for years I’ll bet.  Raise your hand if that’s you.  Yep, I knew it.

RGB to Start

Here’s how it works.  We are going to start with our image in RGB.  RGB stands for the Red, Green and Blue channels and is the traditional additive color space…meaning that the three color channels added together form the basis for the total color gamut.  LAB uses that same color space, but divides it up into three completely different channels: Lightness, A and B.  The Lightness channel is simply the luminosity or the greyscale, if you will, of the image.  The A and B channels are all the colors of RGB, but just divided into two color channels instead of three.  (I know, don’t hurt your brain.)

There are a few things we can do immediately that will macro improve any image and save you hours of time.  The first is tweaking with some simple curves with an Adjustment Layer, and the second is using an Unsharp Mask step.

Before we get too far into this, I want you to open a photo in Photoshop and play along.  Use one that’s a raw file and unprocessed or not improved yet.  That’s how you can learn quickly.  Learn by doing, it’s the only way.

Seriously.  Open up a file.

But first, don’t screw up a file you need.  Open something that you can use, and then make a copy of it.  Save it as “LAB Test”.  That way I won’t get any angry letters about you screwing up your client’s only photo of Sasquatch.  Yikes.

LAB Color Space

Next, convert your image to the LAB color space.  To do that, just click “Edit” on the top menu and then choose “Convert to Profile”.  From the dialog-box drop down, choose “LAB Color”.

You won’t see any immediate change to your image, but you are now poised like a ninja to strike and make some fantastic improvements.

Third, create a curves Adjustment Layer.  Just click on “Layer” from the top menu, and choose “New Adjustment Layer” on the pull-down, then “Curves”.  Click “Ok” in the box that pops up.  This step creates a new layer in the file so you can toggle back and forth and review your handiwork as you change the image.  Of course, you can skip this step and just alter your original file layer without it, but that’s like working without a safety net.  If you are feeling dangerous, or just love the History tool, then don’t worry about this step.

Now comes the fun part.  There is a drop down menu near the top of your Adjustment Layer.  Click on it and you will see three choices.  L Channel, A Channel and the B Channel.  To start, click and select the A Channel.  (If you aren’t using the Adjustment Layer just do the steps below by choosing Command M and go to “Curves”.)

The Photoshop Histogram will appear.  If you normally use this tool, it will look dramatically different than what you usually might see, as the graph will show a huge spike the middle.  That’s normal in LAB mode.  For our exercise, we are just going to adjust the endpoints of the Histogram graph.  Simply click and drag the black endpoint of the diagonal line in the graph until the Input number reads -90.  Now do the same for the white endpoint, but you want 90 instead.  Your Input numbers should be the same, but because they are on opposite ends of the graph, one will be negative and the other positive.

Don’t worry about what your image looks like at this point, because it may look a little weird as you’ve only finished half of the correction.  We’ll need to adjust the B Channel next to balance everything out.

Go back to the Adjustment Layer drop down and it currently shows the A Channel.  Click on that and select the B Channel.  Repeat the above steps for the B Channel, with -90 and 90 as the new Input numbers for black and white respectively.  Abracadabra: your ninja Photoshop magic has struck!

Now check out your results by simply toggling your Adjustment Layer on and off.  Your image should look dramatically better, similar to the right side of the photo of the tiger above.  What happened is that you’ve globally increased the color range of the image.  I always use -90/90 to start, but if your image still needs some tweaking go back and adjust your Histogram with more or less depending on the results you want and the image you have.

Once you get good at this step, you’ll find it is a great starting point for any Photoshop file you are working with.  For images that already have rich colors, you won’t see much change…but if your file is muddy it will make an incredible difference.  This works great with any image sourced from a camera phone, especially if the overall image looks gray and flat.

Unsharp Mask Zing

While you are still in LAB mode, click on the “Lightness Channel” to select it.  Then go to Filter and click “Sharpen”, then choose “Unsharp Mask”.

Because you are working in the L Channel, everything you do only affects the luminosity of the image, not the color.  Making adjustments to this layer, independently of the color, greatly affects the “pop” of the image.  For t-shirt screen or digital printers, this will become your new secret weapon.  And who doesn’t want a secret weapon?  Muhahahahaha.

The reason this matters so much is that t-shirts are essentially printed billboards.  Viewers only have a few moments to get the full impact of what they are seeing as nobody is just standing around waiting for you to view their shirt image.  Adding a little zing to the image can boost its appeal to the viewer.  This effect works wonders with textures, tiny details and patterns.

Check out the Tiger in the picture for this post.  What gives the fur and whiskers the extra dimension is this Unsharp Mask step.  Compare the left and right side of the tiger photo.  That’s about thirty seconds of effort, maybe less.  I probably did it a little too much, but I was trying to make a point.  It’s what got you to read the article, right?

In the Unsharp Mask filter, there are three sliders you can adjust.  “Amount”, “Radius” and “Threshold”.  For “Amount”, the more you slide the selection the right, the more intense you will alter your file.  The “Radius” selection simply grabs and combines the pixels in an area, so the more you slide the selection to the right, the bigger image grab you’ll get.  “Threshold” works a little differently, as the more you slide to the right, the more greyscale levels you are selecting at one time…so the effect is minimized as you slide.

The only way to learn what happens is to just play with each until you are satisfied with the cumulative effect of your choices.  What will happen is that the bright white and deep black parts of the image will increase in intensity the more you use the sliders.  For textures such as hair, woodgrain, feathers, corrosion, crinkles, crevices, and any highlight or deep shadowed areas will suddenly bounce in the image.  Remember, this doesn’t affect the color.  Be careful though, like adding salt to a recipe you can go too far and ruin the result.  Unless of course, that’s the craziness you want.  You rebel you.

Once you are satisfied with the results, click “Ok”.  This Unsharp Mask step can save you hours of time by not having to use the Dodge and Burn tools at all in your image.  Just be sure to revert back to RGB mode and continue your separations or work for production.

When you get the hang of these two steps, you can easily adjust any image in two minutes or less and tremendously improve how they will perform for printing.  Another great thing with this process is that the file has been changed on a macro level, but with details intensified on a micro scale.  All without selecting any area, using any other tools, or any wasted time.

Open.  Convert.  Color Change.  Unsharp Mask.  Convert Back.  Save.  Done.  Creative Hero.

Don’t take my word for it though…try it!

Here are some examples of different types of photos.  All of these were processed using the same settings and steps as the Tiger photo, including the Unsharp Mask step so you can compare how it affects the photos differently.  All of these photos had about two minutes of effort at best correcting them.

Think about how you could use this technique in your image development!


