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Separations in Screen Printing for Variable Data

(June 2011) posted on Tue Jun 21, 2011

Trimingham explores techniques that allow printers to satisfy different clients with the same designs.


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By Thomas Trimingham

Composite designs as variable-data prints
In many ways the composite design is the simplest type of a variable-data style to print. The way these designs are compiled and stacked on top of each other makes it a lot less important if the registration and the clarity of the drop screen vary a little. Graphics in these designs tend to be distressed—an advantage in case the final print has less-than-perfect edge quality. Many composite prints will even look cool and develop a unique style if the drop image is not completely opaque and allows the graphics underneath to show through the top overprint to a certain degree. What could be a better scenario for a name-drop shirt than this?

The hardest part of creating composite designs is to find artwork that has the proper urban feel without looking like clip art. Some of the best looking composite designs on T-shirts have a hand-crafted look to the artwork and a lot of detail, engraved textures, flourishes, or tribal elements that serve as a background for the images that will stack on top of them (Figure 6).

Though these designs may sometimes seem to be thrown together, they actually can take quite a long time in development and separation to get them to merge together well. Without delving too deeply into an art-for-art’s-sake discussion, the abstract designs need to have a visual direction and a good combination of texture, contrast, and a properly developed merging of layers to create something that looks like more than a jumbled mess. Think of it in terms of a kaleidoscope with different elements overlapping and combining to form a harmony of sorts that accentuates the shirt itself rather than a random stacking of imagery.



One method of creating personalized designs for composite imagery is to have a cutout of just the area that includes the name similar to the simple name drop. This adds a screen, but it also allows for the stacking of names onto screens so that more customers can be combined onto one screen should the layout allow it.

There is also a strong trend in composite designs for the artwork to be printed in alternative locations on the garment. This can add challenges to production, so it is a good idea to look at how the garments can be loaded and printed effectively on the press and whether the design flows off of the standard press location, it can be advantageous to print the garment for the background imagery and then come back later and personalize it with a separate print run. This can actually be the smartest way to handle some alternative location prints, particularly when the job involves a wide variation in garment sizes and the personalization has to shift position in relation to the background to look right on the shirt.

The limits as to how a creative, variable-data screen print is put together are only defined by the innovation that the art and production departments can create. These types of orders can be very attractive to new customers because they allow them to sample some of printer’s products and services without incurring the initial setup costs. The drawback to a printer is that it requires some education. One final thought is that all processes can be refined through trial and error, and the execution of variable-data printing can be practiced and made very profitable by the careful recording of each area in the marketing, art, separation, and production/fulfillment stages. Each process can be made better, more efficient, and can assist the next department in creating a whole new method of capturing new clients with a minimum amount of effort in art and separations.


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