Our Community Comic "Gunbaby" is and always will be open for submissions. Any submissions received will run on the site front page on Sundays.

User Submission: T-Shirts Part 1

Started by Rob, February 03, 2010, 01:30:27 PM

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Today's article is brought to us by Joe Cook known as Cebronix on the site. Joe is the artist/creator of Shattered Myth. Joe also works in a print shop doing things like making T-Shirts for a living (amongst other things I'm sure). So we're lucky to have someone with his experience sharing with us. This is part one of a series.

T-Shirt sales are an important part of the current webcomic business model. For some webcomics shirt sales make up their earliest and best selling merchandise. Some of us swear by them, for others, it's more about promotion than profit. However, most will agree that the difficult part is the design of the shirt, followed closely by the task of prepping the design for print. The focus here will not be the Design portion. You've all heard the general "rules" for designing shirts that sell. The focus for this article  will be on designing a shirt that won't have the printer crying foul, charging you extra and end up looking so far from your original concept that you basically threw money down the crapper. This article also focuses on screen printing.

Step one:your design of course, but keep a few things in mind from the get-go: Vector!. No live fonts. Keep it simple. Bolder is better. Build at actual size.

Vector graphics are REQUIRED by most printing companies. Unless your design has a photo or some really complex gradients and shadows (No! Bad webcomicker, bad!), then you have no reason to submit raster images (.jpeg, .gif, .ping and so on although .tif and .eps are more common for printshops). "Live Tracing" a raster image is also bad (unless it's one or two colors) as the results can often produce lots of garbage. If possible, you should always just start your design in a vector program. Adobe Illustrator, Freehand, or Corel Draw are the three used most often but there are cheaper alternatives. If it's something you NEED photoshop or raster imaging for, maybe you should re-think your design. Shirts are like signs. They are not held in the hand to read one line at a time from a reading distance. They are seen in quick bursts, often from a distance away. You need to get the readers attention fast, and you need to get your point across clearly. Sorry, I said we wouldn't discuss design rules. But the technology demands a certain level of simplicity and it turns out that's actually a good thing.  Anyway, Vector is the way to go.

This has to do with screen printing basics. Screen printing is done with print plates. One color is printed at a time (usually). Those colors are stacked on top of one another, either directly or "punched out" with trapping. "Punched out" is a term meaning the printer has "punched out" an image (on a print plate) on the print plate behind it so the colors from both are hitting the material.

The trick though is to make sure your image is trapped. That means that there is a very, very small overlap between the colors. This is done to ensure that the two colors meet and there is no "dead" or unprinted shirt material showing through the image.

Think of the colors as layers. When the bottom layer/color is visible inside the other colors, those upper layers must have holes punched in them to reveal the color below. As long as the color on the bottom is dried properly there should be no change in color or mixing when the next layers are applied. Even with the small amount of trapping (usually 1/8 inch or less).

When you are designing your shirt you should only use spot colors. A spot color is a specific color from a color library. Like Pantone Coated or Pantone Uncoated. All those libraries of color are available inside photoshop or illustrator. If you use a spot color, the printer will try and match it exactly. If it's not a spot color, then it's a mix of Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black. the four process colors. They're called that because you can make almost any color from those four colors. The problem is, it's easy to get the mix wrong. printers separate your design based on the colors you use. One layer, Pantone 301C, one Layer Pantone 567. So using an image mixed from CMYK can sometimes be a bit risky.

In photoshop and illustrator if you hit the fly-out menu in the swatches pallet and then choose "open swatch library", then browse to "color books" you can often find the spot colors you're looking for. It's best to use pantone solid coated for most print shops.    

Some shirt shops have their own color charts they want you to use so check with your printer.
There's also an ass kicking app called Art Directors Toolkit that does color conversions across web standards, color books and RGB values that can be really helpful in your search for just the right spot color.

It's not free but it is fairly cheap. It gives you equivalents like "this pantone color is closest to this CMYK value."  So if you build your file in CMYK but your printer askes for pantone, you can plug the CMYK values in and it will tell you which pantone to specify. Like, "I built it with a CMYK mix for the Red, but I want you to use Pantone 199". Etc.

Each spot color you specify in the design is output as a color plate. Those plates determine where the ink is applied to the shirt (or transfer). In vector based image programs, you can specify each and every spot color used and output color separations based on them. Keep in mind that white counts as a color and in your file, you need to create a new spot color to represent white in the output. Same goes for clear. Clear is not the same as a transparancy. Sometimes with complicated designs with thin lines a printer will add a base layer of clear pantone to give the remaining color applications more strength. If you feel your design needs this you should make sure the clear portions are assigned a spot color in the design just like any other color.

The opposite of spot color separations is called process separations. When you send in raster images, your choices are to pay to have the in house graphics department re-create the artwork in vector or use some kind of process separation. This is when the design is output to four different CMYK plates. You only print in four colors, Cyan, Magenta, Yellow & Black, but you print them in varying intensities and tones. This process is very different from spot color separation as you lose some of your control over colors. Shadows and highlights are translated into dot patterns which interweave and generally weaken the intensity of your design. Some print companies offer a service called simulated process, which gets you closer to the quality of spot color separation printing, even on complicated designs.

