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Is It Time to Outsource Your Print Shop’s Artwork?

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Business Advice
Is It Time to Outsource Your Print Shop’s Artwork?

anya Doyscher, co-owner and graphic designer at The Visual Identity Vault, has been pitching direct-to-film transfers (DTF) to customers, since she loves its capabilities, like full-color designs and faux glitter embellishments. “However, the key is to find someone who’s learned the craft and outputs amazing artwork so we can keep taking orders,” she says.

Doyscher’s challenge is all too common for decorators—finding the right outsourced designers and artwork prep partners. “Creating graphics is one of the most dysfunctional aspects of apparel decoration,” says Craig Mertens, general manager at GraphicsFlow. “Clients come to you with artwork they’ve found online from Pinterest, Etsy, Custom Ink or just a Google search. You end up being forced to forensically reconstruct the artwork in order to move forward with an order. The client is in control, not you.”

Here’s the bottom line: If you don’t have a team of in-house designers or freelance help at the ready, you could be shortchanging your shop and we’re here to help. Let’s take a look at some common artwork challenges and how you can overcome them by investing in the right artwork team and tools ahead of time.

The Biggest Artwork Challenges for Print Shops

Two of the biggest challenges that print shops face with artwork generation is miscommunication with clients and artists. Do these scenarios sound familiar?

Your clients don’t know “what they want"

Probably the biggest thorn in print shops’ sides are the customers who can’t envision how they want their screen-printed T-shirt design to look. “We’ve had plenty of examples where a customer wants something ‘simple,’ and then three weeks later, the project turns into a super-complicated, gradient-based, custom-font creation, photo vectorizing, massive project that’s nowhere near what they originally wanted,” says Kyle Perkins, owner of Big Frog Custom T-Shirts & More. “We’ve also had super-simple situations where we put text on clipart, and the customer is ecstatic. Your specs must be defined before beginning a project. Otherwise, scope creep will be an issue really fast.” Perkins recommends talking to your customer face to face.

“If you can avoid doing it over the phone, like when they’re driving or distracted, please do. It’s better if you can mock up the design in front of them. You’ll take care of most of the design challenges while you’re engaged with your customer. If they’re in a rush to get the design done, then they aren’t taking it seriously and won’t like anything you make.”
Kyle Perkins, owner of Big Frog Custom T-Shirts & More

Marshall Atkinson, business consultant at Shirt Lab Tribe and Atkinson Consulting, agrees that taking the time to mock-up layouts and general ideas saves you a lot of time and money later on. “Generally, when someone can make a change on a simple thumbnail, they’re more invested in the design and will approve it later on,” he says.

Your artwork partners don’t deliver what your clients want

If you’re not doing all your artwork generation in-house, then you must generate detailed briefs for your freelancers. “You can’t just tell them to ‘do something cool,’ or you’ll end up with cat skulls for a buttoned-up bank function,” Atkinson says.

“Be very clear about what you’re going after. For example, say ‘This is an ocean-themed design for a bank employee retreat. It’s three colors and will go on a navy blue T-shirt.’ You can also share font, image and overall style examples with them.”
Marshall Atkinson, business consultant at Shirt Lab Tribe and Atkinson Consulting

Atkinson also recommends asking your clients for the “pertinent negative,” as in what they don’t want. For example, a client might not want a rope font, cow skulls and boots for a rodeo, so your designer needs to know that. “In one situation, for a fishing-themed golf tournament, a designer created a design of a man with a fish head teeing off,” he says. “However, the client wanted a specific type of fish teeing off, so the designer had to redo the art, since his brief wasn’t clear enough.”

Like everything, though, there are both good and bad sides to outsourcing artwork tasks.

The Advantages of Outsourcing Your Artwork Tasks

Perkins has experienced definite advantages to outsourcing services like artwork creation, digitizing and vectoring to a third party—namely saving time and money. “They’re usually more experienced than us in that specific field or service, and they can turn it around faster and less expensively than we can, especially since we spend the majority of our time on production, sales and customer interactions—not artwork,” he says.

The Visual Identity Vault has always outsourced all of its digitizing to an online vendor with amazing results. “We usually get the file back within 24 hours, and we don’t have to pay staff to do it,” Doyscher says. “We occasionally do this for vectoring items too—if it’s going to take our designers too much time, we outsource and get it back in 24 hours for much less money than what we’d pay to do it in-house.”

Atkinson often advises shops to outsource both production and custom art, when it makes business sense.

