9 Core Skills Every Apparel Decorator Should Master


When I go to trade shows or industry networking events, I’m constantly amazed at the completely different stories from people about how they got into this industry.  It’s one of my favorite questions to ask, as it reveals so much about the other person and where they are on their journey.  Some have a business background and started their shop because of an opportunity.  Some, like me, have an art background and got involved because it gave them a paycheck to go along with using their creative skills.  At the end of the discussion though, you find that everyone lacks something and we’re all searching to fill in that gap.  Great business people aren’t really good artists.  Creative people are often not very skilled in business.  Then there’s the actual craft of learning to print or embroider.  Below, I’ve ranked the top 9 core skills that I think every shop should work towards mastering, and maybe a tip or two along the way too.  If I left something out, or you don’t like my rankings – leave a comment!!  Participation is a good thing.

  1. Communication.  That’s right; I’m not ranking “skills as a printer” or “skills as an embroiderer” number one.  Here’s why.  I asked my 9 year old son the other day why he had two ears and only one mouth.  His response was classic for him, “so you can turn your head to listen while eating a cookie”.  Almost right.  As I’m sure everyone knows the old adage is “so you can listen twice as much as you speak”.  Effective communication in your shop by your entire staff is the number one skill that you should constantly focus on developing.  This is outward, customer facing; as well as throughout your shop with your staff.  Information has been, and always will be the key to success.  Most of us (sadly including me) aren’t really listening all the time; they are just waiting for the opportunity to reply.  Communication in your shop includes how you handle everyday tasks, but also how you write an e-mail, talk on the phone, hold a meeting, and build a work order.  Obtaining all of the correct information from your customer, and then processing it effectively so that it travels through your company on the work order is imperative for everyone to do their jobs correctly. Tip: For more discussion on work order skills – read this – Blueprint for Success: Your Work Order 
  2. Skills as a Printer/Embroider.  Yep, it’s number two.  Although many will argue it should be number one, for shop success Communication has to top it, as there are so many other facets and people involved than just printing/embroidering.  Still, at number two it ranks high on the list and importance.  This is all about craftsmanship.  Probably the most wonderful thing about the decorated apparel industry is the mixture of art and science for business.  You have to do things correctly in each step along the way in order to have your final production run come out consistently perfect.  That takes a tremendous amount of effort in developing those skills.  Standardizing how your shop operates, training your staff, and developing the core production skills will be the main drivers for success.  I see all too often printers/embroiderers accepting jobs that are beyond their skill level, reaching out on the internet forums for help at the midnight hour.  Think you might have to print on a 2-ply jacket, turn a CMYK job, run a puff embroidered hat, or print over hoodie seams?  Spend some time researching, attending a trade show how-to seminar, or just mess around with it in your shop and learn how.  Take some notes.  Keep a journal or log book and record what you did, what worked, and what didn’t.  Build a recipe for success that you can come back to six months later when someone requests something out of your norm.  By then, maybe you are an expert; or at least skilled enough to know if you can do the job or not.  Keep pushing the envelope with your skills, and insist on excellence and quality on your shop floor.  Regardless of your decoration method, the key is to keep improving, training your staff, and learning!
  3. Business or Marketing Plan.  I talk or e-mail a good number of shops all over the world these days.  Some have challenges that relate to their sales.  All want more business coming in, and are looking for a magic bullet to make that happen.  The first question I ask is always “Have you written a business plan?”  Surprisingly few have.  A good business plan is a living document (it can change!!) that outlines your company, your customers and set some obtainable goals for the next three to five years.  Who are your ideal customers?  How are you going to reach them?  Who is your competition?  What are your company strengths?  Weaknesses?  The business plan aims your company in the right direction and sets the course of your actions.  Instead of shot-gunning your efforts all over the place, the business plan can help guide your efforts with better precision as you will have the direction you need to work on achieving goals you have set.  A marketing plan is similar, but outlines the communication and branding efforts for your company to achieve your established business goals.  The value in spending your time and effort in writing these plans is that they give you the tools and direction to aggressively target your core customers and bring business in, rather than passively waiting for orders to trickle into your company.  Ready, Fire, Aim usually doesn’t work.  So, if you are reading this and you haven’t written a business plan and set some goals; what are you waiting for?  Do yourself (and your company) a favor and grab a cup of coffee and get busy!!
  4. Sound Business Decisions – Pricing.  I talk to a lot of shops, and read on the forums, regarding companies taking orders that aren’t priced to be profitable jobs.  “I’ll charge less now and increase the pricing on the client later”.  Be careful of what you give away too.  Some shops give their art, screens or some other item away for free. This strategy ultimately doesn’t always work, as when you try to bump up the price they will just go elsewhere.  Instead, have a rock solid methodology on your pricing and build your stable of clients that are based on your value proposition and don’t revolve around nickel and diming you to death.  You want to be around ten years from now right?  Be competitive, but your value proposition is what will drive your success.  Tip: for a more in depth look at this discussion read this – Race to the Bottom: Pricing Wars 