Example One: Filets in Skillet.  I took this shot from my camera phone while camping.  Yes, they were wrapped in bacon.  Because, you know…bacon.  Which one would you eat?    Vegetarians need not answer.  BTW, these were delicious.


Example Two: Motorcycle Engine.  Another camera phone shot.  The Unsharp Mask brings out the detail in the engine parts, and gives the metal some better dimension.  Notice how the red paint on the left, that was bright to start with, even looks better.


Example Three: Printing Set-Up.  Looks like your shop, right?  The colors intensify, but the Unsharp Mask is just a little too much.  Notice the halo around the black knob.  I’d dial that back a bit.  This makes the chrome pop though.  Remember, this was all done on a global level without zeroing in on any one part of the image.


Example Four: Proportional Scale.  Hey, what is that?  Old guys like me used to use this to determine the correct percentage to enlarge or decrease an art object before computers as nobody likes to do math.  Especially me.  For this photo the color improved, but the Unsharp Mask was too much for the type details.  Yes, you can go too far…and the results on the right prove it.  However, check out how the woodgrain and scratches in my wood work table look more interesting now.


Example Five: Ship’s Wheel.  I bought this stock photo online for a t-shirt design project recently.  It improved the results, don’t you think?  All I need now is a cool breeze and a rum drink with an umbrella.


Your Baby is Ugly

Ugly Baby

That’s right I said it.  Bring the hate.

And by baby, I don’t mean your offspring.  I mean your t-shirt design, embroidery idea or product plan for your new apparel line.  Whew.  Are you sure you are going with that?

This is something that nobody is going to tell you.  Especially your apparel decorator.

Why you ask?

Well, basically they just want to produce the order and get the business.  Even if it is only for that one time when you order.  Because you know.  Your baby is ugly.  There won’t be a reorder…they just can somehow tell; but they are just too polite to tell you.

The standard mantra long used in this industry is “We don’t have to wear it.”

They might hint at the ugly baby a little bit.  If you hear something that sounds like, “Have we told you what a great art department we have?”  That’s a nudge in the right direction.  Not that you are listening.

Confirmation Bias

So what’s going on here?  Why are you so convinced that your baby is pretty?

In technical terms your problem could be what’s called “Confirmation Bias”.  Have you ever heard this before?  This is when you get so invested into your idea that you don’t really go out of your way to find out the real truth about it.

Read these below and see if applies to your case:

Limited discussions with only people that you think will agree with you.  When you showed your business plan or line of shirt designs to your Mom and she said, “That’s nice.”, that counted as confirmation bias.  You never bothered to get a contrarian point of view.  So now you are stuck with a garage full of t-shirts that nobody wants.  Not even your mother.

Market survey questions that are designed to only agree with your viewpoint.  When you ask, “Which of these designs is better?”, you are failing to ask if either are any good to begin with.  That’s the instance when both babies are ugly.  Ewww.

Writing off people that don’t agree with your ideas as haters or idiots.  This is extremely common in online forums or groups.  There is a really shaky line between being a troll and just being honest.  Which is probably why a lot of people just don’t choose to comment.  Worse, is they sanitize what they really feel to just be polite.  Experience has shown them that if they wrote what their honest opinion may be, they will get labeled as a hater or idiot.  Who wants that?  Better to play it safe and just serve up a big bowl of vanilla.  Enjoy!

In a subjective discussion all viewpoints matter and should be respected.  Online though, it is the wild west and people post all kinds of stuff.  It is trustworthy though?  That’s the big question.

You should start with asking people that can give you a critical critique without fear of repercussion.  Maybe that isn’t in an online setting.  Be prepared and have a thick skin.  It’s not a personal attack on your soul if someone wants to change the typestyle or make that thing blue.  Lighten up.  This is what you want, right?  Honest feedback?

Maybe ask a few questions that elicit more helpful answers:

“What’s wrong with this design?”

“What’s the one thing that you would make you NOT buy this shirt?”

“What would you change to make this better?”

“Does this fit in with our brand?”

Ask a good number of people independently of each other.  Take good notes.  Pay attention.  Don’t argue.  Make the necessary changes if you can.

Supportive Bias

Want some more vocabulary thrown at you on the ugly baby idea?  Let’s talk about “Supportive Bias”.

Supportive bias is about defending your idea to the death because you already spent sooooo much time developing it.  This happens constantly with creative artists when they present an idea to a client and the client hates it.

They then spend a insane amount of energy either trying to convince the client that the baby is pretty, or they close a door somewhere and throw a profanity laced fit about how stupid the client may be.  Either way it is a waste of time, because the client still wants a pretty baby.

That art isn’t going to redesign itself.

If your design idea doesn’t work, the amount of time spent on it is irrelevant.  Don’t get caught up in that trap.  You have to let go.  Make the changes needed, but reassess how you arrived at your creative concept to begin with.

Pretty Baby Creative Origins

So how do you get to the point where the design will win a pretty baby contest, and you can high five everyone you know?

First, be honest with yourself.

Do you really have the skills for designing?  Should you be doing the work in the first place?  If the client wants a particular style, but that’s really not your cup of tea, then it could be a long, painful road ahead.

Sure, your idea might be sound, but your execution of it just won’t be so great.  Trust me, it is perfectly ok to bring in someone with talent.  And by talent I mean a real professional.  Not your neighbor’s kid next door that just finished an art class.  Does “good enough” ever work?

If you had to have open heart surgery, you wouldn’t trust the operation to someone that just happened to have a set of steak knives in a drawer, would you?  Why trust your creative idea to some hack either?  If your apparel decorator doesn’t have an art staff, there are plenty of wonderfully talented freelancers out there.  Get.  Some.  Help.

So let’s say that you do have the talent, or you have your creative ringer all lined up.  What’s next?

Get your idea down the old fashioned way.  Research.  Some thumbnails for layout.  Hammer down the exact specifications for the job.  Don’t invest a ton of hours into building the design file until you have nailed exactly what you want to do.

Everything matters.  You’ll need the shirt style and color before you start designing as this can affect your choices creatively.

For example, using the garment color in the design to help modulate ink color hue on the shirt is a great strategy for printing for a long list of reasons.  If the shirt color hasn’t been decided, that could affect design choices made when building the art.  Another example would be to be judicious in your shirt style selection; using a burn out t-shirt for an embroidery applique or high density gel print job wouldn’t be the wisest choice.  The decoration will just be too heavy.

If you don’t know what shirt style and color you’ll be using, all of your efforts in the design phase could be wasted because you may be making the wrong choices without knowing it.  Ugly baby trap ahead.

