So you’ve been doing web design for years and years and you’ve got a solid grasp on that. You think about a new color for your bathroom walls in hex code. You wish you could text–transform: lowercase; your partner when he or she yells at you. You like your favorite framework more than you like most of your family members. The web makes sense to you…
But then a new project comes along, and you’ve got to design a t-shirt for it, which you’ve never done before. How different can it be, putting together a shirt design as opposed to a website? Fairly different, not incredibly so, but confusingly so perhaps.
I’ve been a screen printing nerd since 2006, and a web design nerd since 1996. Let me walk you through the differences:
DPI differences – 72dpi is fine and dandy for the web, but it’s very unusable for screen printing. Simplifying it tremendously, screen printing works by putting a stencil into a fine mesh screen, then pushing ink through the screen with a squeegee. We print the design off onto a film (basically a transparency) and if the resolution of the image isn’t high, crisp and clear, the screen doesn’t come out well. You can’t have any sort of gradient in the stencil. It’s all binary, either emulsion or no emulsion. For best results with screen printing, you have to have a 300 dpi image.
Color naming differences – I’ve had a lot of people with web design backgrounds tell me to use an RGB color for printing shirts. While that can be an okay guideline, it’s not at all absolute enough to make us feel comfortable. Monitors vary in color, and so do color schemes within different formats, so trying to use a hex code to come up with a shirt print color can be too vague. We use the Pantone system, which can provide absolute colors that are universal. You can pick up a pantone book pretty cheaply on eBay. That’s where I got the one that sits on my bookshelf.
Every color is a cost – In a web logo, it doesn’t matter if there are 2 colors or 94 colors, because it’s just an image on the display. In screen printing, however, every color is its own screen. I had a client who wanted white shirts, and his design was black text but with a red period at the end. That red period was smaller than an English pea, but it required a whole different screen, and made the job more expensive because it became a two color job. The visual effect was worth the increased cost to him. For multi-color designs with screen printing, we can do process printing and simulated process so that we can create a whole lot of colors with 4 or 5 screens, but every screen adds cost to the job because it increases complication, and time required in set up, production, and breakdown.
Sizing the artwork per shirt size is expensive or impossible – A lot of people don’t realize this, but if you change the print size of the design, that’s a different set of screens and a different print run, so the cost shoots up for the project. It’s standard to have the same size for the design on small through 3XL. If you were to do a different print size of a 3 color design for every shirt size, you could end up having 18 screens for the project. That’s just not feasible. So while when I upload an image to WordPress and it automatically generates several image sizes, it’s necessary in screen printing to stick with one print size.
Putting a design on a template is great for a monitor, but that design can’t go onto a screen as is – A lot of clients send us a tshirt mockup with their design on it, which is wonderful for knowing what they want, but unfortunately that mockup can’t translate into a screen because the image itself is so small (see the “DPI differences” at the beginning of this article). Along with a tshirt mockup, make sure you keep a very high resolution file, or better yet, a vector file…
Vector is king – The web is built on raster images, which are based on individual pixels. Vector images are best for screen printing, because they are based on shapes, and are absolute and can’t be blurry, and can be enlarged indefinitely without loss of quality. Vector is absolutely best for creating screens, so whenever possible, submit your screen printing designs in vector format. On a most basic level, Adobe Photoshop is raster while Adobe Illustrator is vector. If this is confusing, don’t feel bad, for I myself was confused by vector versus raster when I first started printing shirts.
Screen resolution, IE the actual screen – I have an iPhone 5s in my pocket as I write this. The resolution on the screen is beautiful, and capable of presenting crisp text and lovely colors. When I first got my own shop, I had a Blackberry Pearl. The resolution on that screen was not as gorgeous. High-resolution phone screen versus a low-resolution phone screen. Screen printing screens have resolution too, but it’s called “mesh count” in our industry. The lower the mesh count, the more ink can pass through the holes in the mesh, but the low mesh count screen can’t hold a lot of detail. The higher the mesh count, the fine the detail, but the more likely the screen will clog with thick white ink, or glitter ink. If you’re designing a shirt with a lot of small text to be white ink on a dark shirt, choosing a sans serif font can be a lot better for quality production results than a font with a serif. That’s not something you have to worry about with web design, but with screen printing design, it can be a concern.
Pricing is based on volume and complexity – There are several ways to price web design, like hourly versus overall project versus commission, but with screen printing it’s a bit more straightforward, and it’s based on volume printed at a time versus complexity of the printing versus cost/quality of garment. 100 shirts printed on a standard nice Gildan tee with 1 color on the front only is going to be way cheaper per shirt than 24 shirts printed on American Apparel with a 3 color front and back print. This cost difference is not only due to the fact that Gildan costs less than American Apparel, but also because the printing time per shirt will be way way lower, especially considering the effort needed to set up and break down two 3 color print runs versus just a 1 color job.
I hope this clears up confusion you may have as you migrate from a web design background over into screen printing design. Any questions, let us know in the comments.
If you need shirts for a project, we’d love to discuss it. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. And don’t worry, we will help you every step of the way and keep it from getting confusing.