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.

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.

When You Are Up To Your Ass In Alligators

There is a small sign that used to hang in my dad’s office that reads, “When you are up to your ass in alligators it’s difficult to remember that your initial objective was to drain the swamp”.  He passed away a long time ago, and I have that sign now.  I have it hanging the back wall of my laundry room and it’s usually the last thing I see before I walk into the garage and leave for work every day.  Occasionally, I’ll think about that sign on my drive to work and reflect on it as I’m thinking about my day ahead.  I’d like to share some of my thoughts about that sign:

  1. Ask the locals.  I’m sure the swamp engineer didn’t take any time to discuss the project with the people that use the swamp about what dangers or challenges would materialize if the water receded.  So if you are starting a big project at your company that is going to affect other people downstream, take a few moments and discuss your plans.  They just might tell you about the wildlife.
  2. Think about “what if”.  Before embarking on a project think about any long term consequences that could arise due to an environmental change.  Planning on switching your operating system, or the way you stage your inventory before production, or the metrics of an attendance plan?  What are you going to do with your alligators once the water starts moving?
  3. You might need some help.  When I think about that phrase I’m always struck with the mental picture of myself standing there alone with dozens of hungry gators, jaws flashing, all of them circling around me for a good angle to get the first bite.  It’s a different picture if I include a team of people though.  Sure, there are all in the same danger, but we would have a better chance of success for the change if we were working together towards that goal.
  4. Does the swamp really need draining?  Swamps actually are good things, but the idea here is that maybe there’s another solution to the challenge that doesn’t involve drastic change.
  5. Rise to the challenge.  Slay the gators.  Sometimes you just have to have the inner discipline and power through the problem.  Whether it’s just you alone, or you have a team beside you, knocking off those angry gators one by one until your mission is accomplished could be the only way out of the challenge.

I hope you found my article helpful.  I’d love to hear from you on how you “Drained the Swamp” and overcome your challenge.  By the way, I like my gator tail double battered in buttermilk and flour and deep fried.  Yummy.

Fried Gator:  2 pounds gator tail cut into chunks, salt and pepper, flour, cayenne pepper, buttermilk, 16 ounce vegetable oil, seafood cocktail sauce of choice

Directions  In a large bowl, toss the gator chunks into the buttermilk, and dredge with flour that has been seasoned with cayenne pepper, salt and pepper.  Double dredge the meat into the buttermilk and flour.  Using a large skillet, heat oil to 350 degrees and fry gator chunks until golden brown, approximately 4 to 5 minutes.

Serve hot and dip in the seafood cocktail sauce of your choice.  Wash it down with a cold beer.

Keys to Success – Building an Accurate Production Schedule

Hopefully your sales are at a point where your production schedule is crowded and full of orders to produce.  As everyone knows, it’s pretty easy to prioritize work when there are fewer jobs to sort through.  However, once the schedule is full and moving towards over-capacity that’s when any production manager will start to feel over-whelmed and liken the experience to juggling running chainsaws.  This article is written with the aim of outlining the need to link building an accurate production schedule with the understanding that every person in the company plays a role in this effort.

The basic goal in having a production schedule is to prioritize and predict when an order will hit the production floor, and the duration of that particular Work Order’s production cycle.  This information has to be shared with the customer service and sales staff, and built so that they can be trained to comprehend the schedule and make some decisions regarding accepting new orders.  There is nothing worse that the cold hard stare a production manager will give a sales rep when they hand them a newly entered rush order that “has to go” on an already booked day.  Something has to give, and it’s usually the order that’s been scheduled and sitting for two weeks.  By having the full involvement of EVERYONE in the company regarding the schedule those circumstances can be mitigated.  The age-old theory of overbooking print production that’s akin to overbooking an airplane flight, where the airline will purposely sell more tickets than they have seats and just issue a voucher for the guy that gets bumped, just doesn’t work in a production environment and leads to upset clients, stressed out staff and increased labor costs.  There is a better way.

The production schedule has to be published on a calendar and made available as a company-wide reference tool.  Whether you are using software such as Shopworks, a whiteboard, or just a big cork bulletin board with index cards that represent orders, defining your system and setting up some rules and standards that have to be followed will go a long way in keeping your schedule current.  Standardizing the work, lead times and actions that your staff must follow is the only way to getting a predictable schedule.  Tailor any standards to your work, company culture and clientele, but here are some I would suggest using:

