Concept To Print
Why you should, and how you can, offer custom designs to your clients.
What an interesting year it has been so far! I don’t know about you, but my world has been rocked. Thoughts of closure, becoming a “solopreneur,” and downsizing all have been in my mind’s eye since the pandemic started. But I’m not a quitter, so I had to wake up and figure out what’s next.
Through some of my brainstorming sessions, the word “diversify” kept coming up. When the pandemic began in the US, all the projects in our pipeline dried up overnight. I had put all my proverbial eggs in one basket. Volume base, B2B, full package was my one and only source of revenue. I began to look at other businesses in our industry as a learning opportunity to see what’s worked and what hasn’t. Turns out, that was the lightbulb moment for me.
If something like this happens again and I have more revenue channels with varying labor involved, I won’t have to rely on one channel for my profits. I started having conversations with industry colleagues to discuss print on-demand, direct-to-consumer goods, consulting, PPE, and everything in between. From this, it was clear I needed to start experimenting with different revenue channels.
The more I learned, the more I saw how many people were lacking design skills. They had the funding and the loyal clients, but weren’t offering unique, custom artwork to generate more sales. And we know freelancers and outsourced design firms prove to be tough to manage at times.
Design and creative development have always been at the forefront of my merchandise philosophy. What is streamlined for me is a bottleneck for others. Because a lot of my peers gravitate to my design and specialty decoration content, I want to share my method to the creative madness through an actual project from concept to print.
I was honored to team up with Danny Gruninger of Denver Print House (denverprinthouse.com) to help bring my concept to life with the design skills of Angelo Montiel, my art director. In the following case study, I’ll show you the various stages we go through when we have the time, budget, and the right client to create original art.
Being from Denver and loving the outdoors, Danny and I wanted to give a nod to our great state in a creative way. Vintage graphics and textures is my favorite style and the one I spend the most time developing for our custom design work. From crusty thick prints to worn-in garments, faded graphics to distressed appliqué, and taffeta woven labels to the relaxed drape, everything about this look has been my favorite since I was a kid.
The other style that sparks my interest is a modern to futuristic/sporty look. From high fashion to sports, the sporty look will constantly evolve. HD inks, bold colored graphics, and message- and-icon driven designs all have the opportunity to bring a fresh look into play. (I’ll share a follow up to this design in a future article.)
Knowing Danny would help bring this to life, my creative chops were ready to start my favorite part of the custom journey. Creating a mood board!
If you’ve watched any of the webcasts I’ve been on, you know I love a good mood board. It’s my blue print and vision for a graphic. Because I’ve worked with Angelo for almost 10 years, he knows how my brain works and filters the images I put together for an apparel-worthy design.
I always start with Pinterest and pull from the boards I’m constantly adding for future inspiration. I usually pick 8 to 12 images for a particular idea, and when we design, we simplify. This is visually telling a story from your client to their audience.
Sometimes I will do a chicken scratch rendering of what I’m thinking to help with the construction even more. And yes, it’s bad. Almost childlike!
This is when I pass the baton to Angelo. We always start with a sketch because it allows us to come up with a variety of layouts and elements. It’s much easier to redo a sketch than to go straight to digital and have the client request a redesign. What a waste of time. I know sometimes we need to do a handful of finished graphics to let the client pick, but I try to go the intentional, developed-graphic approach rather than shotgun.
Sometimes we start on pencil and paper, but with the advancement of technology we typically use Procreate on the iPad Pro. The awesome thing about this is we can record the process of sketching to use for later marketing and social media content. Plus, you’re not limited to paper size. You can make the canvas as big as you want, which helps when doing logo/brand development and you need a bunch of concepts.
We used to go back and forth a lot during the sketch phase, but over the years we’ve found the first sketch is a great representation of our vision. This is when we give the sketch to the client, but for this exercise we ran the design with our decoration ideas by Danny. This was a good place for him to let me know what processes have been sparking his interest and others that are still in R+D, but production-worthy for this purpose. With his feedback, we then moved to the digital phase.
This is a super fun part of the process, where the pros are separated from the amateurs, the experts in their craft vs the dabblers. Because one has a title of graphic designer does not give them the merit for having good design. (This is a topic for another time.)
Having created thousands of original T-shirt designs, Angelo takes the mood board and rough sketch and then travels into his memory to bring some authenticity to the design. “I’m an antiques collector and gather my inspiration from old advertisement, oil cans, and food containers,” Angelo tells me. “I was inspired to do this design by the old school sign painters. There’s a man named Chuck who paints signs by sketching his letters with chalk, then hand brushes them in the local antiques district. I could spend hours admiring his technique. I design by layers and imagine patina and old ink cracking and falling off.”
Most times, we only have one or two minor revisions, but this project was different. Speed is usually the most important factor with full custom artwork, but when given the opportunity, it’s good to go through a few iterations to make sure it’s the very best it can be.
Usually this is done after the design is completed. Most of us will make suggestions based on what the client submits if they’re looking to enhance the design. On the other hand, retail brands build the design with decoration in mind. They work backward from their target price points and determine what they can include before the design is developed.
For this project, we narrowed down the specialty inks before we started designing. Cost wasn’t the determining factor so we wanted to get as creative as possible with it. We chose to use puff, flock, and crackle ink.
This is where everything turns out exactly like you planned! … Not! While we’re pretty good at knowing how a print will turn out, sometimes it’s rockier than we could have expected. We tested on multiple Kastlfel shirt colors and fabric types to see what would look best.
We tried different flock colors and ink colors to see what would work well together. There were things we loved and elements we knew needed adjusting.
Three things we had to change from round one to round two (see the photo galleries both located below the video):
1. The line thickness of the text outline was too distressed and thin to work well with the puff ink. So, we thickened it up and made the overall design bigger.
2. There was too much texture on the crackle ink for it to have a good cracked look. So, we made most of those areas solid to let the ink have more area to crack.
3. The tonal dark design in the back was too covered up, so we moved it to the upper corner of the design and offset it so it was viable and created more depth. We also picked a Pantone color to get the look
After we adjusted the artwork, Danny worked his magic with separations and did another round of prints. It turned out much better, even though the puff ink came out a little weird on this round. It almost gives a faux chain stitch look.
While we didn’t go to mass production for this design, a vital step in the process is making sure things are replicable and profitable. I usually don’t go too in-depth on the technical side of screen printing, but I do know things have to be production friendly to make sense.
Do I think utilizing specialty inks and unique techniques makes for a better T-shirt? Yes! But just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Not all inks or techniques work for every design. Even when the design calls for a specialty ink, that doesn’t mean it will work perfectly in production. Perhaps we should have limited this shirt to two specialty inks instead of three.
My call to action for you is to think outside of the box. Go deeper than just slapping a logo on a shirt. While specialty ink does increase costs, it’s nominal compared to the perceived value by the end wearer. Not to
mention, your customer can sell it for more. It’s time to bring more value to our clients, which means going above and beyond just taking orders. Be creative and show them you are the expert.
Thanks to Denver Print house and Kastlfel for donating their time and resources to make this article possible, and to Angelo Montiel for designing, filming, and press check.
Watch Jeremy and Danny discuss the design and print process for the Denver shirts.