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The Top 5 Art Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

Many times, mistakes that show up on press can be traced back to the very first stage of the process: the artwork.

A lot of shop owners get down on themselves when errors happen in production, forgetting that a certain amount of variability comes with the territory. Especially when you do a lot of custom screen printing, the art, job setup, and printing parameters can be different on every order you do. When no two jobs are the same, it’s not really a surprise if the artwork doesn’t come out well a certain percentage of the time and it doesn’t necessarily mean you have a problem in your art department. Sometimes, the best you can do is address the most common issues in your shop and be prepared to troubleshoot others as they come up. In a sense, your goal can be to raise your percentage of successes rather than focus on how many errors are happening.

One of the top ways to accomplish more in your art department is to look for areas that consistently cause problems. These will be different from one shop to the next, but certain issues are typically at the top of the list and chances are that at least some of the five common ones covered below are still plaguing your shop. The key to making progress in these trouble spots once you identify them is to focus on specific ways they can be avoided and develop procedures to counter the issues before they show up again.

#1 Poor Prints from Low-Resolution Originals
This is an extremely common issue. Clients continually supply artwork that was designed for the web, found on someone else’s website, or otherwise developed for internet display. Web-based art is 72 dpi at the actual screen size, and was never intended to be screen printed. When such artwork is enlarged for a full-sized shirt design, it will be pixelated as well as difficult to prep and edit.

The best and most common way to address this concern is to immediately contact the client and see if a better version of the artwork is available. Unfortunately, a lot of times the answer is no, leaving you with several choices. You can recreate the design yourself or send it out to someone with the skills to do the work, attempt to edit it, or refuse the job.

If you are savvy with computer graphic software, recreating or editing the design will give you the most options in printing the job. Providing such a service also gives you added credibility with your client. Just be aware of the time that you will need to invest to make these changes. Many shops aren’t, leading to cost estimates that can be all over the map.

Most clients get nervous paying for art time on a printing job and some will go to a competitor if you intend on recouping art fees to recreate their files. Often, it’s easier to estimate the time and then bury the cost in your quote rather than itemize it and risk sticker shock that will stall the process or possibly cancel the sale. This also applies if you are sending the artwork out to be recreated by a service. Make sure the order size and value justifies the cost of preparing the artwork so that it doesn’t have you upside down just to finish the job.

Refusing a job may sound like a terrible idea, but it can be one of the most profitable things a company can do. Setting clear boundaries for your clients and insisting on a certain profit margin will encourage your customers to value your service. It will also help to create trust and loyalty over time by avoiding situations that would cause you to bump your valued clients for last-minute “bargain” orders. Passing on jobs with too much art cost/time and not enough order value (margin on the printed goods) allows you to focus your energy on profitable work instead. That time would be better spent marketing to new customers that will pay a decent margin.

#2 Not Having a Backup Art Resource
Screen-printing businesses tend to be fiercely competitive. They’re rarely inclined to share resources, methods, and services with other shops. A byproduct of this competitive nature is that many companies become isolated and will try to solve any and all problems in house, no matter what the issues may be.

Having access to a backup art resource can be a cavalry for your business. If a client comes in with artwork needs that you can’t handle (complicated illustration work, highly detailed art, photo manipulation requirements, etc.), you may not just be passing on that order – you risk losing all future business from that client. That might actually be a good business decision for companies that are just starting out if they cannot handle new processes or highly detailed art reproduction on press. But if your company can handle the work on the production side and you’re just uncertain about working with a complicated art file, having access to an experienced artist can be an important advantage. It gives you access to the skills you need to earn and keep the business.

Having an artist or design service on reserve can also be a big advantage when considering large orders or difficult, demanding customers. With an experienced outside contractor, you can avoid the expense of hiring higher end art talent yet still land bigger jobs that might otherwise be difficult to fulfill with current staff.

The challenge is that these relationships are hard to cultivate “in the moment,” on deadline and only when you’re presented with a difficult job. Contract artists and design services work best when they have a clear understanding of the shop’s needs and a level of ongoing business. An initial order or two can help get to that point by breaking the ice and establishing a good working relationship. Look for artists in online forums, art-related websites, and even your local college programs. Try them out on non-critical jobs. Consider having them design a logo shirt for your company. This will allow youu to judge their skills, turnaround, and pricing, while giving you something you can use to market your business. It might take a few tries to find an artist or service that works well with you, but when you find one, it will be a relationship worth maintaining.

