Quality Control – The Art of Proofing T-shirt Printing

Every job that you produce in your shop will need to undergo some basic scrutiny to determine if it’s ok to print.  After your press operator sets up the job, the next step has to be getting someone to ok the job so it’s ready to run.  This could be a member of your art staff, a floor supervisor, maybe even a salesperson or customer service rep.  It’s crucial though to have another set of eyeballs look the job over, and then sign off on job by autographing the work sheet.

A big question that has to be asked regarding this step is “are you training your staff to proof”?  What goes into this decision that the job is ok to run?  Do they know what questions to ask?  Do they have the guts to tell the press operator that something with the job isn’t right and it needs to be corrected?  Are they experienced enough with your process to know what to look for?  Here’s a quick list of the things that you need to review when proofing a job during the approval process:

  1. The Basics.  It all starts with the information on your work order and art approval form.  Press crews shouldn’t have to think.  All of the information they need to set the job up properly should be on one of these two forms.  The work order has to have the basic information regarding the job.  Shirt color, quantity & sizes, number of print locations, due date, sales rep, and any special instructions should all be on the work order page.  If your system has room for it, the work order could also contain a list with your print order, with screen colors, mesh counts and flash / cool down stations (listed in the correct print order).  The art approval form must contain dimensions for each location, colors, imprint location tips (3” down from the collar for example), job name and number, etc.  If you can, print this approval form in color, so the press crews can see a basic representation of what the design should look like.  The work order and art approval form are the key components in the proofing process, as you will use these to compare to the first strike off.  Before signing off on a job, read these forms carefully so that you comprehend exactly what should be expected with the print.
  2. Work Macro to Micro.  To get started proofing, review the shirt just in general basics and then get down to details as you proceed.  Compare the strike off with the order information.  Is the job printed on the correct shirt style and location?  Is it correctly printed on the shirt and not off-center or crooked?  Are all the colors registered to each other?  Are there any obvious problems that need to be corrected?  How is the print quality?  Smooth and nice on the shirt or are their discernible issues?
  3. Printing on junk shirts or pellons.  Lots of shops may print the first strike off on a junk shirt or a pellon.  This is a common practice; and a good one as you don’t want to ruin good blank shirts for registration test prints.  However, you should not sign off on a job by using a test print on a junk shirt or pellon ever.  There is more to the job than just color and registration, as placement and the general quality of the print on the real production run garment is critical too.  If the junk shirt or pellon looks great just say to the printer, “Can you show me one on a real shirt?”  I’ve seen jobs that look great on a test print have issues later when printed on the actual shirt for production.  Be careful!
  4. The Index Finger Rule.  I like to use my index finger and point to areas on the shirt and then on the art approval form.  This is great for reviewing spelling with verbiage, but also wonderful when comparing different elements.  I call it the “Old Librarian”, as that’s kinda what it looks like.  For proofing I have always gone into the approach that there is something wrong and I just have to find it.  It’s like a game – “find what’s wrong and win a prize!”  Carefully compare both and they should be the same.
  5. Using Measuring Devices.  There are two measuring devices that you should always use – a ruler and a Pantone book.  If the art approval form shows that the design should be 12” wide, then it needs to be 12” wide.  Close doesn’t count, as that is what your client is going to find wrong.  For color matching, it’s critical that colors are accurately mixed and printed.  It doesn’t matter what’s in the bucket, what matters is what’s printed on the shirt.  If you have problems matching color hues when printing over a white underbase, you should learn the tricks needed to match colors accurately.  (Sounds like an idea for another article!!)  Color matching is easily the number one reported problem from clients in printing, so great care should be taken to ensure that you hit the colors specified.  When reviewing for color accuracy, sometimes lighting can affect how the color looks when comparing from the t-shirt to the Pantone book.  If you are unsure, I always recommend going outside and checking out the differences in natural sunlight.  Fluorescent bulbs can give off yellow or blue casts and that can alter your perception of how the color appears.
  6. Ask for help.  When in doubt, ask for help!!  I can’t stress this enough.  If something just doesn’t look right, but you can’t decide what is the problem or maybe even how to fix it, the best thing you can do is to ask someone else’s opinion.  A few minutes spent explaining the problem could save you a lot of money, rather than just signing off on the job and moving on.
  7. Slow is fast.  You can’t rush quality.  No matter how long it takes to get the job approved and printing correctly, it’s always going to be faster than reprinting the job in a few days if you approve something that wasn’t right.  Be sure your staff is comfortable with spending the time making it right.  Press crews are often judged on the amount of work they print a day, their set up times, and other factors.  Quality printing has to be one of them.  It doesn’t matter how fast a printer you are if your print will be rejected by the client.  Slow down and do it right.
  8. Train.  For some that’s a dirty word.  Use real examples and show your staff problems so they know what to look for.  What does “out of registration” look like?  Find a print with the circle R that’s missing.  Show one with Reflex Blue over White, and how the blue will print lighter.  Use a shirt that was printed slightly crooked, or over to one side.  Trust me; over time you are going to see all of these and more.  Save them, and use your mistakes to train your staff to know what to look for in quality control, and how to manage the challenges.

Getting screens set up and registered so the job is ready to go is a skill that press operators and crews have to handle every day.  Getting their work approved so the job can be produced and the next one going is a skill too.  You have to know what to look for, questions to ask, and have some intestinal fortitude to tell someone that there’s a problem.  The more that you train and insist on excellence in your shop, the better your final product will be going out the door.