Making the Baby

To me, the best designs always start out with a rough sketch or a quick thumbnail.  This is a lost art.  Personally I like to doodle mine on small Post-It-Notes as they are cheap and disposable.  Each little square is perfect for scratching out an idea.  Nope, that sucks…do another.  You can grind down a dozen very quickly.  Once you find one you like, it’s easy to just stick it to the edge of your monitor for reference and then start the work building your file.

If you have a picky client shoot them the thumbnail and ask “Hey, is this what you have in mind?”  When they say no, you’ve just invested about three minutes into the concept.  But now, you can have an in-depth conversation with the customer about what it will take to make that baby pretty.  If your choices aren’t what they are looking for, get them to describe it differently.

Getting some critical thinking early into the process can mold your creativity into some better channels and push you into the right direction faster.

There isn’t an idea button on the keyboard, although many designers these days search for one continually.  Great ideas start off with sound concepts.  Buildings are built with a good foundation, and design works the same way.  It is harder work that takes more creative skill, but in the long run better because you are developing your own creative vocabulary and style.  Copying someone else’s style and taste does nothing to support your own.

Loaded Baby Diapers

Another great trick to use in the prep stage is to ask what shouldn’t be included in the design.  This is an incredible time saving trick, and in keeping with our baby theme these are the loaded baby diapers.  Nobody wants them, and you have to change them immediately.  They just stink.  Use your client’s answers to direct your energy the right way.

“I want a dragon, but not a fire-breathing dragon.”

“The St. Paddy’s day shirt should include a shamrock, but not a leprechaun.”

“For the fishing tournament shirt, we just want the fish jumping out of the water.  No fishermen or boats please.”

Can you imagine your frustration if you spent hours creating that fire from the dragon, a leprechaun that doesn’t look like it jumped out of a cereal box, or all that incredible detail in the guy in the fishing boat catching the fish?

It doesn’t matter how good it looks if you have to erase it.  In the end if you hear “That looks awesome, but not what I wanted.”, that’s the ugly baby’s crap-filled diaper.

You’ll need to change it.

You can’t blame anyone but yourself.  Asking the right questions and doing the legwork on what’s needed for the design puts you in a winning position as you have eliminated a few possible missteps.

Baby Beautification Fee

Recently someone told me about some trouble getting some design work handled.  The artist kept submitting designs to the client and they hated them.  Ugly baby.  Revision after revision was presented.  Still ugly.

But now, the artist’s supportive bias kicks in.  They say that the designs were fine.  If more changes are needed, they are going to need to be paid more money as they have spent a lot of time on the project already.

The problem with this situation is that the artist wasn’t listening and executing what the client requested.  That’s the reason for the changes.  A death grip on an ugly baby doesn’t lead to a positive outcome.

In the end, they just went to another designer.  This one listened.  That baby wasn’t ugly.

So, here’s the question…when faced with this same scenario should you be charging to make the baby prettier?  How many changes do you allow until you think they are excessive?

In my opinion, you don’t charge for revisions.  It’s your job when you take on the project to deliver a pretty baby to the customer.  Having robust and exact directions on what they want should be the first place you start.  This is often called the “discovery” phase of the project.

When the customer gives you the “do something cool” instructions (why does that always happen?), it’s critical for you to drag out what exactly will meet their expectations.  Because what the customer thinks is cool, is often vastly different than what the artist considers cool.  Nobody is equipped with telepathic powers, so this has to be a dialog.  Get these instructions written down, and have everyone agree to them in advance of creating the art.

This holds true when you are your own design customer too.  Don’t just pull something out of thin air.  Jot down some guidelines to use when you are developing your idea and have these based on research and facts about the user demographic.

Sound decisions, good information, a solid concept for a foundation, some creative sparkle and hard work all add up to pretty baby DNA.  All you have to do now is birth the baby.



The Hairy Gorilla Arm Theory


Do you have super nit-picky art customers?  You know, the ones that are never satisfied with any graphic you develop for them?  If you don’t, you are either extremely lucky or a big fat liar.  So I don’t call the readers of my blog liars, we’ll go with lucky.  I wish I was lucky.

So how do you currently control these divas, besides the obvious tactic?  Revision.  After revision.  After revision.  After yet another revision.   Is there a design strategy that you can employ to get your client through the approval stage faster?


Let me introduce you to the famous “Hairy Gorilla Arm Theory” of graphic design.  The idea here is that some people just want to be in control.  Regardless of how fantastic your design looks, they MUST CHANGE SOMETHING OR THEIR SOUL WILL SHRINK FIVE SIZES.  If they don’t get to stir the pot, they aren’t happy.  (uh, is this you?)   Make this bigger, change that color.  Whatever.  They have to change something.  You know who I’m talking about right?  These are usually the people that didn’t clearly communicate the basic instructions, but instead gave you those awesomely inspiring marching orders, “Do something cool”!

That’s my favorite by the way.

Here’s the theory.  Picture in your mind a fabulous looking tropical scene.  White sandy beaches.  Sunset.  The sky is a aflame with a glorious palette of yellows, purples and reds.  Waves lapping up on the shore.  It’s an incredible sight.  Postcard perfect.  Except for that big, black, and fantastically hairy gorilla arm that’s waving out from the side of the photo.  Hello!  If you just remove that this will be the perfect shot.  Bingo.

That’s what you want.  Give your client the obvious hairy gorilla arm to remove and they will pick it every time.  That control freak needs attention and here’s a softball they can hit a homerun with on the first pitch.  Boom.  It’s now approved and you can go about your day.  If they just need to change something to exorcise their control demon why not make it easy for them.

Of course, like any real life gorilla there are some dangers involved.  First, they might like the obvious thing you threw in there to remove and want to change something else.  Be careful.  Or worse, they think you are a nut-case for suggesting that the graphic would work with such an obvious problem in the middle of the design.  “Hey buddy, do you know what you are doing?  Maybe I need to get someone else to design this…”

You can’t just unleash the gorilla on just anyone either.  It has to be reserved for that hyper-picky client.  The one you are already dreading as you know it’s going to be a week long tennis match of changes.

The graphic you design behind the gorilla arm has to be perfect too.  Make sure that it kicks butt.  Just add something that doesn’t belong at the end so that it obviously sticks out.  “Hey, what’s that doing there?  Remove that and it will be ok” is what you are going after.

In the last few decades of designing for folks I’ve used this trick a few times with complete success.  Did I use it on you?  I’ll never tell…but if you never approve the design initially and always want more revisions…you may have high fived King Kong.

The Hairy Gorilla Arm.  Hitchhiking on the on-ramp of graphic designer autobahns everywhere.

