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Are Screen Printers Part of the Maker Movement?

After decades of outsourced, massive-scale manufacturing, a new generation of consumers is demanding products that are one-of-a-kind and homegrown.

Our special "SWOT: Changes & Challenges" issue brings industry experts together to consider strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats to screen printing. This feature highlights the maker movement as an opportunity for the industry moving forward.

It’s 9:15 a.m. and Cincinnati artist and screen printer James Billiter is rushing to set up his booth at the local CityFlea market. The monthly event will draw upwards of 6000 visitors, and Billiter will speak personally with hundreds. His booth, sandwiched between other makers whose wares range from ceramics and paintings to toys and jewelry, displays his limited-edition prints, which he sells at affordable prices from $20 to $80. Today, Billiter will haul in the equivalent of two weeks’ pay at his corporate day job as a graphic designer.

Adweek calls the maker movement “a convergence of computer hackers and traditional artisans” and platforms like City Flea “catnip for DIYers who used to toil in solitude.” Those keywords “used to” reverberate as makers garner increasing attention from big name brands like Levi’s and General Electric, whose Levi’s Makers and GE Garages initiatives promote aspiring entrepreneurs.

And what does this artisan movement have to do with screen printing? For starters, it’s a process with deeply rooted, maker-esque beginnings: It’s hands-on, creative, hard work. It offers qualities that no digital system will ever replicate.

Beyond Business
And as new print technologies eat at the signage and graphics markets, screen printers need products that meet the demands of today’s consumers.

“We’re too used to seeing things that are mass produced and things that all look the same. We’ve just gotten sick of it,” says art enthusiast Chelsie Hickey. The 23-year-old graphic design student is an avid fan of work like Billiter’s, not only for its rarity, but also out of respect for the work that the artist devotes to each print. “Somebody has to pull each of those prints, and every color is more time that you add to the process.”

It’s the word “process” that seems to capture appreciation from both customers and fellow printers. “A monkey can screen print,” says Aaron Kent, founder of the Cincinnati-based co-op DIY Printing. “But it’s about doing it well and learning the rules. You look at every screen and second guess it. Registration, time, effort, fixing colors, learning pigments – it’s about really taking the time. When someone has gone through the whole nine yards, you respect it.”

DIY Printing has been Billiter’s home base since 2012, when he completed Kent’s screen-printing class at the Art Academy of Cincinnati. Today, their relationship is as much a creative brainstorm as a business arrangement. Billiter hires Kent and his student employees to help with large-scale projects, while the co-op’s regular open studio sessions serves as a mecca of collaboration.

“You take these little nuggets from everybody,” says Billiter, pointing toward a gold metallic print on turquoise paper printed by a student that has already inspired his next project.

Kent jumps in – and his passion for the community is infectious – “It’s the reason why DIY Printing started with a co-op aspect. As an individual, you have your own creativity but it can get sort of stale. Then, you try and discuss it at Thanksgiving dinner and you’re the odd black sheep out. It’s nice to have people who are a catalyst to get you going.”

There are economic dividends, as well, although the co-op’s focus has never been on cash flow. They began printing commercially to stay afloat, and as artists like Billiter succeed, their success is recycled back into new life for DIY. “It comes back around and that allows us to pay our Art Academy students and supply jobs,” says Kent. “And then there are people who aren’t artists who have an idea of what we’re doing aside from just printing commercially, and they know their money is coming back to something.” He looks up from his pizza and smiles, pointing across the restaurant at a shirt hanging on the wall: “We printed that.”

Information Abounds
This kind of mentorship (Billiter calls Kent “the patron saint of arts in Cincinnati”) is what has allowed the maker community to grow steadily. Billiter also invites his fans to become a part of his artwork through process videos posted on social media, allowing him to connect with a large following – @billiterstudio has more than 1600 Instagram followers at this writing – while making each one feel as if the connection is personal.

“[The videos] break down the mystery of the art for other people who want to be makers and designers and artists,” Billiter says. “You think artists are just artists and it’s this unattainable end product, but there’s a lot of effort and process.”

Social media and other internet resources are also easing makers into the technical know-how that screen printing demands. Many printers, like Roger Tayfel, owner of RT Screen Designs in Willowick, Ohio, often turn to online forums as a resource.

“With the maker movement, everything is open sourced,” he says. Online, newbies and veterans alike have a wealth of resources to turn to for inspiration and instruction, from YouTube videos, podcasts, and Pinterest pages to supplier blogs. The virtual community makes it almost too easy to dispense and collect information, and it’s instilled two ideas in its members: First, that their individual voice can, and should, be heard, and second, that anything can be learned, bought, or debated with a few clicks of a button.