You should limit the colors in your design to no more then 4 in most cases. You can print more than 4 colors of course but it starts to get real expensive, real fast and you often need to make special arrangements with the printer.

Bolder is better. Besides making your design stand out, you also need to make sure it will hold up. Print screens are exactly what they sound like. Very fine Mesh that ink is pushed through to create the print. Depending on the dot pattern and the number of lines in the screen (similar to DPI) you want the ink to pool back together once it gets to the other side and sets up on the shirt or transfer. The minimum line width you want, vector or bitmap is about 2 pts (although it may vary from printing service to printing service so you should ask whoever you are planing to have print your shirts). If your line is smaller than that or you have details that run together in complicated ways, when the ink is transferred, it may not survive the process of applying the next color. And if it does, it may not survive the simple process of folding the shirt for shipping! Your lines and areas of any one given color need to be strong enough to support each other, helping to adhere to the surface.

Whether you build the file in vector or in raster (No!) you should always build at the actual print size, which usually maxes out at 12" x 12" or so (again check with your individual printer). If using raster, make sure you build the file around 200 DPI for best results. You only need 200 DPI because the threads of a garment are essentially, a low resolution canvas. Build the file at 200 DPI! Don't build the file at 96 DPI  and then just change your DPI to 200 later. That's called re-sampling and it's a bad idea. You do not get a true 200 DPI image that way.

Let's recap with some bullet points on File Prep, in no particular order.
    1. Vector graphics are generally required. (unless you want to pay extra)
    2. Artwork must be submitted at actual size of finished product.
    3. All fonts must be converted to outlines/paths.
    4. All spot colors should be specifically identified. A white and/or clear backing must be included as a color choice if they are necessary.
    5. It's good form to include a .jpg file showing exactly how you want the finished product to look, including placement and labeling of each spot color.

Here are some images with captions to give you a better understanding of the screen printing process.

The print press.

as you can see, the heat transfer is printed face down and the last color to go on is a white backer. Usually needed if there are dot patterns

First color is applied (because it's printed Mirror image, Black is the first color applied because it will be the Top layer of the design) - Ink is pushed through the screen ONLY where the openings in the screen appear.

The second color is applied after the Black has dried.

Finished design after printing (sample print on paper)

An example of Film Positives. Each of these represents an ink color. These are used to create the pattern in the screen for the ink to pass through. the top image is two colors stacked and registered.

An example of Dot Pattern. To get weaker tones, shadows, and a visual mix of colors, you can see certain parts of the image break apart into dot patterns.

Finished Print on sample shirt. You can still see the dot patterns, shading and mixing but it's like a low res image. Get 3 feet back and it looks perfect.

In part Two, we will discuss the differences between "Print-On-Demand", "Fulfillment Centers", and bulk print orders as well as a quick primer in the difference between (and benefits of) Direct Print vs Heat Transfers and Die Cut Thermo Prints.

Discuss this article and ask questions here.


Wow, good timing. I literally just finished working on two designs I wanted to turn into t-shirts, and I had some questions. Mainly, it's the "1-color, 2-color, 3-color, 4-color" thing I see on several t-shirt printing sites. Does "3-color" literally mean 3 colors total, or is it referring to an RGB mix? Same with 4-color and CMYK. And does grayscale count as individual colors? One design I have is black and gray, with a tiny splash of yellow, but I don't know if that counts as 1 color, or 3 color (black, gray, yellow?)

Sorry if these are stupid questions, but I can't seem to get a straight answer from googling them.


Quote from: TheCow on February 03, 2010, 02:54:47 PM
Wow, good timing. I literally just finished working on two designs I wanted to turn into t-shirts, and I had some questions. Mainly, it's the "1-color, 2-color, 3-color, 4-color" thing I see on several t-shirt printing sites. Does "3-color" literally mean 3 colors total, or is it referring to an RGB mix? Same with 4-color and CMYK. And does grayscale count as individual colors? One design I have is black and gray, with a tiny splash of yellow, but I don't know if that counts as 1 color, or 3 color (black, gray, yellow?)

Sorry if these are stupid questions, but I can't seem to get a straight answer from googling them.

In general, yes, 3 colors literally means 3 colors.

Gray can be composed of little dots of black, but this only works on a white shirt and will have a specific "dotty" look. If you want solid gray, that counts as a color.

Getting back to that great article, another useful tip is that Photoshop can be used to convert from CMYK to Pantone colors. I often work in CMYK because I don't want to be limited to a certain palette.  When you have a CMYK color you like, click on the color swath on the color window. A new "color picker" window will pop up. Hit the button that says "Custom." A new window appears which allows you to find the closest match from any palette you have saved in Photoshop, including Pantone Coated and Uncoated.

Keep up the great work. That was a really nice article.


Yup. Exactly as tpiro there said. Sorry I didn't respond earlier. forgot to hit the "Notify" button this morning.


Thank you for the great article.  :D


This is a very cool (and very informative) article. Great job!



Excellent article--thanks!

Another one I'd like is "how to get people to actually buy your shirt."


Something I've noticed in Questionable Content and Overcompensating is that a lot of the characters wear t-shirts that are available in their stores. If you have a couple of shirt designs that don't depict the main cast or the comic logo then it's a good mindplant.