Finding Your Creative Voice

Marshall Atkinson Watercolor - Dad & Jack

Think about your own creative work.  Maybe you aren’t that talented (let’s be honest here) and don’t really know what to do to be creative, but you are carving out a living as a graphic artist.  Are you constantly copying other people’s work and style because you lack the confidence or skill to develop your own? Maybe you are talented, but you haven’t found your distinctive style yet.   Don’t think you are alone, but I want to explain what a Creative Voice is and how to develop it.  Stay with me, this is about making you better.

Over the years I’ve taught drawing workshops to people interested in learning to draw and the hardest thing anyone can do is to start.  That’s right, start.  That white sheet of paper is scary.  It is intimidating.  That white template in Illustrator or Photoshop is just as scary too.  Not because of their lack of desire to create, but because in the back of their mind their inner voice says “Nobody will like it” or “You are not good enough” or “You can’t do that, someone will laugh” or “You are going to get fired.”  Do you listen to that voice?  A lot of people do.  Nobody thinks they are good enough, so they never even attempt it.  Or they fake it by constantly copying somebody else’s work or style.

Maybe you just need to retrain your thinking.  Instead of cringing at the thought of starting a design task with the idea that you aren’t good enough, push that aside and refocus it into just being playful.  Think like a five year old.  Just go.  Whatever comes out is what you do.  When you stop worrying about what other people will think about it, you will focus instead on pleasing yourself.  You’ll make yourself happy.  Isn’t that always the most basic of human truths?  Happiness?

Will you make a creative mistake?  Most certainly.  What you start won’t come out like you intended.  Every time.  This is where you learn.  Revel in your mistakes.  Participate in the journey.   Any small choice we make that does or doesn’t work out is where the real magic happens.  You just have to get out of your own way and be willing to make mistakes.  Do this often enough and you will start to develop your own personal creative vocabulary and style.  You will start doing one thing over another.  Your personal creative vocabulary will grow and blossom.  This is the creative muscle that you develop.  How far you push this and how you develop yourself are up to you.  It’s going to require effort.  And guess what?   You can’t listen to any other voices.

So, currently is your work unrecognizable in the chaos?  Want to stand out a head and shoulders above everyone else?  Below is a baker’s dozen of different creative minds that took risks, developed their style and are worldly recognized for their creative voices.  Do they have detractors and people that don’t like their work?  Certainly.  Maybe you are one of them.  However, instead of buckling down under criticism or scrutiny they kept plugging away.  Every day.  Maybe you can find some inspiration with this group.  Be sure to click on the blue hyperlinks to view their bio or work.  Also, just so you know all of these people are creative heroes for me personally and I’ve taking inspiration from them one way or another in my life.  Want to add to this article?  List your personal heroes in the comments section!

Raymond Loewy – with a career spanning seven decades, he has been called the “Father of Industrial Design”.  Sadly, few people even know who he is, but he was responsible for some of the biggest graphic and industrial design successes of the last century.  He designed the Shell, Exxon, US Post Office and BP logos.  He also famously designed Coca-Cola vending machines, appliances, buses, railroad engines and automobiles.  His bold style still influences others and you can see remnants of his work all around you every single day.

Pablo Picasso – as one of the greatest and most influential artists of the 20th century, he is known for co-founding the Cubist movement, the invention of constructed sculpture, the co-invention of collage, and for the wide variety of styles that he helped develop and explore.  This iconoclastic artist created every day and pushed the conventions of “what is art”?  Looking through his work you can see his mind churning and developing ideas to arrive at his personal creative truth.  I always loved the fact that he was always working.

Winslow Homer – a personal favorite.  More so for the watercolors than his oil paintings, but for me his use of light, arrangement and a sense of impending drama in a good number of his pieces are what always stands out for me.  Homer initially made his living as a commercial artist, painting and drawing scenes of the Civil War for Harper’s Weekly.  Can you imagine the deadline of painting a picture from a battlefield?  One of my favorite things to do in his work is to “find the diagonal” in his pieces as he loved to set up directional compositions to push the narrative of the image.  For Homer, composition was everything and I admire his constant use of asymmetrical balance.

Normal Rockwell – another illustrator that outshined his original involvement with his commissions for the magazines, his work breathes still today.  Commercially successful as an illustrator since he was sixteen, he famously produced work for Boy’s Life, The Saturday Evening Post, and Look magazines.  Want to learn to put emotion and context in your work?  Rockwell is the first place to start looking on how to achieve that goal.  While there are plenty of successful commercial illustrators during his time, no other stands above his work and is so lovingly remembered or cherished.  Style, grace, humanity, and above all humor were the emotional engines of his creative voice.  Every painting tells a complete story.

Frank Gehry – the famous deconstructionist architect who had the cajones to wrap his existing Dutch Colonial style 1920’s bungalow home in corrugated metal, plywood and chain link fencing, gets my nod for taking no prisoners when it comes to following your own creative voice.  Imagine the local homeowner’s association meeting after that was installed.  Gehry’s work famously explores use of material, form and pushes the boundaries of architectural language and conventions.  Think about your creative work.  Are you as brave and bold as Gehry?

Milton Glaser – I don’t think anyone has come close to having the impact in graphic design as Milton Glaser.  His “I Love NY” design is said to be the most widely copied graphic ever, and I believe it.  Simplicity is hard.  It’s easy to throw a lot of elements into an image, much harder to reduce everything down to the basic concepts and still convey your message.  But how do you do that and still have a distinctive style that’s unique to you?  Glaser nails it.  In your own work, how are you in just using a few elements to set up your design?  You can learn a lot from this guy.

Buckminster Fuller – how do you describe genius?  Fuller described himself as a “Comprehensive Anticipatory Design Scientist”.  Most famous for his creation of the geodesic dome (think that big ball at Disney’s Epcot), he spent his life designing strategies to help mankind.  His work just didn’t focus on architecture, but instead was in developing systematic approaches to conquering the world’s problems.  What impact are you leaving behind you in your work?

Andy Warhol – love him or hate him, you can’t deny the legacy that Warhol left on the design world.  From his famous screen-prints of Marilyn Monroe to his legendary Rolling Stones Sticky Fingers album cover that was produced complete with a functional zipper on the pants.  VH1 named it the number one greatest album cover of all time.  Warhol’s was a master in dreaming up the concepts and letting his studio – The Factory, produce the work.  Warhol’s real genius was creating the aura and marketing of his fame to push his work further than it possibly could stand on its own.  He was the king at social selling, and success by association.  He is a pop culture superhero.

Jonathan Ive – you probably can successfully argue that Apple’s rise can’t be completely attributed to Steve Jobs, because without Ive’s design sensibility, taste and desire for perfect craftsmanship Apple wouldn’t be where they are today.  I used those old beige clunky Macs a long time ago before he teamed up with Jobs.  Still an Apple fan today.  Want to know his design philosophy?  Click here – it isn’t for the faint of heart or timid.