  5. Training.  The bedrock of running a successful business with employees is developing your core skills with a training program.  By hiring people with great attitudes, you can develop their skills over time by giving them the opportunity to grow and learn on the job.  This makes for a happier workforce, and a stronger company.  Key tasks within your business should have at least three people that know how to do something.  This could be quoting an order, separating an art file, digitizing a logo, registering screens on press, or shipping an order, etc.  You can’t have your entire business dependent on it coming down to the fact that if “Fred” (insert your key employees name here) is sick or on vacation that job can’t be produced today.  Tribal knowledge that is centered on skills can bring your company to a standstill.  A better plan is to list the top ten or twenty things each core skill that is needed in your company.  How do you do “x”?  Take pictures or screenshots.  Build a guidebook.  Use this as the key expectations for handling tasks successfully in each of your departments.  Give employees the opportunity to learn different tasks.  Tip: for a more in depth look at cross training read this – Why Cross Training is Critical for Your Shop 
  6. Counting & Keeping Track of Inventory.  We do a lot with math every day, mostly in multiples of twelve.  In receiving and in production, make sure the quantities add up to what they are supposed to be several times along the way. (Calculators are allowed! It’s ok…).  At a minimum your receiving team should count and verify everything the same day the goods come in.  Checked against the packing slip and your internal work order, every item on the job should be accounted for before anything is staged in production.  Any challenges should be reported immediately for action by the account rep or salesperson.  In production, the goods should be verified to be 100% complete before running the job.  During production, your crews should count and check off from the work order as shirts are being produced to verify that your quantities match up.  At the end of the run, all of the numbers should add up and be consistently the same.  Misprints and defective shirts during the run should be culled out and reported on the job too.  Why insist on perfect counting?  This is an easy question to answer from a pure economic standpoint.  Just think of each shirt as dollars instead of garments.  Would you misplace a box of money?  Smaller shops look at this problem and may not comprehend why it even exists…but the larger your shop grows, the more people that touch things along the way, the larger your schedule and stress increases.  Insist on excellence along the way.
  7. Creative Artwork.  A great art team can define a shop and send huge waves of business your way.  Most of your clients are not artists, and they are going to rely on you to provide them with artwork and ideas.  You need to wow them.  Finding, obtaining, and harnessing this creative talent can be a great thing for your company.  Unfortunately, learning the skills needed to design and separate artwork for this industry can take some time to develop.  They don’t teach simulated process separations in design school; it’s all on the job training.  Your art team should reflect the market that you serve, and understand and follow design trends and techniques.  Remember, production friendly art is always a good thing.  Some shops are known for their art, and have such a unique style or perfection with their work that people will come to them to use that skill.  Want more business?  Find a great art staff and pay them well.  Can’t afford to have artists on the payroll yet?  Find a network of great freelancers to use.  Unless you are a shirt distributor, shipping blank inventory isn’t part of the business model for most companies.  You are being judged on your ability to design, separate, digitize and create the most fantastic and wonderful art you can every day.  Tip: If you are new to this industry you might want to check out this article – Creating Art for t-shirts – Common Rookie Mistakes Defined 
  8. Continuous Improvement.  One core skill to possess is the desire to get better and constantly tweak how your shop operates.  This can be a people training initiative, centering some thought on workflow efficiency, or automating a task with some new equipment.  Every project that you start, finish and master will champion your efforts to improve your business.  Highly successful shops are always learning or developing something in order to obtain a competitive edge.  Think about your shop.  How many projects do you have right now, where you are trying something out?  A new chemical, ink, emulsion, process, technique…whatever.  The journey that matters is trying to find new ways that are better or cheaper.  This is hard work.  It requires teamwork, communication, leadership and brain power.  There is a lot of failure along the way too, and that’s important as that is where the learning comes in.  It’s ok to fail.  Keep trying, and eventually you will succeed!!  Also, this is where attending a trade show, taking a class, listening to your ink sales rep, posting a question on an internet forum or group, or using a consultant to resolve a challenge, can really pay off.  Other people have traveled down the same road you are traveling now.  How did they do it?  All it takes is a question.  Are you ready for the answer?  For more information read this: How to Increase Efficiency & Maximize Workflow
  9. Sustainability.  Yep, here I go again on this topic.  Why do I always talk about sustainability, and why should it be a core skill that every shop should master?  Besides being the right thing to do for health or environmental reasons, the main reason is purely financial.  Starting your sustainability journey will be the best choice you can make today to start lowering your operating costs.  Every shop uses energy.  Every shop uses materials.  Every shop can recycle.  We are essentially manufacturers, as we have production and use commodities to make things and ship orders.  This is an easy thing to talk about, but harder in reality as it takes work, thought, time and actual leadership to complete.  Do you want to make more money at the end of the year?  A sustainability program is an effective tool to lower your operating costs.  To get started, get a committee together in your shop and brainstorm on what would be a few easy projects to score some quick touchdowns.  Get an energy audit from your local utility, start a recycling program, look to see if you can reduce some of your materials you consume, maybe even invest in new equipment that will operate more efficiently and with less cost.  Depending on your geographic area, there is grant money available or low interest loans that you can qualify for if you investigate them.  I highly recommend that you look into getting third party certified by the Sustainable Green Printing Partnership (SGP) –   Tip: for a more in depth look at sustainability read this article – Why a Sustainability Program Makes Economic Sense for Your Shop

