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Knowledge That Will Impress a Client when Designing for Apparel

Published on October 25th, 2012 | by Alexander Singleton

Apparel Design is probably one of the coolest things we get the chance to do as designers. It’s a very rare occurrence that a clients comes to you and wants a boring t-shirt design, More than likely they’ll give you a very rough idea and then tell you to make it “crazy” or “awesome“, which as a designer is crazy awesome to hear. There is a certain gratitude too that comes from apparel design, as you know that somebody out there will like your design enough to physically wear it on their body all day long, and even after it becomes tattered and baggy they’ll wear it all night long as pyjamas. I like the idea of that.

So it really goes without saying that we want to be getting as many awesome apparel jobs in as we can, and to help achieve that you need to prove to the potential clients out there that you know your stuff. As in any industry, showing that you have a deep and practical knowledge of your field gains you a lot of kudos from clients who quickly assume that by knowing so much about said industry you have a decent set of experience and skills in it too.   Throw all of that together and you have the makings of a tasty trust pie, and clients will be flocking to hire your intelligent ass.

Apparel offers up more of a chance to show off your smarts, as a lot of this information will be new to clients

Now, like I said, needing a good knowledge base is true in any aspect of design work, but a lot of clients assume that apparel printing is the same as printing onto paper or card, so in some ways apparel offers up more of a chance to show off your smarts, as a lot of this information will be new to clients. By presenting that knowledge to the client you’ll quickly loose that persona as “the guy we’re hiring to draw the pictures” and become an invaluable resource ushering them through this unknown land of apparel design. So here it is, a brief overview of the print and manufacture process of apparel design, drink it in.

The Design

So the first thing you’re going to need is a sweet design. There’s really no point in showing off everything you know about the manufacture side of apparel design, if your actual design looks like crap. Now I can’t really help you with that, sorry. What I can do though is offer up a few guidelines that you need to stick to in order to make sure your design comes out well.

The first thing you need to think about is colour, or more importantly how many colours you’re using. Screen Printing (more on that in a moment) is still the most common form of apparel printing out there and that requires a whole print run for every single colour you use. Obvioulsy therefore, the more colours you use, the more it’s going to cost, so keep that in mind and rememeber that you can use the colour of the actual t-shirt in your desing too.

It looked ridiculous and I had to work for free to adapt the design to fit the print process

The other thing you need to know about is size. Time was, when so long as you stuck within an A3 template, everything was cool, but huge prints have become really popular and the industry standard isn’t quite so standard any more. So make sure you know what sizes your printers can print upto. I remember I did an awesome t-shirt design for an MMA gym when I was first starting out, it was huge and wrapped round the back of the t-shirt. The client loved it and I just assumed that a t-shirt printers would be able to handle it. They couldn’t. The design came back tiny and in the middle of the t-shirt. It looked ridiculous and I had to work for free to adapt the design to fit the print process. Obviously I felt like a fool, and now I always always check with the printers first.

The Apparel

What you’re printing on matters too you know. Printers often have ‘stock t-shirts’ that they use as standard and they’re often horrible. You know what I’m talking about. Those nasty shapeless t-shirts you get when you go on a stag do, or on a team building weekend. They feel horrible, don’t fit and are just plain shitty. If the end goal is to sell this apparel then people need to want to wear it. Even when the design is awesome, if when they try it on it doesn’t fit or feels cheap, they won’t grit their teeth and buy it, they’ll just say “that’s a shame” and put it back. As apparel design guru Jeff Finley says, choosing the right blank “is as much a part of your brand as your designs”.

There are loads of decent brands out there that sell fitted awesome blank t-shirts. Sure they’re a little more expensive, but a t-shirt that costs a little extra is still more appealing to a customer than a t-shirt that feels like a bin bag filled with crocodile skin.

The Print

This is the meat and potatoes of what you need to know about apparel. Now I’ll cover a few of the most popular methods here, but if you really want to go deep into apparel printing, then check out this article from Jeff Finely on the GoMediaZine.