Michelangelo Buonarrotti – my number one personal art hero and favorite.  All that guy wanted to do was sculpt, but he kept taking commissions from the church to do paintings and architectural design.  It’s not like you can turn down the Pope.  His paintings all have a sculptural quality for me, and you can tell that he’s thinking of that while he’s painting.  So are you doing one thing, but secretly burning to be doing something else?  Do you still push yourself to excellence in both?

Georgia O’Keefe – not being sexist, but she’s the only woman on my list; but a more powerful member I can’t think to add.  O’Keefe to me is all about precision, and her use of negative space is unparalleled in the art world.  I love the tension and the drama that her work sets up so beautifully with how she creates shapes from flower petals or other natural elements and reduces them down to simplistic elegance.  Another great source of inspiration is how she pushes an object to the edge of the canvas border, but always leaves a small space.  The big to little, sharp to round, dark to light juxtaposition is truly inspirational in my own work.  She is the epitome of exactness.  How is yours?

Salvador Dali – we all think of Dali as the master surrealist painter, but I have to be honest here…my favorite piece of work of his is the fact that he designed the logo for Chupa Chups lollipops.  Well ok, you are right.  His paintings are masterpieces too.  During the introduction I wrote about being playful and pushing your ideas to wherever they may go.  Dali is a great example of how letting your imagination free and coupling that with your creative voice, can set you up for greatness.

Chuck Close – unless you are an art geek like me, you may not be familiar with Close; but you should be.  His gigantic portraits all push the limits of photo-realism, but are in fact made up of millions of fingerprints, felt stamp marks, chunks of paper or pencil and ink strokes.  If you’ve ever viewed these in person, you can’t help but walk away at the genius.  But what if he listened to someone who said that you needed a brush be able to create like a “real” painter?  You can’t just use your thumb or some other device.  Doing it your way; and then mastering your technique is the take-away here.  What crazy idea do you have in the back of your mind that you are too timid to try?

That’s a baker’s dozen of some of the top creative minds to ever design or create something.  (If you don’t recognize all the names, that’s OK there won’t be a test)  Why are these people so famous?  Because they went against the grain, took a risk and moved their work using their own creative voice.  Each has their own unique style, creative vocabulary and has made an impact on others to follow.  You probably know of others.

But what if they just went along with what other people thought was safe or chose to do what was expected?  Would their talent shine through as it has for all these years?  Maybe, maybe not…

So, is your work unrecognizable in the chaos?  Do you stand out a head and shoulder above everyone else?  Are you working on your personal design aesthetic and vocabulary?  Have you defined your voice yet?

You deserve to make yourself happy.  Just do what pleases you.  The rest will follow.

The One Color T-shirt: Fashion Dinosaur?

One Color Over Hoodie Zipper - Marhsall Atkinson

A client’s graphic designer was in the office the other day wanting to know the latest tips and tricks for inks that they could use to present to their sales team.  My response was a good natured joke, “Hey, how about a one color black left chest on a white shirt.  It’s all the rage!” I was just kidding, but everything doesn’t have to be a ten color simulated process job, or use some funky specialty ink to be “different”…  Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was right – less is more.

You know the drill.  We’ll print anything they pay us for.  Most designers want to constantly cram exceedingly more colors onto their t-shirts, as if that will make their designs better somehow.  If we installed a fifty color press, the next day a designer would want to print a forty-eight color shirt.  Sometimes though, simpler can be better.  It’s probably harder to actually use fewer colors, so think of it as a unique challenge.  Especially when you combine print location, ink color, design and print skills into the mix…  Check these out below and think about how you could incorporate them into your oeuvre.

Vintage – Printing on any heather color shirt in any location, you can channel your inner design time-machine and print a translucent white, gray or other color.  Always looks great on garment dyed too.  Base down your ink color with curable reducer until it has the transparency you are happy with and print through a higher mesh screen.  Even with regular plastisol, there will be virtually zero hand on the shirt.  A based down white looks fantastic.  This is how that chalkboard effect is achieved. This should be the core staple of t-shirt designers everywhere that get handed the angst ridden sales team request at 3:45 in the afternoon, “come up with four great designs by tomorrow that will sell, I need them for a  sales presentation”.  Insert the “Property of” design here.  Click.

Combine this faded glory look with a striking print position such as in the corner of a hoodie pocket, upper shoulder of a long sleeve, inside the box created by the stitching of a sewn neck label, down on the lower left hem, or maybe even at the end of a long sleeve cuff.  Throw in a designed distressed texture for good measure.

Spinal Tap – With this technique, “the numbers all go to eleven”… Take a word or phrase with a good character count and print it right down the middle of the back.  It’s going to look like a stripe, but that’s the intent.  As the viewer is always used to seeing things right side up and centered for visibility, turning it 90 degrees and having it travel down the spine is a bold move.  Really set it off by choosing a high contrast ink color, or maybe even some reflective ink.  Whatever you choose, it will look great and stand out from the crowd, as people aren’t used to seeing this on a shirt.  Double ironical points if you choose yellow.  Unless you are scared.

Shoulder Seam – Print on a sport-shirt next to the shoulder seam on the upper left chest or upper left back.  The trick is to get as close to the seam as possible.  Just use your sleeve platen, and load the shirt so the seam hangs off.  Print away.  Printing this as a one color means you are adding more value to the simple print, as this is a difficult print position to pull off.  This looks great for sports or adventure brands, as it’s not the norm.  Try it on sportshirts, warm-ups or jackets.

Side Print – Does everything have to be a full front or full back?  What if the print was on the side of the t-shirt?  This super trendy look is easy to accomplish on-press, as you just load the shirt sideways, with the sleeve centered and hanging off the top of the platen.  Some t-shirts may have a seam, so check for that and take that into consideration when designing.  Printing over the seam is easy, but you have to take care or the ink will puddle up near the seam sometimes and look misprinted.  Base down your ink slightly, use higher mesh with good tension, and watch your squeegee pressure.  Distressed textures in the design can camouflage any problems printing the seam too.

Bottom Hem – I’m seeing more of this location lately, and for good reason, it looks great.  There used to be an unwritten rule that all images on the front of the shirt had to be up around the chest as people would tuck in their shirts in their pants.  That rule died I don’t know how many years ago, as I don’t think anyone wears a t-shirt tucked in their pants.  Do you?  What’s interesting about a bottom hem print is that it is still on the front, but it isn’t at the top of the shirt where people are used to seeing images.  Go either side, the effect is the same.  Rock and Roll.