So, did I cover everything that would make your list?  What did I miss?  Feel free to comment and let’s have a discussion!!  Want to see how I run Visual Impressions?  Check out our Pinterest board Behind the Curtain at a T-shirt Shop

Creating Art for T-shirts: Common Rookie Mistakes Defined

Because you absolutely needed another list in your life, here’s one that focuses the most prevalent errors inexperienced folks run into when designing art for t-shirts.  Someone has to do the creative work, and if that someone is you – read on!

The formula for success = 50% Shirt Style + 50% Great Design.

Let’s break those numbers down shall we?  Before you even start designing, the first step is to think about the shirt that will be printed.  This is such a crucial choice as the color, texture, thickness, weave, material, dyes and other specifics can directly impact the print production for the shirt.  How well do you know your target demographics for the t-shirt?  Understanding these specifics is probably the single most important factor in choosing the shirt.  Are they teenagers, or middle aged beer-swilling fat guys?  Big difference between them, and the shirts that they would enjoy wearing; as the teenagers would probably opt for a slimmer, lighter weight fabric with a more fashion cut, but the brew-crew would pick out a heftier, wider and more substantial shirt.  Tip: Pick the shirt first, and then review the color palette.  This saves a lot of time, as not all colors are available on all shirt styles.

Once you’ve picked out the shirt style, review the color palette and choose the hue that’s right for your project.  As a rule of thumb, the darker the shirt the more expensive it’s going to be to print.  Some colors have limited availability, so choose wisely.  Also, the most common colors to print on are White, Black, and some form of Grey.  Red, Royal, Navy are good second place choices.  If you are trying to sell the shirt, pick a commonly used color if you want to appeal to the most number of people.  If you pick another color, some people won’t buy your design just because they won’t like the shirt color, regardless of how great the design looks.  (Trust me; you’ve done this yourself – right?)

The other half of the equation will always be the design.  Regardless if you are creating this yourself, or outsourcing the artwork to someone else, keep in mind that the more complicated you make the design with adding ink colors and print locations (front, back, sleeve, etc.) the more expensive it’s going to get to produce.  A white shirt with a one color black imprint will always be cheaper than a black shirt with a four color front and eight color back.

A few points before getting started designing your t-shirt art:

  1. Contact your printer before designing anything and ask what design software they would like the files created in so they can separate the file easily.  Can you use Word or PowerPoint to create your art?  Sure, but chances are nobody can print it.  Do yourself a favor and ask this important question before you spend all that time slaving over your computer with your creative masterpiece.  Tip: The three most commonly used software platforms are Illustrator, CorelDraw & Photoshop.
  2. While you are talking to the printer you should ask for the maximum imprint dimensions – this is going to be the absolute limit you can size your artwork.  This may vary from printer to printer as they may be using different equipment.  Tip: Art that is sized with a 12” width can be used for adults and all the way down to a youth 10-12 with the same set of screens.
  3. Since you now know the shirt color and style (remember, you picked it out first!) you can now decide how many locations on the shirt require a graphic.  Remember, every time a location is printed it requires screens, ink, set up time, production time and labor.  I keep mentioning this as there are people who never seem to understand this when it comes to quoting.
  4. Think about your graphic and count up the number of colors required.  If you are printing on a dark shirt you may need an under-base for the design.  This acts as a foundation for all the other colors to print on top.  More often than not the screen uses white ink, but you can use other colors successfully.  If you need white in the design on a dark shirt, you are going to need an extra white plate too.  A common term for this is “wet white” as it’s usually the last color to print before the shirt is removed from the press and sent down the dryer.  If you add up all these colors (# of colors of the design graphic, the under-base plate, and the wet white plate) you get the total number of screens used for a print location.  This is what you are being charged for when the printer works up the quote.
  5. Besides your shirt quantity for the order, this is the number one factor used to determine your price.  Most shops charge between $20-$30 per screen.  This is why you see a multi-color graphic on one side of the shirt and a one color graphic on the other – they were simply trying to keep their costs down.  Tip: I always advise people to get the shirt quote before working up the artwork.  This allows you or your artist to understand the “rules” before designing anything, and keeps your production costs lower.
  6. What happens if I am made of money and don’t care what anything costs?  Then these rules don’t apply to you, and you should come see me…I’ll be happy to help you with your next project!