Makers Do It Themselves
For most makers, the drive to create is more than just a business practice to save a buck. Tayfel, who put together a homemade fluorescent exposure unit and rebuilt an ancient dryer, says he’s bored if he’s not tinkering: “The chemical makeup in your brain changes a little bit when you add the creativity and the manufacturing.”

What’s more, he believes this do-it-yourself quality will revolutionize the industry. “If you look at direct-to-garment printing, that was a maker thing. You see it all the time; somebody will come up with a hack and then the manufacturers start picking it up and making it.”

Aaron Montgomery, director of sales and marketing at Coastal Business Supplies, says the maker movement is offering “a fresh new perspective. Our industry felt like it was getting a little bit stagnant. [Makers] are going to force commercial manufacturers to rethink how they do things.”

And as makers force suppliers to pay attention, the industry has responded, with vendors springing up with priorities that ease new printers’ entry into the business. Illustrator and serigrapher Doug Ross of Santa Cruz, California, says the supply chain is simpler today than it was eight years ago when he left the graphic design industry.

“Vendors of screen-printing supplies have popped up that are much friendlier and more accessible to the maker,” he says. “They’re tailored differently, with quick shipping and simpler websites with layman’s terms.” Ross says he’s been grateful for the leg-up; the self-starter often successfully markets his portfolio to boutiques across the state without invitation or appointment.

Today’s suppliers are competing with makers content to do things their own way, as well as a booming secondhand market. Two Cincinnati-based screen printers, Lauren Wassler and Meagan Martin, are among many startup founders who purchased their first pieces of equipment on eBay.

“It was the best $200 I ever spent,” says Wassler, founder of Queen City Revolt, of her manual press. The 29-year-old designer-turned-apparel-printer won her first T-shirt designing competition for the “Just Say No” campaign when she was in the fourth grade, but she didn’t know screen printing would become her passion and source of income until just a few years ago. She stumbled upon her first design job at a screen-printing shop after college.

“I had no idea that it would lead to me starting my own business,” she says. “I was more concerned about growing up.”

Six months after leaving her day job, Wassler’s business is taking off. And while cost of entry isn’t everything, it certainly helps. Of course, so does a sense of determination and resourcefulness that led her to burn screens in the sun until she could afford to invest in an exposure unit. It’s a story echoed by many a broke entrepreneur, but Wassler’s success didn’t take long: Her Cincinnati-proud apparel has already been picked up by two local boutiques, and she is hoping to add laser-engraved leather, screen-printed scarves, and more to her repertoire.

Meagan Martin, owner of Meagan Martin Maker, also entered the screen-printing business with an eBay purchase. The ceramics and woodworking artist bought a thermal screen maker after learning about the process from a professor at art school. Before long, that little machine that many would call antiquated has brought her enough income to quit her retail and ceramicist jobs and devote her full attention to her shop.

A Flexible Process for Adventurous Minds
Luckily, screen printing lends itself to this sort of creativity – it’s a process that can be bent and molded to fit the user’s needs, and it’s why makers are flocking to the industry. “I’m never stuck to one process,” says Martin. “That’s why I chose to be a maker.” She isn’t your typical screen printer, and that’s the draw.

“There’s room for deviation,” echoes Roger Tayfel. In addition to engineering much of his own equipment, he also likes to tinker with the screen-printing process itself. He’s tried printing with natural pigments from beet juice to turmeric (which offers a very soft hand, he reports); he almost burned down his garage when experimenting with an electroluminescent print. None of his ventures have taken off – yet – but he doesn’t seem bothered by it. “When you start being more artistic in one area you start looking at everything differently,” he says. “That just does it for me.”

And most printers have found that consumers, too, crave something with intrinsic originality. Two of James Billiter’s most popular prints feature outside elements as part of the ink’s composition: “Cincy Beer City” contains drops of a different craft beer for each color, and his print of Cincinnati’s iconic Fountain Square showcases slightly thinned metallic inks – mixed with water from the fountain itself.

While Billiter admits it’s unlikely anyone can tell the difference between a beer-laden print and a “regular” one, he says “it makes people excited that [I] incorporated something that they love into the print.” There’s a new type of consumer out there, and to them, what’s behind the process matters.

Take Chelsie Hickey, for example, who originally discovered the artist’s Fountain Square print in an Instagram video. “I saw the first color come down and I got excited,” she says. “Then I saw the second color come down and it built anticipation for that third color. And [for “Cincy Beer City”], I saw James actually pouring the beer into the ink.”