Cuff Print – On long-sleeve t-shirts or fleece, printing down on the cuff is a classy location.  You can do either sleeve, but I see the left sleeve print chosen more often.  Probably because that’s where most people wear their watch (sorry lefties!) so the print would be seen more often.  This is great for text or a simple logo, and really adds some zip to the shirt as the imprint will get a lot of notice as people use their hands constantly.

Top of the Hoodie Hood – That’s fun to say out loud.  Try it!  One great imprint location is the top of the hood on a hoodie.  Most people wear their hoodies with the hood part hanging off the back, not up around their head like a monk.  You can print this either way, so it looks correct when worn on the head so you can read it when the wearer is facing you; or “upside down” so when the hood drapes off the back you can see it when the wearer is standing in front of you.  The latter is more common.  This is hard to print, as the garment will really hang down from your platen.  Make sure your press arms are clean, and you can just wrap the shirt around the arm a bit so the garment doesn’t drag as it makes its way around the press.

Background for Embroidery – Try some mixed media next time.  Print a one color texture or pattern onto the shirt, and then embroider an image on top of the print.  This is a great retail idea, and is really easy to pull of production-wise as it doesn’t take much extra effort to add some serious value to the garment.  Make sure that the print somehow relates to the embroidered image though.  For registration purposes, add a cross centered where you want the embroidery needle to start sewing so you have perfect registration.

Tie-Dye Swirl – Use the shirt pattern created with a tie-dye to give the garment a lot of interest, color and texture but keep the print simple and clean with just a one color.  All the color and focus doesn’t have to be in the printed image!  Use the garment to your advantage and see how you can link the garment pattern to your design more effectively.  Yo dude, you can do it.

Jumbo Screen Pattern or Texture – Here’s another idea that is fairly easy to print.  Just create an all over pattern that is larger than the t-shirt you are using.  Burn it on a jumbo screen and print it as a single color onto the front and back of a stack of t-shirts.  Use discharge ink, thinned ink, tonal, even glow in the dark.  Get creatively crazy with your ideas and turn an ordinary t-shirt into something special in just a few minutes.  Now use that as the basis to print your normal designs on.  Sure, it’s a two-step challenge…but it’s one that will pay off handsomely when you want to differentiate yourself from the rest of the t-shirt hoard as nobody else is going to go to that trouble.  You aren’t afraid of a little extra work are you?

So there you have it.  Nine ideas to get you started.  I’d love to see your take on any of these so feel free to post a link to your website or Pinterest page showing how you solve the one color challenge.  I regularly post random shots of awesomeness on our page, so if you’d like to see what we’re up to just click here.

Decisiveness in Design – 8 Points That Will Turn You into a Creative Jedi-Master

Embroidery Close-Up - Marshall Atkinson

There isn’t an easy way to calculate the thousands of designs I’ve seen produced over the years.  It is mind boggling to even think about it.  I’ve worked with some of the best and a few of the worst designers out there.  Some images were so fantastic, even I wanted a shirt, and that’s saying something.  On the other end of the spectrum, some were so incredibly poorly designed, I questioned if the file wasn’t some sort of practical joke or these days designed on Fiverr.  “Uh, are you sure you want to print this?”   Lame.

Like in any profession, the cream always rises to the top.  Think you have what it takes to be considered a top designer in the apparel decorating world?  Think again.  Climbing the ladder in any profession takes dedication, skill and a willingness to work with an open mind and learn.  Are you learning every day?  Here are some things that I’ve picked up over the years or noticed from the good and the bad alike.  Maybe you could apply them to your craft.

Decisiveness.   You can always tell the confidence level of an artist.  Are they making a bold move?  Bam!  You can tell right off if something is awesome.  Don’t offer up any half-hearted weak crap.  Go for the gold.  This trait is lost amongst the trash you can see produced these days.   Go to just about any retail store or online website.  Everyone is copying someone else’s idea, theme, or style, and the lack of originality is over-whelming.  And so boring.  Want to be considered a design Jedi-master?  Be yourself.  Find your creative voice.  Do something unique to you.  Get that goofy idea in the back of your head out and into the world.  Trust me; the world doesn’t need your take on the “Keep Calm” meme.  You can do better.

Regulate the Crayon Box.  Thinking back to all of the great designs I’ve seen produced, I can truly tell you that the best ones weren’t more than five colors.  In fact, some of the best designs ever produced were really only one or two.  Just because you have 54 crayons in the box, doesn’t mean you need to use all of them.  Often, simpler is better.  It’s also less costly to produce.  Sure, throwing an extra color or two in there may make your design “pop” more on the shirt.  But is it really needed? Most of the time, five more certainly isn’t.   Would a halftone of one of the existing colors work just as well?  For embroidery, could you change the stitch direction or choice and get a better effect?

Great designers also understand that in a production environment, the decisions they make on their computer workstations also translate to time on the production floor.  For a commercial shop, time is always going to equal money.  Great decorated apparel designers know this and make smart decisions with their craft.  Think about that the next time you are handing in that twelve color pile of craziness to get printed.  For one hundred pieces…  Really?

Image Quality.  Even with different styles, great designers all have a feel of craftsmanship with their work.  Elements in their designs are exact, and on purpose.  Image decisions are made to support other elements.  Lettering is kerned to perfection.  The image has great balance, tonal range, flow and use of whitespace.  Sometimes even how the designer has used the shirt ground color in the design has been maximized, as they know that this can be used for better effect.  One of the great things about working with fantastic designers is that after a bit you start to notice their overall creative vocabulary that they put into their work.  How they build their file and creative decisions they are making add up to their image looking a certain way, regardless of what the subject matter may be.  Once others can pick yours out from a line up, you know you’ve arrived.  If you spend your time copying other people’s designs that won’t ever happen to you, as you aren’t building your skills.  There is a big difference between someone who writes songs and someone that can only play Guitar Hero.  Do something harder and develop your creative muscles.

Software Technique Matters.  Sure, you can convert your fonts to outlines.  (You always remember that, right?)  However, do you know how a quick Unsharp Mask can make a screen-printed Photoshop file really pop when separated? Ever have your black not print on your separations because you have it on the registration layer for some reason?  What happens if you don’t check and leave Overprint on?  Do you know how to choke down the underbase plate so less white peaks out underneath your colors in your print?  Can you change the digitizing for your embroidery file so it can work on a dri-fit polo without puckering?  What’s the difference between sewing a flat panel cap and a five panel cap?  There are hundreds of art based tips and tricks that you can do to make your file craftsmanship better.  The point here is to make sure you use them.  I’m always amazed at the sometimes poorly built art files that are sent in by “professionals” that should know better.  Just this past week we’ve had files sent in supposedly ready to go that were missing key verbiage on a file, had Pantone colors misidentified, or the art was the wrong physical size as it was smaller than the sample we had to match.  It pays to double check for quality.  It’s all about the craftsmanship and professionalism.  If you don’t know, ask!