The Artwork

Ok, so now you have the cost of the shirt project nailed and you know exactly what to do.  Get out of my way, and let’s start designing!  “Wait, hold on cowboy…”  Let’s think about a few things first to make the design process go a little smoother and take a little less time.  There are a few tricks that can make this process a success.

  1. Create a bunch of thumbnail sketches before touching your computer.  These quick and messy sketches will help you work out the design elements first.  Where should the headline type go, what’s the overall shape of the background, where should you place the flaming skull of death, etc?  Tip: I like to use Post-It-Notes as a thumbnail pad, as I can scribble up a few of these quickly and then after I know the general layout just stick one to the side of my computer monitor.  This is a good reference tool and doing the actual work on the computer is just a matter of executing the construction of my idea, rather than fiddling with the overall idea itself.
  2. Sometimes reference material helps with the creative process.  I’m a big fan of collecting ideas in a notebook, doodling in a sketchbook, or even keeping a folder on your computer, with the purpose of having a well spring for ideas.  I can’t tell you how many times this activity has led to me pulling one element or another from a visual I culled from another source and turning it into an awesome design.  Sometimes the shape, a texture, a font treatment, or something will strike up an idea and I’ll start doodling up a new idea on some paper.  Tip: These days I’m using Pinterest as an easy tool to gather images that I find interesting.  Here’s a link to my “Design” board that has some great type treatments, logos, layouts, illustrations or designs: http://pinterest.com/atkinsontshirt/design/
  3. If you are designing for a client or another person, a good idea is to have a short discussion about what they would like to see in the design.  Ask them to describe the overall feel of the image, and translate it into a few words: professional, funny, playful, bold, classic, athletic, cultural, iconic, pretty, masculine, technological, etc.  This helps sort through some different design flavors that you might have and narrow down some ideas.
  4. Another great trick is to talk to them about what they DON’T want to see on the shirt.  For example, let’s say you are tasked to design a fishing tournament t-shirt.  You spend hours getting the logo just right, and your image has a great illustration of a fisherman pulling up what appears to be the nicest fish anyone has ever landed.  You show it to your client and they hate it, because it has a guy in it.  If somehow you could have pulled the detail out of the client they would like to center the graphic just on the fish and not the fisherman – then you won’t have to “go back to the drawing board” and start over when they don’t like your initial concept.


Now at this point you have a lot going for you with this design.  You have the shirt color and style, you know the maximum size for the graphic, how many ink colors you can use, and a basic thumbnail sketch of the design.  By starting your concept this way you aren’t looking for the idea button on the computer keyboard.  (Trust me, it isn’t there)  Now, all that is left is your execution of the design.  When crafting your image, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  1. Make sure everything is spelled properly.  Use your spellcheck, or maybe just your finger, to review all words, numbers, phrases, etc. in your design.  This seems obvious, but you would be surprised to see the number of misspelled words that we catch on the shop floor from outside designers.
  2. Big squares or rectangles used as background elements are the sign of a lazy designer.  This says to the world, “hey, I needed something behind my logo and I couldn’t think of what to use.  I’ll just throw a gigantic shape back there.” Just say no.
  3. Someone has to print this and someone has to wear this.  Think about both of these when crafting your image.
  4. Take the time to have some craftsmanship in your work.  Kern your fonts, use consistent outline thicknesses and elements.  Make sure design elements relate to each other well.  Quickly thrown together ideas always look sloppy and unprofessional. 
  5. Did you add in any extra elements just to jazz up the design?  I often delete them and do the “command z” & “command y” trick back and forth and see if it REALLY needs that “thing” in the design.  More often than not, it looks better without whatever it is.  Simpler designs are often better.
  6. Whitespace is your friend.  Give some breathing room to elements in the design.
  7. Not really a fontophile?  Don’t mark yourself as a newbie.  Here are some typefaces to avoid: Comic Sans, Bradley Hand, Brush Script, Papyrus, Courier, Algerian, Hobo, Mistral, Curlz MT, Kristen ITC, Vivaldi, Viner Hand ITC, & Souvenir.  Probably some more I could add too…  Do yourself a favor and just say no.
  8. Get designing already!  Don’t be afraid to fail.  If it starts heading like it’s not the masterpiece you thought it was going to be either make some changes or stop and start over.

So there you have it.  Hopefully one or two of the nuggets listed above will help you along the way on your creative journey.  If you need some help with anything – just shoot me an e-mail and let me take care of the problem for you matkinson4804@gmail.com.