#3 Not Keeping up with the Latest Methods
Falling behind on design tools and techniques is an extremely common mistake for screen printers and their artists. In fairness, it’s not really anyone’s fault. It seems like every answer you need is right there on Google – why go to a tradeshow or take a course? There are also cost and time considerations. Who will run the shop or make money for the company while the training is going on?

These are understandable concerns, but often you don’t realize how important a new design skill is to your organization until the day you need it. A simple example is correcting a low-resolution file. If it takes your artist an hour and a half to revise such a file, that time has a direct cost to your company, and not just on that order. Also consider the artwork from other jobs that could have been improved but wasn’t due to lack of time. The speed at which you can get art to production can be a critical factor in magnifying your company’s profits, because it spreads throughout the entire production process. The more art that is approved by clients and prepped for production, the more new jobs you can accept. In many companies, the overlooked bottleneck often isn’t in production – it’s the art approval process. New skills that speed up the creation and approval of art will affect every other area of the company and bring to light other opportunities for creating even more revenue.

The simple solution is to schedule training time like it is a printing job and invest in the process with a clear expectation of what is to be achieved. Know your current processes and the times they take, and invest in continuing improvements without sacrificing quality. Training can be done through tradeshows, online courses, books, podcasts, and many other ways, but the knowledge needs to be absorbed, practiced, and then implemented consistently in order to reap the benefits.

#4 Outdated Pre-Production Checks
Many shops, especially busy ones, don’t do enough production checks on art before sending it to the screen room and then the press. Production methods change, sometimes requiring different procedures in prepress. One common example is moving to a CTS system where the artwork goes straight to the screens, supplanting steps you used to take to review film positives to make sure they were correct before sending them to the screen department. Another issue with the new technology is that it can hold higher resolution dots that can show up in a test print or on screen unexpectedly.

How much testing is enough? The goal is to find a balance, ensuring you don’t slow your production team down while still spending enough time testing separations so that any major errors will be caught prior to outputting film or imaging screens. Develop some simple tests that will prevent on-press revisions for the majority of your separations, including:
• Trapping;
• Black and white density/transparency;
• Halftone shape/size/angle;
• Dot gain compensation;
• Underbase spread (specific trapping on the underbase);
• Gradient overlap;
• Total ink volume buildup;
• Underbase density;
• And digital proof mockups (aligning channels to view a digital proof).

You don’t need to run all of these tests on every job, of course. Choose the most appropriate ones based on the type of artwork involved.

#5 Not Tracking and Reviewing Results
Once a client accepts a job, screen printers typically like to move onto the next one. They typically don’t spend a lot of time reviewing the completed orders to consider the good, the bad, and the ugly. This is a mistake, and one of the most common ones I see.

Looking back at results is not just another dig through the scrap bin. The finished print is one of the best learning tools that printers and artists share. Even prints that turned out wonderfully can teach them what went right; often, even with great prints, you’ll see things that could have been done better. The point of reviewing the work, especially for difficult, highly detailed prints, is to discuss how things that were done on that order can be done again on future jobs with similar variables.

This review doesn’t have to become a beat-down or finger pointing exercise. Schedule them as though they’re a monthly party where everyone looks at the designs and each department contributes feedbacks on high and low points. The value of these meetings is the communication and problem-solving ideas the employees share about specific challenges they faced. Every time an artist gets to view their separations on the final print, they can make mental adjustments for how to handle the next order based on the quality and way the art was prepared. They can also take notes on things such as minimum effective coverage, color brightness, and the use of special effects, guides that will help them when they’re asked to do designs with similar challenges again. Over time, you should see improved success rates with your separations, higher quality and consistency, and better communication between every department that is involved in the meetings.

It’s sometimes difficult in the daily grind to take a step back and look clearly at problem areas that can be avoided in most shops. But, you will realize big gains in consistency and overall quality if you’re willing to invest in learning and developing your own best artwork practices. 

Read more from our April/May 2016 issue or catch more prepress advice from Thomas Trimingham.
 

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