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7 Insider Tips on Hiring the Perfect Print Shop Graphic Artist

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7 Insider Tips on Hiring the Perfect Print Shop Graphic Artist

any veteran print shop owners and art directors will tell you a shop’s output – and sales – heavily depend on the artwork they produce. To create amazing graphics, you need amazing artists. However, finding the right graphic artists for your shop’s needs is a highly individualized scenario that you need to be all-in with to do well.

“Some shops are known for a unique style of art or a level of perfection with their work that clients flock to them to get,” says Marshall Atkinson, consultant at Atkinson Consulting and Shirt Lab Tribe.

“What’s your shop known for? Your art team should reflect the markets you serve, and understand and follow design trends and techniques. Want more business? Find a great art staff and pay them well. Can’t afford to have artists on the payroll yet? Find a network of great freelancers to use.”
Marshall Atkinson, consultant at Atkinson Consulting and Shirt Lab Tribe

Get ready to rock the hiring process with the inside scoop on seven essential qualities to watch out for in an artist. It's all about crafting your dream design team like a pro!

Start Here Before You Search for an Artist

We asked expert shop owners and consultants for an insider take of how to find the right artist (or artists) to take your print shop to the next level. Determining your shop’s needs is the first, but very challenging and important step – since it’s specific to your particular niche or client base.

If you’re a newer shop owner who’s spending a few hours a day creating customer artwork, that could be a signal it's time to hire an artist on a part-time or freelance basis. Or, if your business has added more online stores or entered a new niche, like NASCAR racing, it might be time to hire an in-house production artist or get a NASCAR designer on contractor speed dial.

Finally, if your shop wants to build a distinctive visual identity or has a lot of ongoing, higher-level design work, hiring a full-time artist might be the most cost-effective solution – since this person will be exclusive to your shop, can collaborate quickly with your team and make artwork changes on the fly.

Find the right level of expertise.

“There are levels to design. The people on your art team work in tiers, since you process and create work according to skill levels. At the entry level, you have production artists who can resize logos, use templates, upload images to online stores or send customers mockups," Atkinson says. "You might have generalists who can create decent artwork for almost any niche. Then you’ve got top-level artists with a creative eye to design the custom graphics that sell.”

One other thing to consider is what technical knowledge you’d like the designer to have, or that you’re willing to teach. “If your shop is only digital and DTF, you don’t need an artist who does screen-printing seps,” Atkinson says.

“Remember that no one is born with the specific artwork skills for our industry, but you can’t teach creativity or style. You can teach them to use the tools they need to work with screen printing or embroidery art files.”
Marshall Atkinson, consultant at Atkinson Consulting and Shirt Lab Tribe

That being said, if you don’t have the bandwidth to teach specific skills, then you’ll need to look for an artist who comes with them.

7 Must-Haves for a Print Shop Graphic Designer

Now that you’ve figured out what type of designer you need — in terms of skill level, specialty, and whether you need them to be full- or part-time, or a contractor, or if you need them onsite or if remote works — check out seven things a great graphic should bring to your shop.

1. They should know how to use the right software and tools.

Graphic artists and designers use different software in their daily work. That’s why it’s important to make sure a candidate is familiar with programs like Adobe Illustrator, Adobe InDesign, Adobe Photoshop, Adobe After Effects, Sketch or Linearity Curve. Ask pointed questions during interviews to assess their familiarity and competence in the software to see what industry-specific skills (like separations) you may need to teach.

“At a minimum, we want someone with a high level of proficiency in Photoshop or Illustrator. Both are ideal, since certain art requires Photoshop vs. vector-based art supported by Illustrator. Both of these platforms work for pre-production and seps prep, as well as to create custom art and designs.”
Lucas Guariglia, co-founder and CEO at Rowboat Creative

2. They should understand design, color and typography basics.

A mid-level graphic designer worth their salt should arrive with a good working knowledge of design principles, why readability matters when creating designs, color theory and color psychology, and typography.

“Freelance designers often learn their craft by watching YouTube videos. While there’s nothing wrong with that, many of them don’t have actual training, education or working knowledge of the psychology of colors and eye-pleasing placement of imagery and text."
Michael Nova, director at Nova Custom Label Printing

"These limitations can certainly be overcome with a keen artistic eye and appropriate study and research, but you’ll have to sort through the chaff to get to the wheat,” Nova says.

Atkinson strongly agrees that knowing design hierarchy and typography are non-negotiable elements in t-shirt design. “Design is like solving a puzzle or a strategic chess move,” he says. “You’ve got like half a second to communicate your message to a viewer.”

Understanding where to place elements, along with kerning, tracking and leading are key skills for even a beginning designer. The right typography captures attention and evokes mention, whereas having three different fonts repels customers.