As I said before the most common print process out there for apparel is Screen Printing. Now chances are, that if you took an art class in school you may have used this method at some point. The idea is that you push your inks through a mesh stencil (or sceen) onto whatever you want the design to be on. However, you can only do one ink at a time and you need a new screen for every colour you want to use, so the process can get pretty expensive for complex designs.


There are some really nice little indie print stores that do this by hand (which is a nice credential to have when selling your apparel), but more and more it’s becoming an automated process.

Another process that you still see cropping up is Vinyl Printing. Everyone has one of these t-shirts somewhere with the big plasticy print on the front which starts to crack and peel after a few washes. As you can probably tell, I’m not a fan of these, but some people out there are. Because the design is printed before it’s applied to your apparel it means that it can be much more complex and contain a lot more colours.

Whilst this is still quite a new print method, it’s showing real promise and may well end up as the standard method of print in a few years time

The newest method of printing is DTG (Direct to Garment). These are basically huge printers that treat your apparel like paper, feeding them through and spitting them out. Because there are no screens to be made or anything like that , you can just get one off’s made up and smaller batches become much more affordable (that’s why sites like Redbubble use this process). The print quality is usually very good and there isn’t a limit to colours or anything like that. Whilst this is still quite a new print method, it’s showing real promise and may well end up as the standard method of print in a few years time.

The Extras

These are all the little bits that give a design a bit of oomph. Clients don’t often ask for this kind of stuff, because they don’t really know it’s an option. Run these by them and they’ll be like kids in a sweet shop.

The most commonly used addition to apparel print is embroidery. Basically just a bit of raised stitching. It can add a nice texture and depth to a design, it’s really not just reserved for the polo shirts any more.

A cheap way of adding a little extra texture to your design is Puff Additive. It’s not something I’ve used personally, but it doesn’t cost a tonne to implement and is suppose to give the print a very slightly raised feel, so it just pops a bit off the t-shirt.

I suppose I better mention Rhinestones, but ughhh… I don’t even want to get into that

Depending on the market you want to appeal to, foil print is a funky option. This is where you have sections of the design in a bright shiny metallic foil. In my opinion this is getting really dated and makes me think of shows like, The Only Way is Essex or Jersey Shore, although every now and again I see a really cool designer use it in a an interesting way and I’m back on board.

Whilst we’re on the subject of things I’m not too keen on I suppose I better mention Rhinestones, but ughhh… I don’t even want to get into that. You can use Rhinestones if you really, really want.

So hopefully now you’ve got a good chunk of apparel knowledge sitting in the recesses of your brain, ready to lunge on and dazzle any unsuspecting client. Before I wrap this up, I just want to give another shout out to Jeff Finley from Go Media, I know I’ve already mentioned him a couple of times in this article, but I think it’s only fair to do so again, as I’ve pretty much learnt the majority of what I know about the apparel industry through his articles and his book; Threads Not Dead. If you’re seriously considering moving into the apparel industry big time then you need more than this article can offer as there is LOADS more to learn, so I really cannot more highly recommend Threads Not Dead. If you only read one thing about apparel design, it needs to be this.

If you have any questions about the stuff I’ve mentioned here, then feel free to hit me up in the comments below.

Photo Credit to tiltedplane

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About the Author

is owner of Hunting Town Design, a small design house based in Manchester UK specialising in Graphic Design and Illustration. Alex is also the founder and editor of The Design Range. Find out more about Alex on his website or follow him on twitter.



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    Alexander SingletonWelcome to the Design Range – your online resource for tips and advice on how to get the most out of your design business and increase your design salary. My name is Alex Singleton and I own the Hunting Town design house. The Design Range is a place for me to talk about all the things I’ve learnt about the graphic design industry and hopefully provide some helpful advice to anyone else walking the same path.

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