“If it’s a bunch of left-chest logos, you can outsource those so your in-house staff can do higher-end work in Photoshop that might take four hours. Or, let’s say you have talented Photoshop artists in-house, but their strong suit isn’t the cartoon art your new big client wants. You can outsource that job to an artist who specializes in that area. At the end of the day, it’s about your client’s happiness.”
Marshall Atkinson, business consultant at Shirt Lab Tribe and Atkinson Consulting

The Disadvantages of Outsourcing

Of course, on the flip side, some of the disadvantages of outsourcing services are control and quality.

“Some outsourced services prefer quantity over quality, and just send us a file back without actually looking at it. Then, we need to interact multiple times with the outsourced service to ensure that the quality is there.”
- Kyle Perkins, owner of Big Frog Custom T-Shirts & More

Another disadvantage is if the outsourced service decides to call it quits without warning. “Unless you’ve got some great backup on speed dial, this could lead to unnecessary scrambling on your end,” Perkins says.

When you have an outsourced team, it’s on you to communicate expectations and offer training. “You can’t just throw the work over the fence and expect great results,” Atkinson says. “Write a good brief for artwork, digitizing and separations. Tell them that they’re digitizing the artwork for a cap, rather than a performance polo, or that you need an eight-color screen-printed design, since you don’t have a 10-color press.”

How to Find Your Perfect Artwork Partners

If you’re ready to look for your ideal artwork outsourcing partners, don’t wait until the last minute. “You need to find the people before you have the projects,” Atkinson says. “I recommend sending them a sample project to see what happens. Why wait till you have a huge order due Thursday, to see if you like the results?” 

That’s why, while Perkins has a small selection of pre-vetted outside services, he’s always looking for more, so he doesn’t get left high and dry. In addition, since Big Frog is a “payment-before-production” shop, they need to know all of their art-related costs upfront. That means they need artists and digitizers already in place, so they can factor in those expenses.

“If we have to provide a service to complete a job, such as digitizing, we incorporate that into our prices upfront with the customer, but also make it easy to understand from a customer-perspective. For example, we group digitizing and embroidery labor into a single line-item in our point of sale.”
Kyle Perkins, owner of Big Frog Custom T-Shirts & More

So where do you find these outsourced resources? You can start by building a pool of outside talent using both larger companies and agencies, and individual artists or digitizers who work solo. “A larger firm with 80 artists on their team can get things done quicker,” Atkinson says. “However, maybe you have higher-end clients who want a certain style, so you can look for that kind of panache in standalone artists’ portfolios. Facebook groups are a good place to find people to expand your network.”

Here are some action items to begin the process:

  • Identify what types of tasks you’d want to outsource, whether it’s artwork generation for NASCAR-themed events, digitizing dozens of left-chest logos or separating graphics your in-house team created.
  • Make a list of agencies, services and individuals who could help with your needs, by crowdsourcing names from other decorators you trust.
  • Reach out to agencies and individuals to learn about rates, turnaround times and view portfolio items.
  • Do some test projects to see which agencies and individuals will gel the most with your print shop.

Other Artwork Tools for Your Arsenal

Direct-to-film printed designs by The Visual Identity Vault

Decorators like Perkins and Doyscher recommend having a clipart library (like Clipart.com, Vecteezy or Freepik) and/or a premade template library program like GraphicsFlow that lets you easily edit designs to reduce design time and make it easier for customers to choose what they want and where to start. “If a customer has too many options—as in, ‘We have 1,000+ different designs to choose from'—they’ll never choose,” Perkins says. “It’s classic decision paralysis. The more options available, the smaller chance they’ll make a decision.”

“When customers visit us, they usually don’t have any idea about what they want,” says Perkins, who uses GraphicsFlow to build a template library. “If they give us a theme, we can usually reference our library to find either pre-made clipart or templates, and show the customer what we have available. If they choose one design, we load it up, change a color or word, and we’re done. We look like superstars, and the customer is happy.”

No matter what tool you choose, it should be easy enough to use so that staffers outside of your professional artists should be able to create on-demand artwork when needed. “In our tool, customers can search for designs by category, subcategory, keyword or style and add them to an art request form,” Mertens says. “Once they submit the form, you download the design, make the changes and then send an art approval link to facilitate the sale.”

Mertens also points out that when you have your own library, you eliminate much of the time and labor required to create artwork from scratch. “Plus, if a client brings you a design that you need to copy and recreate a cost-effective method of producing graphics,” he says.

Use Your Artwork to Stand Out

As we’ve said, your shop is only as good as the artwork and print-ready files you produce for your clients. Many print shops take a multi-pronged approach to graphics by combining the use of an in-house staff, outsourced artists/digitizers, and template libraries to get the job done. This gives them the ability to serve a variety of clients. “It’s smart to have both production artists and fine arts in your arsenal,” Atkinson says. “Plus if you offer embroidery and screen printing, you’ll want to have talented digitizers and separations people who can make the artwork look great.”

Jan 3, 2022