3. They should be able to work in a time-driven environment.

A graphic artist may have design chops, but can they work through stressful production times? “Things change very rapidly around production and customer requests,” Guariglia says.

"Having an artist who can roll with the punches and be quick on their feet is ideal. There are many times when time is of the essence for tweaking a sep that’s on press, re-digitizing an embroidery design for a rush order or updating a deck for the sales team’s pitch in an hour. Having the flexibility and a high-stress tolerance is always a plus in our industry.”
Lucas Guariglia, co-founder and CEO at Rowboat Creative.

The other consideration for remote employees or contractors is whether you can reach them during crunch times.

“If a designer’s based overseas, their working hours are different than yours, here in the U.S. Be cognizant of this and understand that you may not get a response for hours, which can be problematic when you’re doing a rush job.”
Michael Nova, director at Nova Custom Label Printing

Finally, are they experienced in a commercial shop’s rigors? “Say you have to turn out five to 10 amazing designs a day,” Atkinson says. “Can they design artwork in 30 minutes? Are they tough, or will they burn out after a year? A lot depends on how they motivate and inspire themselves.”

4. They should bring the “style” your shop needs.

Some artists are great at creating logos or typography-drive designs, but can’t do cartoon art, car art or intricate line art.

“Before hiring a graphic designer, review their portfolio and check references to decide if their past work style fits in with what you want to deliver to your clients.”
Michael Nova, director at Nova Custom Label Printing

It’s a huge help if an artist works in the car market, if that’s who you serve – extra points if they’ve worked to create artwork to put on clothing or other types of products you sell.

5. They should possess a unique, creative POV.

You’ll quickly see if an artist has proven graphic design abilities when you review their portfolio. You’ll also see if they have their own creative voice, which is something you can’t bottle or teach. Remember, most of your clients aren’t artists and rely on you to provide amazing artwork that wows them. Finding that creative talent is a huge part of your success in this area and creating extreme value for your customers..

“This is all about craftsmanship,” Atkinson says. “I want someone who has their own voice, since the better art you get, the more shirts you sell."

"Probably the most wonderful thing about this industry is the mixture of art and science. You have to do things correctly in each step along the way to have your final production run come out consistently perfect. That takes a tremendous amount of effort in developing those skills. But you also need those creative artistic geniuses on your team.”
Marshall Atkinson, consultant at Atkinson Consulting and Shirt Lab Tribe

6. They should roll up with a treasure trove of soft skills.

These are things like being “a critical thinker,” “a good communicator,” “punctual,” “self-motivated,” “hungry to learn,” “a professional who’s open to feedback,” “up to date with the latest design trends,” “curious” and so on.

“We need to function as a team, so a designer must bring the qualities most important to you. For example, can they take feedback with a tough skin? Commercial art can be rough, especially when you’ve created five designs and the client hates them all.

I’ve developed an art callous, because I’ve had to do projects over and over – and it doesn’t affect me. Does the person you’re hiring have that forcefield?”
Marshall Atkinson, consultant at Atkinson Consulting and Shirt Lab Tribe

Take some time to work out which soft skills are most important to you. For example, communication is critical, especially when a designer might need to explain their work to someone without a design background or create a presentation or proposal for a client.

Being a strategic or problem-solving thinker is vital too, since they’ll need to brainstorm ideas to produce artwork conveying your client’s message – this also includes quickly troubleshooting design issues or revising designs.

Another important one is time management, since designers often work on multiple projects at once and need to balance their workloads and prioritize their projects according to a production schedule that flexes.

7. They should be OK with doing a paid test job.

If you’re searching for a designer on a website like Upwork.com, you can weed many people out based on some initial red flags.

"You’ll encounter numerous designers who claim to be experienced and professional, but once you begin working with them, it's almost like you’re speaking to a completely different person. I recommend first hiring a designer on a test basis, with a simple job to see if they can fulfill it without any hassle on your part. If they pass this test, then you can move on to giving them more complex jobs or making an offer for part- or full-time work.” - Michael Nova, director at Nova Custom Label Printing

Finding a Great Graphic Designer’s an Art

Ultimately, selecting the right artist is based on your shop’s needs, output and outcome requirements. “Start by knowing what you want, whether that’s a competent generalist or an artist who specializes in Harley-Davidson or children’s wear,” Atkinson says. ”Now’s the time to take it up a notch, since too many shops are OK with mediocrity, because they don’t connect the value of great art with sales.”

Finally, don’t take your great designers for granted. ”When you find a graphic designer who’s reliable and does good work, treat them with respect and be as loyal to them as you can, because they’re not easy to find,” Nova says.

Sep 3, 2023