10 Design Hacks for Creating Artwork for Screen Printing

10 Design Hacks for Creating Artwork for Screen Printing

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10 Design Hacks for Creating artwork for screen printing requires careful consideration of various factors to ensure the final print looks great. The whole process starts with the art. If it isn’t created correctly from the beginning, it will only make the prepress and production process harder to get good results. Here are 10 design hacks to help you create artwork optimized for screen printing.

No. 1: Vector versus Raster Artwork

There are two types of artwork: vector and raster. Both can be used for screen printing, but the way they are created and separated are completely different.

Vector artwork is created with programs like Adobe Illustrator, CorelDRAW, or Affinity Designer. It is made up of lines and shapes formed by paths and points. This allows them to be scaled up or down without losing clarity or sharpness. The images are generally reproduced using solid areas of color, but halftones can be used to reproduce tints or shades of colors as well as gradients.

Raster, or bitmap, artwork is created in programs like Adobe Photoshop, Corel Photo-Paint, and Affinity Photo. Digital photos are an example of raster artwork. This type of art is made up of a series of dots or pixels in a continuous tone of colors. Raster artwork cannot be resized as easily as vector artwork and still maintain clarity. Greatly enlarging a raster image can result in a pixelated or blurry image, which will not produce a clean, sharp image when printed.

A vector versus raster image - greatly enlarging a raster image can result in a pixelated or blurry image.

A vector versus raster image – greatly enlarging a raster image can result in a pixelated or blurry image.

No. 2: Resolution and Size

One of the first things you need to be aware of when creating an image is the size and resolution. Since vector art is made up of paths and points, resolution isn’t a factor, and the size isn’t as crucial because it can be enlarged or reduced without affecting the quality or sharpness of the image.  Raster art, on the other hand, is affected by the size and resolution. Starting off at the right size and resolution is crucial for getting an optimal print.

If you are creating a raster image that will be printed at different sizes for different locations, such as a full back and left chest, it is always best to create the art for the largest size first. In general, I usually set up my document size at 14” wide X 16” high, providing me enough margin all around to create a full-size image of approximately 13” X 15”. When the image is complete, it can then be reduced for smaller applications like a left chest.

A general rule of thumb on determining resolution for a screen-printed image is to go no lower than one-and-a-half to two times the line screen you will be using. So, if you are using a 45 LPI halftone, two times that would be 90 PPI. However, to ensure the printed image is as sharp and clear as possible, 300 PPI is recommended. This is more than enough to hold details without making the file size too large to work with on your computer.

No. 3: Color Mode and Profile

When it comes to color and setting up a raster file, I use the RGB color mode and the Adobe RGB (1998) color profile. RGB provides a higher spectrum of colors than CMYK, providing a better range of colors that are brighter and more saturated. The Adobe RGB (1998) color profile provides purer color and richer blacks. Using these two settings will provide the best and most color information, which will help when it comes time to separate the image for printing.

No. 4: Transparency

Always create your art on a transparent background.

Always create your art on a transparent background.

Always create your art on a transparent background! Like size and resolution, transparency doesn’t affect vector art like it does raster art. When setting up a raster file, you want to make sure you set it up with a transparent background. You don’t want to paint on a colored background or flatten your image because it will affect your separations.

Any color in the background will be included on the corresponding separation. If you were to print the separations, the solid background color would print on your garment as well. By working on transparent layers, there is no background color to interfere with the separations. You can always create a layer underneath the art layer(s) and fill it with a solid color to match your T-shirt color so you can see how it will look, but always remember to turn it off or delete it when you save your final file for separating.

No. 5: Line Thickness and Detail

As mentioned, vector art can be scaled up or down without it affecting the quality of the image. However, there is one caveat to that. If an image is reduced too much, some details may become too small or thin to hold on screen and therefore will not print properly. The same goes for raster art.

When designing for screen printing, the mesh count and halftone screen you will use play into the amount of detail you can successfully maintain. Lower mesh counts and larger halftone dots do not hold small details, thin lines, or small type well. You may need to use thicker lines and spacing, or a larger and/or bolder font to make sure you can maintain the integrity of the final printed product. With that being said, once you reduce your image, it’s a good idea to print out the separations on paper to see if areas may be too small to print. If so, modify the art accordingly.

One way to help you determine what, if any, detail you are losing is to create your own registration marks using .5-point, .75-point, and 1-point lines for the crosshairs and circle, colorized with registration color. If any part of the registration mark falls off when printed, you’ll know the minimum line thickness you can use to maintain your image.