Imagine the Design on a Shirt.  When you begin creating your art, usually the software starts off with a big rectangle as the image area.  This just simulates a piece of paper really.  I wish that the programs would make this optional.  Apparel isn’t a rectangle.  It’s fabric.  It moves with the person wearing it.  It looks different on men and women.  Different fabrics produce different results in production as 100% cotton is handled differently than a 100% polyester dri-fit shirt.

Images that really work great are the ones that take into consideration the garment into the design.  It’s part of the thought process from the beginning stages.  Can you use the shirt ground color as part of the negative space?  How will printing over or near the seam affect the image?  Where do you place a full front image on a V-neck t-shirt?  What happens to an image when you print it on a women’s t-shirt across the chest?  (Results may vary)

Don’t just design something and throw it on a stock t-shirt template…take more into consideration.  Printing or embroidering is a mechanical process.  The garment will influence how your design is produced.  Great designers take that into account and adjust for it, or better yet, use that to their advantage.  Have you ever given that a second thought?

Who is Wearing It?  Are you designing for a bunch of motorcycle driving, bearded dudes or a yoga class full of neighborhood moms?  What design choices would you make that are different for each?  What would be the same?  Can you even design for both?  I’ve seen some very talented people struggle with pushing out concepts for groups they don’t understand.  How do you get into a mindset so you can comprehend what that market might enjoy wearing?  Research.  If you customer doesn’t hand you the answer, the quickest way is just to go online.  Find a website or two, maybe even some Pinterest images and take notes.  Don’t steal anyone’s designs, but think about the design choices that are popular.  Color, texture, style, form, font choices…really anything and everything you see.  Filter that information through your design aesthetic and push out something unique in your creative voice.  Be yourself, but point the creative direction towards success with the intended group that will wear the apparel.

Ink or Thread Selection.  True professionals know what they are choosing usually for their work.  If you have some funky idea for a design that uses a specialty ink, metallic thread, or non-standard production process, do yourself a favor and talk to the shop before designing the file.  They will give you some tips on how to create the file so it is easier to print or sew, and also how much extra that idea is going to cost to produce.  Don’t get sticker shock when that little foil extra you want around that object in the design is going to blow your budget.  Maybe using metallic gold will work just as well.

Also have an actual Pantone book or thread chart with you when you are choosing colors for your files.  If you are just choosing them from your computer, the final results may look different in person.  If your customer doesn’t know what a Pantone color means, educate them.  You are the expert, right?  Take the opportunity to show them the professional way that people in the graphic printing world communicate regarding color.  We don’t just say, print this in red.  PMS 186 is selected.  It is crucial that you choose these colors and have them labeled on the file before sending it in to the shop.  Clearly communicate your expectations regarding color.  It is foolish to leave it to someone else’s decision.

Don’t Be a Jerk.  At the end of the process you still have to get your creation produced.  This means interacting with a print or embroidery shop.  Everyone comprehends perfection and the need to get things handled a certain way.  However, nobody is going to understand the need to constantly tweak and revise the file because you don’t like how it is coming out.  Apparel decorating shops don’t handle Diva behavior well.

Having to adjust your file during or after a sample is being produced just says to the team running the job that you aren’t exactly competent with your skills.  If you see something that you don’t like and realize you need a change, please don’t act like an ass to the production staff.  That isn’t going to win you any points.  Especially if what’s changing rests squarely on your head.  Instead, try some humor and a professional outlook on the situation.  We’re all after the same goal, happy customers.  We’ve made changes before, but realize that any change you make is wasting valuable production time.

PMS 485 is the Color of the Devil – and other funky stuff

Boxing Up an Order - Marshall Atkinson

Pantone 485 Red has to be the most hated color ever invented.  If you don’t know why, then you haven’t been in the decorated apparel business for long.  For me, easily a half-dozen “printing problems” a year caused by this color are due to the fact that when the customer gets the final product they think the red is too “orange”.  100% of the time the client says “It should be redder”.  There always is a big hoohah about the order, but in the end when we show that the color we printed matches the PMS book, there’s nothing left but hurt feelings.  You can win the debate over the color, but still lose.  I hate it. There should be a warning sticker or something that accompanies any order that uses PMS 485.  It could be a classic Jedi mind trick, (imagine me waving my hand) “this isn’t the red you are looking for”.

So if this red is so unintendedly awful, what other problems are lurking around that we need to watch out for in our industry?  Let’s take a look:

Be More Specific About Color.  Speaking of Pantone colors, I was at a dinner at this past ISS Long Beach show and a colleague was describing a story where his shop printed an order for several hundred black shirts with gold ink.  They sent out some amazing looking metallic gold prints.  Every one of them bright, shiny and perfect.  It was a rush order, and they nailed the delivery too.  I’m sure you can guess the punchline here, as what the customer actually wanted was gold that was PMS 123, which is a yellow-gold.  It was a phone order, and they asked for “gold” ink.  How can you screw that up?  Pretty easily actually.  This slams an exclamation point down on the need to send the customer approval forms with Pantone color call outs, or at least color names, and proof the job beforehand.  Do you do this every time in your shop?

Heat Control.  What’s the quickest way to ramp up a huge dye migration problem?  Not understanding how heat affects the garment during a production run.  It’s great that you are using low bleed inks, and are spending time making sure the print is dialed in on press.  That all fails when your dryer temperature is set too high or your catcher hot stacks the shirts into one big printer-folded pile and places them in a box and tapes it shut.  Another order complete!  Next!  Your customer calls you on Friday screaming about the pink ink on the shirt where it should be white.  You argue you used the correct ink!  Not my fault you say, “It must be the ink”.  Then you scream at your ink rep and go searching for another white that can solve this problem.

Don’t get into that situation.  “Ink Don’t Think”.  Lower your dryer temperature to the correct setting for starters.   At the catcher end of the press, you want absolutely cold shirts going into the box, as the box act like an oven and will continue to bake the shirts.  The residual heat in the shirt from the drying process sometimes causes the dye molecules stay active, and this is accelerating your issue.  White ink that looked great at the end of your dryer becomes a gigantic financial crisis when your customer receives the shirts a few days later.  The problem isn’t your ink it’s how you are catching your shirts.  This is 100% training for your staff.

