Feature photography credit: Dunja Von Stoddard
Even the most talented designers hit roadblocks when they’re creating screen-printed apparel, due in large part to constraints presented by the technique. The key is understanding why you’re designing the garment and what the customer is looking for, which is just as–if not more–important than having a good design.
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The Screen Printing Process
Before a design is printed it’s split up into its individual colors and burned onto screens that can range in mesh counts from 40 threads per inch to over 300 threads per inch. This variation in mesh count allows for different types of inks to pass through without blocking all of the minute holes in the screen. Shimmer inks, for example, contain suspended glitter particles and, therefore, need to be printed on a mesh count of 160 or below to allow for the particles to pass through easily.
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Because coarser screens aren’t capable of producing the same detail as fine screens, inks that need to be printed on a lower count mesh are better suited for less detailed portions of your design. Since screen printing companies don’t have the same quality capabilities, developing an open dialogue with your printer is key. Once you talk to your printer about color choices and types of ink, they’ll be able to help you tweak your designs to look as good as possible when it’s printed on your apparel.
Screen Printing Hacks to Avoid High Costs
Another hindrance that designers face is the fact that screen printing becomes more costly for every color added, meaning that most designers choose to limit themselves to about 4 colors or less. However, screen printing does have some design tricks to work around these color limitations. Your printer is able to somewhat cheat the system by working with the graphic designer to create what are called halftones. Using the color already in the design and a series of dots that can vary in width and spacing, halftones are able to change the tint and shade of the original color by letting the color of the shirt underneath show through. As such, the printer is able to overlap layers of dots to create the illusion of different colors. For example, a design with yellow and red can allow for a layered halftone to create the illusion of orange. A similar technique, called process printing, is where your design can be split into different percentages of cyan, magenta, yellow and black.The screen printing press will then work the same way your printer at home works, by combining small dots to create a full-color palate. Process printing allows the artist to create prints with a large array of colors at the price of a four-color print.
Techniques for Designing Band + Concert Apparel
When you design for a certain genre of clothing, they tend to have their own unique set of guidelines or print styles that customers have come to expect when they’re shopping for something specific. These are in no way steadfast rules; however, they tend to be good sellers because the designer has a clear idea of what they’re trying to accomplish in selling that piece of apparel. Band t-shirts or concert apparel, for example, is something that fans purchase not only as a memento of their experience, but also something they will wear around as a conversation starter with their friends. For those reasons, successful designs tend to be large, eye-catching prints that typically use the band’s album artwork that tends to become synonymous with the band itself. Band prints tend to be only a few colors to keep the price down and profit margins high. These designs will normally incorporate vibrant colors like white, orange, red, and yellow to draw the eye to the focal point of the design. Rock, metal, and alternative bands will sometimes make their design look distressed to give a rough, worn feel to their apparel reminiscent of the grunge era. Similarly, some bands will use vintage printing for a lived-in aesthetic, using just a single layer of plastisol ink to create an image that is at about 80% opacity. This technique lets a little of the fabric texture show through and results in a finish that’s soft to the touch.
How to Design for Business Apparel
On the other end of the spectrum is business apparel, which, like its rock’n’roll counterpart, has a range of considerations that the designer needs to account for. Companies buy custom apparel to create an environment for both the customer and the employee – both to foster a sense of professionalism as well as a sense of teamwork and community. Company apparel designs focus mainly on legibility and visibility, which designers can accomplish by using typefaces that are read easily from a distance and bold color combinations like gold on navy or white on black. Many of these shirts have a smaller chest print with the company logo or name, with a larger print and graphic on the back displaying more information enabling them to be identifiable in a crowd. Work shirts tend to be simple and professional to encourage frequent wear and enhance brand recognition.
Seeing your design go from a concept to a printed piece of apparel can be a journey full of trial and error, but in the end it’s a very rewarding experience. That journey can be made much simpler if your design is created with printing in mind. To make your design as print-ready as possible, a scalable vector graphic (.svg) is the recommended file type, allowing the printer to then scale it to fit a shirt or print location of any size. Working with your printer to create a design that will work best for their press and for the inks you want is also crucial, because they will then be able to guide you towards the best end product.
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Feature photography credit: Dunja Von Stoddard