  1. Orders from the client must be entered 100% accurately in the system, with as many notes, instructions and detailed information as possible.  Anytime someone in production has to “go upfront” to find out what the client wants to do for the order is downtime that can throw your schedule off in big chunks of time.  An extra two minutes on order entry can save twenty times that on the shop floor in downtime (with the press crews standing around wondering what to do and NOT printing).  Complete written information, a color copy of the design showing placement on the shirt, and even a previously printed sample (if available) will go a long way towards keeping your presses churning.
  2. Orders must have an accurate ship date listed.  It’s extremely common for sales and customer service to “pad” the ship date for an order, as they may have learned to distrust the production staff on when something will be ready.  This does everyone in the company a disservice, as the production staff knows this and doesn’t trust ANY dates put in the system so it’s a vicious cycle.  I would encourage your company to use the real information, as production scheduling decisions need to be based on exactly when something has to ship, and not a moving target.  This cannot be stressed enough.   If your production manager has ever asked “when does this really need to ship?” – You are not doing it right.
  3. There needs to be some sort of visual prioritization method for “important orders”.  Yes, I know all orders are equally important, but what I’m referring to are those orders that are associated with an event date, key customer, or some other reason the order is a priority.  These are the orders that will be scheduled and produced first to ensure that they are completed on time.  The visual could be a different colored paper the work order is printed on, the job name typed using bold text, or a “$” is placed in front of the client’s PO in the system so it can be searched and ranked easily.  Whatever your method, giving the production staff a visual heads up on these types of orders instantly communicates the importance and saves time.  If you have this set up well, you don’t need a special daily production meeting to communicate daily production priorities.
  4. Workflow standards.  I would suggest having a basic set of guidelines as to targeted deadlines for tasks to occur.  When these don’t happen according the standard there has to be an adjustment somewhere with the schedule and how you are organizing your production.  For example:
  5. Work Orders must be processed the same day as the PO comes in.  The day the customer wants the order delivered isn’t going to change, so if it takes a day or two for the order to be entered you are short changing your production staff.   Orders are not complete until all information is received.  Before pushing the work order out to the floor, order entry performs a quality control step to ensure the order entered is 100% accurate.
  6. As a daily task, Production Scheduling reviews the orders placed in the system the previous business day and regardless of when it ships, schedules the order to an actual production press on the day that the job has to start to completely finish production the day before the published ship date of the order.  This happens for all orders, every day.  For the production scheduler this is where understanding the capacity of the press per shift, and what types of orders are commonly printed on each press will help.  (more on that later)  The goal is to constantly focus the production schedule based on real information, and always be proactively looking out several days in advance.  This is the most important key to getting a predictable production schedule for your company – you have to schedule the job immediately and work backwards on when everything is due.
  7. Approved art is due back from the client two days before the job is set to run.  This gives the art department time to separate the file and update your system with accurate art notes regarding PMS colors, mesh counts requested, flash and cool down stations, and print order.  I recommend that a color copy showing the art and placement on a shirt is printed and placed with the Work Order documents.
  8. Receiving should have 100% of the inventory for the job, all hangtags, stickers, boxes or other items needed to produce the order, at least one day before the job is to run.  Blanks need to be verified and counted against the Work Order.  If complete, organize the complete job inventory in an area by the last digit of the Work Order for easy staging by the production team.
  9. Seps need to be ready for the screen room and screens burned on the specified mesh for each plate one day before the production run.  This ensures that the screens are ready and can be staged with the blank inventory prior to production.  Presses should never be waiting for screens to come out of the screen room.  Group the screens together on the staging rack, and use a piece of masking tape to label the screens by Work Order number and ship date.
  10. The production team’s goal is to completely print the job one day before the order has to ship (with the real ship dates).  This is an admirable goal, but as they say “production happens”, and won’t always be achieved.  That’s ok.  By working proactively to finish orders early, this also leaves room for a rush order to be produced or some other challenge that may arise.

The main ingredient in getting an accurate production schedule is communication.  The calendar should denote each day of the week, with every job being printed for each press.   Show the total number of impressions booked per day so sales reps can review to see if an order can be accepted or not, based on how much production capacity is available.  If it looks questionable, other orders can be moved around or other allowances made to accept the job.  (Including contracting the order out to another printer, keeping it in-house and working overtime, moving another order for the same client, etc.)

A big help in understanding what’s happening on the production floor is to keep a daily production log.  Think of this log as the speedometer for the shop floor.  This is an important tool to understand your print capacity in real, not vague terms.  There are three key indicators that need to be measured in print production: Set Up Time, Production Time, & Downtime.

  1. Set Up Time is the measurement of the amount of time to accurately set up the screens, prepare the job, get everything registered, or whatever is necessary for production approval prior the job.  This is measured in minutes per screen.
  2. Production Time is the measurement of when the job starts after approval until the last shirt is produced.  This is essentially “how fast” the press is moving.  This is measured in Impressions per hour.
  3. Downtime is the measurement of anything that prevents the press from printing.  This could include waiting on ink to be mixed, ripping a screen and waiting for a new one, waiting on an artist/client to approve the job, equipment failure, etc.  This is measured in hours per shift (or minutes if that’s easier for you)

The daily data gathered on this production log can be kept on a simple Excel spreadsheet and a daily average for each press determined.  This is extremely valuable information to use for your Production Schedule, as you can use this to accurately estimate blocks of time for each press for the work being scheduled based on the parameters of the order.  For example, let’s say Press one sets up at an average of 6 minutes per screen, runs at 438 impressions per hour, and have an average of a half an hour of downtime per day.  You’ve booked a 10,000 piece one location full front 6 color order.  Using your production log information you can deduce that it should take 36 minutes to set up the job, and you can expect 3,022 impressions the first day, but 3,285 impressions thereafter.  If the crews print slightly over those averages, you should expect to finish this on one press in four days.

This information can be booked on the calendar, and would show that Press 1 is booked up for four days until that job has completely finished printing.  If your front office staff is trained in understanding the calendar, any prospective new orders can be added based on the actual availability of the production capacity.  In an overbooked situation, options can be explored such as moving booked jobs on the schedule, contracting jobs out to other printers, staying late or running overtime to complete the jobs.

In conclusion, if your shop has a need for an accurate Production Schedule it’s important to point out that it’s a team effort.  This isn’t a task that the production manager is going to handle on his own.  If the art isn’t ready, the shirts aren’t in, screens aren’t burned, or there’s some confusion on the instructions on the order it will be difficult to keep to a set schedule.  Due to the complex nature of the orders in this industry (every order is a custom job), keeping the orders moving through your shop step by step and on time is always challenging.  Having a proactive, detail oriented, and “team player mentality” effort from everyone in the company will pay off large dividends with the schedule.