No. 6: Color Count

Unlike digital printing methods, the number of colors that are needed to print your design will affect the cost. Each color requires its own screen, so you have the added cost and time to expose, set up, and print that screen. It’s always a good idea to consider how many colors you can print for a job before you begin. That way you can plan your design accordingly. Even for full-color designs, if you know the number of colors you can print, you can modify the colors you use when painting your image.

What colors can be created using other colors? For example, if you have red and yellow in your image, you can use orange in your design as well, because you can use red and yellow ink to recreate the orange. You don’t need a separate screen just for the orange.

It’s always a good idea to consider how many colors you can print for a job before you begin.

It’s always a good idea to consider how many colors you can print for a job before you begin.

If you only have the budget to do a two- to three-color design, think outside the box. You don’t need to use standard black line clip art. Take a full-color raster image and turn it into a grayscale image. Print it as one-color using halftones. Add an additional color in the type or any additional graphics you may use to complete the layout.

The shirt color you use will affect the color count. Knowing this up front will help you plan. Dark colors will require a base white, so you can include that in your count. If you are using a colored shirt, can you incorporate that color in your design to eliminate a color for printing? Knowing this kind of information can help you plan your design better in the early concept stages, instead of having to make changes later.

No. 7: Optimizing

When you finish a raster design or you receive one from a customer, it may look great, but there are a few steps you should run through to optimize the image further. Using the Selective Color Adjustment to adjust the neutral colors will help pull out gray information in the colors to make them as pure as possible. Saturation, levels, brightness/contrast, and sharpness should all be adjusted as well.  These steps not only help clean the image and make it look its best, but will also help during the separation process. Colors will be split into individual separations with less residual information from secondary colors, reducing the amount of time to clean and tweak all the seps.

10 Design Hacks for Creating Artwork for Screen Printing

When you finish a raster design or you receive one from a customer, it may look great, but there are a few steps you should run through to optimize the image further.

No. 8: Halftones

Because raster artwork is made up of continuous tonal information, halftones are required to reproduce the image. Even vector artwork may require halftones, if gradients or tints of color are used. While desktop or inkjet printers can print halftones, they may not be set up to print a larger halftone screen required for screen printing. Because images are recreated using screens made of mesh, halftone dots need to be large enough to hold. The default offset printing halftones that most printers can output are way too small to hold on screen. If your printer does not support larger halftone dots, you will need to get some kind of RIP software that will take the information from the computer and interpret it for the printer, allowing it to produce larger dots.

The halftone screen that I recommend is 45 DPI, 61-degree angle, and elliptical dot shape. Since the screen mesh runs horizontally and vertically at 90-degree angles, using a 61-degree angle helps prevent dots from being clipped and creating an unsightly moiré pattern like you might get with a 45-degree angle. Elliptical dots by nature are slightly larger than round dots, allowing for more information to be held on the screen and resulting in a better print.

No. 9: Registration Types

Registration refers to how two colors lay next to each other when printed. When setting up vector art separations, there are three types of registration to consider.

Butt registration is the most common. Two colors touch each other when printed without any gaps or overlaps. This prevents any bleeding or mixing of the two colors. It requires exact precision of your press.

If you have difficulty registering colors exactly and end up with unwanted gaps between colors, or the base white peaks out from under a color, you may want to use trap registration. With trap registration, a stroke or outline is added to the edge of shapes of one color so that it will slightly overlap the other. A .5 overlap is usually sufficient. It’s enough to fill in gaps, but not so big that it will bleed with the other color and affect the sharpness of the design.

The final type of registration (and least common) is gap registration. As the name suggests, a gap is created between the two colors. This type is generally used for specialty inks like puff or any inks that expand and require extra space for the ink to fill in.

No. 10: Specialty Inks

One of the cool things about screen printing is the specialty inks that are available — gels, glitters, blowing agents, and so much more. Consider adding that little extra pizzazz to your design with a suitable specialty ink. It’s a great option to add value to a design with limited colors. A one- to three-color design can be elevated just by making one of the colors a specialty ink. While it might cost a little more to produce, the special ink allows for a higher price point on the cost of the shirt, so you can easily make up the cost difference.

Keeping these tips in mind when creating your artwork, or even adjusting a file provided to you by a client, will get you off on the right foot. Properly creating and preparing your artwork will make the prepress and production processes run smoother saving you time and money and get awesome results your customers will love!

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