Did I leave anything out?  How do you do it in your shop?  I’d love to hear from you!!  Leave a comment or e-mail me at matkinson4804@gmail.com

10 Tips to Getting Your Design Approved Faster

As designers we’ve all been there.  You crank out design after design in a busy week, but a couple of your creations just don’t get approved by the clients quickly.  Your production team needs to get the art approved so they can do their job as those deadlines are looming.  After it’s all said and done, if you take stock in why your customer doesn’t approve the artwork immediately, or worse requests change after change, you might find that the problem lies with how you approach the design work initially.  Here are some tips that have worked for me over the years in getting design work approved faster.  (in no particular order):

  1. Truly comprehend the assignment.  If you have instructions on your work order or creative brief, read them.  If you are the one talking to the client, really listen to what they are saying.  Either way, ask good questions if something is unclear or if you have that “crazy idea” that sounds great to you, but might be going in a surprising direction from what the customer really wants.  I’m a big believer in that good design work starts with creating something that pleases you the designer first, but at the end of the day the client is the one paying for it.  To put it in a food perspective, if you go to a restaurant and order a cheeseburger and the waiter brings you cedar plank smoked salmon because the chef thought “hey, I’ll do something over the top and they’ll love it!!”, would you send it back?  There’s no harm in a discussion.  Communication is a good thing, don’t be shy.
  2. Sometimes ask what they don’t want.  This is a good tool to use when you are talking to a client and they are very indecisive or give you the dreaded “do something cool” art instruction.  Instead of wasting your time on a design direction that might ultimately fail, start the conversation by discussion things that the client doesn’t want to see on the design.  What are your limits?  The story I like to use for an illustration on this concept is a Bass Fishing Tournament t-shirt as the assignment.  The client gives you little direction, but you come up with this great graphic of a fisherman landing what appears to be a spectacular world record bass in his boat.  You spend about four hours putting it together and send it off.  It looks great and you are shocked with the client hates it.  Asking why, you come to find out that they really just wanted an illustration of the fish as the main graphic, and don’t want to show people or boats.  This is where a short conversation about what shouldn’t be included would pay off, and get you an approval out of the gate.
  3. Send them the thumbnails.  Before starting a new graphic design project, I always make a bunch of thumbnail sketches because as we all know, there isn’t an idea button on the keyboard.  I like to use Post-It-Notes as the sketch pad as I can easily discard any I don’t like, and the layout that makes the grade I can stick to the side of my computer monitor for reference.  Sometimes if I’m uncertain my idea will be liked by the client I’ll just scan in the sketch and e-mail it to the client.  These sketches only take about thirty seconds or so to doodle up, so if you can get your idea approved before you slog through the actual design construction work, the final approval will come much faster as the client will already understand the concept.
  4. Get some feedback.  The old phrase “Man supports what he helps create” is sometimes true in the design world.  If you let the client participate in the design process all along the way by having discussions, sending them the thumbnails, and keeping them in the loop, they are more apt to approve the design when you send it to them as they have been in on the process and know what’s coming.
  5. Double check everything.  Before you send your design to your client, reread the work order and compare the instructions to your design.  Everything match?  Forget anything?  If you didn’t use spell check before you converted your fonts to outlines (and why not?), make sure you review all text.  Especially phone numbers or any critical verbiage.  Make sure your Pantone colors are right, and all elements will separate and aren’t on a layer that won’t print.  (Especially true if you are using someone else’s art file initially)  Check your dimensions.  Only once you are satisfied that your design hits all the criteria points should you send it off for approval.  It’s the old carpenter rule “Measure Twice, Cut Once”.
  6. Use an Approval Form and mock up the design on a shirt.  I’ve seen a lot of different art approvals forms from shops over the years.  They all vary in style and quantity of information.  The best have all the critical information you would expect, including dimension information, PMS colors, Order & PO numbers, dates and the like.  However the one thing that I think is the best idea to put on the form is how you show location placement, with some guidelines like 3” down from the collar for a full front.  By illustrating the exact placement your customer will know what to expect; and it also gives your production crew a blueprint to use when printing the image on the shirt.  Some shops also add some deadline verbiage regarding exactly when they need the approval from the customer in order to keep their order on the production schedule so it ships on time.  This is especially needed for rush orders.
  7. Do it early.  Need your art approved so it can go into production faster?  Get it scheduled and out the door earlier!  If you need it handled by Friday, make sure you send it by Wednesday or Thursday.  Don’t put things off.
  8. Make sure you use the customer’s correct email address.  Seems simple, but you would be surprised at the number of e-mails people don’t receive because the sender typed in the address incorrectly.  If you have any text on the standard e-mail that goes out to the client, double check to see that you are spelling their name correctly too.  I get one or two e-mails a week still with my name spelled incorrectly, and it always taints the perception of quality I have for the sender.
  9. Follow up.  If it’s been a day or two since you sent the graphic out for approval and you haven’t heard back, follow up with a quick e-mail or phone call to verify that the customer received the file and everything is ok.  In your e-mail you can include a sentence or two about the importance of approving the file so the order can stay on the schedule and print on time.
  10. Do great work.  Challenge yourself to keep your designs fresh, in your creative voice and technically sound.  It is hard work keeping up and sending out killer ideas one after the other.  Sooner or later you are going to send out one that you just half-assed your way through it.  Keep your focus and keep searching for inspiration.

So there you have it!  I’m always interested in how other people maintain their creative edge and work through their problems.  Feel free to leave a comment or e-mail me directly at matkinson4804@gmail.com.  I’d love to hear from you.