As the shirts come off the belt, have your catcher stack them into one of four piles on the table.  Have a fan blowing on the shirts to cool them down.  As more shirts are ready, stack them on top of the short piles.  Try to not stack hot shirts on top of each other, just place the next shirt on a new stack.  If you run out of room, transfer the newly cooled shirts to a skid on the floor with some cardboard underneath to protect the shirts from getting dirty.  Don’t box anything until you can’t feel the heat at all with your hand.  This simple test can save your butt.

Handwriting.  Ever get an order from a customer and wonder if a doctor filled out the form?  This is especially bad with sizing.  Don’t interpret 2 XL to mean 2X.  (Imagine the chicken scratch illegibility there please)  It’s always a good idea to always write out the “X”s.  Don’t write 2X, instead use XXL.  I discovered this the hard way one year trying to interpret someone’s inventory count sheet.  Doing a CSI investigation on why your totals are off and discovering it’s due to poor penmanship and assuming something about what was jotted down will teach you a good lesson regarding following up.  Sometimes a 9 can look like a 7.  Some best practices to counteract this problem are obvious.  Anything you can’t read, ask questions…and always send an order acknowledgement to the client to double check that everything was entered correctly.  You may want to include a note stating that there were some challenges reading the information provided to reinforce the need to review everything.

The “Blessings” of the Internet.  Sure, you post some great designs up on the internet where everyone can see them.  Trouble is, everyone can see them.  And by everyone, I mean the scumbags that blatantly steal designs.  If you’ve done that and you are reading this article, yes I just called you a scumbag.  Clicking “Save As” when you see an image doesn’t make you a designer.  It makes you something else.  I know it’s tempting.  You fundamentally lack talent, and talented people post great pieces all the time on the internet.  The internet can be just like cruising down an aisle in a grocery store sometimes.  A little of this, a little of that, and you pluck out whatever you happened to be looking for at the time.  Ten minutes later, you are all set!  Except the problem is that there’s someone behind that piece you just copied, and that someone worked for hours on that image.  And really, if you think about it, for years crafting their creative voice so it could sing a sweet song.  Don’t have that talent, but would like to use that image?  Here’s an idea, call the designer!  Maybe they can do something similar for you?  Maybe they could license that image?  Just don’t copy that image and then pass it off as your own.  That, I’m afraid, is very definition of being a scumbag.

Always Check the Packing Slip.  That isn’t a box of shirts.  It is a box of money.  Look at your receiving department and how they operate.  Are they counting things in properly?  Call me a cynic, but I don’t trust anything on the receiving dock to be correct.  Good thing everything usually comes with a packing slip.  This isn’t just a piece of paper, it a life saver should something be off with an order.  When goods come in, count them and check against the packing slip to be sure that you have what was ordered.  Every time.  The day it comes in.  Regardless of how busy you are.  No exceptions.  For gigantic orders, this means you need to crack open each box and look inside.  Does that skid of G-2000 Royal Blue Mediums each have the right color and style in each box?  The only way to know is to look.  Whoever counts initials the bottom right corner of the slip, and then you mark the goods received into your system.  The packing slip is filed by receiving date in case there’s an issue later.  If you don’t establish what’s in the box, the same day you receive it, you are begging for problems later.  By later, I mean at the press when that order is due to ship and you discover that one box of Royal Blue Mediums actually has Forest Green shirts inside.  Whoops.

Customer Service?  Let’s face it; I am a customer service driven person.  I hate it when I see a problem in another company, especially ones that I deal with on a regular basis.  I think all companies should adopt the strategy of seeing themselves with the “voice of the customer” in mind.  What is frustrating?  Can we make ordering easier?  Is important information easy to obtain?  Are staffing levels correct, with fully trained employees ready to help?  Do they keep inventory levels accurate and well stocked so when you need something it is available?  How would you rate the customer service levels with your suppliers?  What about in your shop?

I was at a trade show last year and a friend suggested that the decorated apparel industry is run with an unmatched level of arrogance in any other field.  What he meant was that suppliers and manufacturers don’t do a good job of listening to their customers.  It’s an arms race for products nobody wants or needs, but for some major problems the questions go unanswered.  He said that everything is just pushed down to the printers or embroiderers, with very little interaction during the developmental stage for the products.  Do you agree?

Is PVC-free Ink Really Needed?  PVC, if you didn’t know, stands for polyvinyl chloride and is the third most commonly produced synthetic plastic polymer in the world, after polyethylene and polypropylene.  PVC is everywhere.  There is a wave of ink coming our way in the industry that is PVC-free and it’s all being driven by the shoe companies that also print shirts.  You know who.  I can understand the challenge on phthalates, as there is a medical reason for wanted to mitigate that issue.  Switching over from “classic” ink to another formula that resolved the phthalate issue may have been necessary, but was extremely expensive and cumbersome for our print community.  That was only a few years ago.  Now, there is a considerable amount of noise in the industry about moving to inks that are PVC-free.  What’s not being discussed though is why this is necessary.  Are we solving a problem that doesn’t really exist?  The water pipes in my house, the IV bag in the hospital, and a good portion of the plastic I interact with every day are all made from PVC.  If it is ok to drink from a cup or get medicine delivered in a hospital, why can’t it be in the ink on a t-shirt that is far more innocuous?  Maybe I’m just not educated enough on the subject, but I’d love to get that information.

Embroidery Stabilizer Update.  Last year I wrote about the effort that I’ve been putting in trying to find a way to recycle the embroidery stabilizer material that is discarded after the trimming process.  This material is also called pellon, and embroiderers all over the world are just throwing this material into the trash and it ends up in landfills everywhere.   If you missed the article, click here.  I’m still banging away at trying to find a solution, and I give samples out to people at least once a month, as different people seem to think that they may have an answer.  So far, the leading idea is to bale the material and then once enough is collected ship it to an alternative energy plant or concrete kiln to be used as fuel for energy.  This could work, but has some inherent challenges that we haven’t overcome yet.  Not to mention it isn’t cost neutral, so we would be losing money doing it.

A few years ago I read an article about an entrepreneur who wanted to start a worm farm business.  To get going, he went around and collected coffee grounds from all the coffee houses in his area.  In a short period of time he had all the basic material he needed to start his business, virtually for free.  Somebody, somewhere could use this embroidery stabilizer material like the coffee grounds to start their business.  It’s free material, available in large quantities and it is everywhere.  C’mon smart people!   Let’s find something to do with pellons.  You could be the next “worm king”.

Alternatively, could an embroidery machine be built to sew without using the stabilizer material at all?  Imagine how much time, energy and cost savings your shop would have if this step was avoided.  C’mon even smarter people!  Get your engineering brain going please!

Let’s hear from you!  What drives you crazy?  Drop a note in the comments section, or e-mail me at