Industry Reimagined
So what is it that is driving these makers to succeed almost overnight? Most people on the street will tell you they own more posters, coffee mugs, and T-shirts than they could ever want or need. So what makes products from people like Billiter, Martin, and Wassler different? Is it all about exclusivity? Billiter marks an edition number on each of his prints so that their owners can display the product’s rarity. Wassler, whose business has nearly surpassed the ability of one woman printing out of her garage, expresses discomfort with the idea of hiring help for fear that her shirts would lose their one-of-a-kind quality if she doesn’t print them herself.

Designers Mike Mancuso and Glen O’Neill decided to capitalize on this demand for inimitability when they crafted the unique business model that is the foundation for The Yetee, an online shop for screen-printed apparel, books, art, and more. (You may remember Andy MacDougall’s column, June/July 2014.) The Yetee collects designs from artists around the world and launches a new one each night at midnight; the shirt is then available for just 24 hours, with the exception of a sampling of bestsellers. A countdown at the top of the site delivers urgency, and the owners are serious – just read the FAQs: “If a shirt is not for sale on our site as a daily deal or in the Yeteemart, we can’t get you one.”

While the idea was originally successful enough to keep Mancuso up at all hours of the night in the company’s Aurora, Illinois studio, nowadays he expresses some jadedness, and worry for how new digital technologies may affect the market. “Direct-to-garment is a storm cloud on the horizon,” he says. “Nothing is special or limited anymore. I’m not sure the general consumer puts much thought into it.”

As for himself, he loves a unique, screen-printed product and the environment where it is born: “I like the shelves of mixed inks, the racks of squeegees, the safety beeping of the press, the rumble of the dryer. I design with bulky halftones just to drive home that I am screen printing my work. Screen printing is perfect for this type of job.”

So why, then, does Mancuso seem worried about the market’s future? The Yetee’s products are special and limited. What’s missing?

“Learning how to get the word out is almost as important as printing your shirts,” he says. “I think we need to communicate better to our customer that we make things.”

Because process matters. “I made this” matters. And one better? “I enjoyed making this.” Passion is why these printers keep screen printing. We asked our sources to describe the process in a single word, and they offered vocabulary that most people would use to describe their favorite hobby, not their source of income: “Fun.” “Messy.” “Physical.” “Craft.” “Meditative.” And when today’s consumers are able to see businessmen and women putting pieces of themselves into their products, they become more than products – and that carries a saleable value.

“When you go to Walmart you know you’re going to get one thing,” says Billiter, “but when you go to CityFlea you know you’re going to get this locally produced, one-of-a-kind work. You’re paying for a handmade product. And then you meet me, and I’m able to convey all this passion and the labor that goes into it.”

“It’s all about selling the story,” says Hickey. “It’s not about selling a piece of paper with ink on it. Every time I see the [Fountain Square] piece, I think about the day that I went there. All the pieces that I have are pieces that reflect an emotional connection.”

Hickey’s is a fuzzy feeling shared by a generation of consumers, and it both drives and – some would say – limits the potential of this sector. On the one hand, screen printing gives artists the opportunity for profitable and lasting self-expression, at an entry-level price point that consumers can afford to pay.

“I was a graphic designer in the ’80s,” says Doug Ross. “And I realized that everything I made was being thrown out, and that wasn’t enough. I picked screen printing because multiple editions allow me to sell to the average person.”

But on the other hand, it’s tough, maybe impossible, to create personally crafted products on a massive scale.

“It becomes slave labor after a while,” says Aaron Kent of DIY Printing’s attempts to do runs numbering more than a few hundred.

Many would turn their noses up at this and move on to something bigger and better. But makers are not lonely, spoiled hipsters squandering their parents’ money; they’re grassroots individuals profiting at a self-sustainable scale, and they’re here to stay. Rather than a small number of massively successful profiteers, they’re forming a massive number of small businesses that appeal to today’s consumers. And as author David Mitchell has pointed out, “What is any ocean but a multitude of drops?”

For more from our "SWOT: Changes & Challenges" special issue:

Editorial Insights
Screen Printing: A Technology at a CrossroadsSteve Duccilli

Strengths
Why Industrial Applications Hold Tremendous Promise for Screen Printing, Mike Young
Screen Printing: King of Textiles, Charlie Taublieb
The Future of Functional Printing, Wim Zoomer
A Partial List of Industrial Applications for Industrial Screen Printing, Wim Zoomer

Weaknesses
The Limitations of Screen Printing in the Graphic Arts, Tamas S. Frecska
Why Web-to-Print Software Matters for All Printing Businesses, Eileen Fritsch
A Sampling of Web-to-Print Software, Eileen Fritsch

Opportunities
What if Screen Didn't Exist? Andy MacDougall

Threats
Threats to Screen Printing, Inside and Out, Mark Coudray
Digital Ceramic Printing: A Logical Success, Sophie Matthews-Paul

View more from this Screen Printing issue