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Screen Printing Case Study: Opulent Ink Coverage for T-Shirt Design

I just got a free t-shirt from a client of mine. While t-shirts with pithy sayings do actually float my boat, this one had particular import. I had designed the logo for a walk-a-thon for challenged individuals, and now it was all over t-shirts and signs. It was most gratifying to see.

Now that I have a copy of the product, along with a bright, blue-white light and a printer's loupe, I can look closely at the printing. In this case, I am reminded again of the many benefits of screen printing.

The Design of the T-Shirt

When the client and I began the project, I was not yet sure of how the t-shirts would be produced. Initially I was just designing the logo and not thinking about production issues (not the best approach). Therefore, when I had completed the rough imagery and type for the initial mock-up (three simplified figures running a race: one with a cane, one in a wheelchair, and an able-bodied figure), I realized that inkjet and screen printing would require different approaches to color.

More specifically, an inkjet press run of t-shirts could include all colors (full color), since inkjet printers use a cyan/magenta/yellow/black color set. In contrast, a screen-printed t-shirt run would probably use a limited color palette: probably just black plus an additional PMS color.

My client confirmed that the job would be a screen-printed t-shirt run, so I chose one accent color to complement the black ink I planned to use.

(Screen printing can produce four-color imagery, but since the ink is particularly thick, the screen ruling for halftones—and color builds of type—would need to be rather coarse to avoid having the screens plug up. Also, screen printed halftone work involves more skill than two-color printing without screens. Therefore, I used a PMS solid color with no screens plus the black, and I made sure no colors touched. Not having colors "abut" to one another avoided any "trapping" or ink registration issues on press, simplifying the entire process.)

I chose the light blue (100 percent cyan) the client had previously used in the organization's main logo. I felt this would tie the two logos together and facilitate "brand recognition." My client liked the idea.

The overall design placed the three figures in the top half of a circle, with the name of the charity walk immediately underneath. I used a casual font in an italic face. I felt the "leaning-forward" nature of the italics would echo the speed and urgency of a race. Below this I added a rule line with a diamond in the center to act as a dividing line. (Again, to avoid trapping and registration issues, or misalignment of the two colors, I used black ink for both the rule and the diamond "dingbat" in the center of the rule.) Below the divider rule, I added the name of the organization, in cyan ink, and then the place the charity run would occur.

What I Didn't Think About

Here's an opportunity to learn from my mistakes. I assumed the background of the shirts would be white. They were, in fact, a deep yellow leaning toward gold. Fortunately, the blue and black ink looked great on them. I actually first saw the shirts in one of the art therapy classes my fiancee and I provide to the local autistic community. Many of the aides were wearing the shirts since the charity run had just occurred.

It was great to see the shirts, but it was also a surprise—a fortunate surprise—to see the yellow/gold color of the shirts. So when you're designing t-shirts, always consider the look of the final art when printed on the actual garment, and make sure the colors of the design will complement the colors of the t-shirts.

What I Liked About the Shirts

More than anything, I was struck by the opulence of the shirt fabric, its deep yellow color, and the thickness of the ink.

Screen printing is an expensive process unless you produce a longer press run. So check with your vendors to find out how many you need to print. I've seen some online vendors offering minimums of fewer than 10, but this surprises me since there is a lot of preparation work in setting up the screens for printing. In contrast, inkjet printing on cotton shirts or dye-sublimation printing on polyester shirts can have press runs as few as one individual item (i.e., there's no set up, or only minimal set up compared to screen printing).

Certain things are most dramatic when you see them in person, and the thickness of the screen printing ink really made the job work. Garment designers call the feel of a product its "hand," the sensation you experience when you actually touch the printed garment. Unlike some shirt-decorating processes (such as heat-transfer garment decoration), this shirt was smooth and flexible, but the ink didn't feel like it was an applique. It did not have a plastic feel. You could also tell that the ink sat up on top of the shirt fabric but also seeped into the cotton fibers a bit and become part of the garment.

The ink felt thick but very flexible, and the thin rule lines and type all printed with good intensity and no pinholes or breaks whatsoever. Overall, the screen printing technique gave the shirt a sense of substance and quality.

I had known this conceptually prior to seeing the finished product, but in person the shirts really were quite spectacular. Even if those wearing them knew nothing about printing options or screen printing specifically, I felt they would appreciate the overall feel and look of the printed shirts, so I was glad my client had chosen both the garment-decorating technology (screen printing rather than inkjet or dye sublimation) and the particular vendor (since screen printing is a highly skilled craft).

What You Can Learn from this Case Study

1. In this case, I didn't choose the printer. But if you're choosing the printer for your screen-printing job, ask to see printed samples. Don't assume everyone can do quality screen printing with equal skill.

2. Consider the simplicity or complexity of the design, and discuss this with the printer early in the process. Ask about the number of colors you can use as well as the printer's ability to register colors in your design. Or you can play it safe and have no colors touch.

3. Ask about the complexity of the type and its size. For instance, if you will need to include small serif type, ask if the printer can hold the detail without the letterforms breaking up at all.

4. Ask about minimum press runs for screen printing. Also ask about digital printing options. Compare the inkjet and dye sub products to the screen printed t-shirts. Make sure you can live with the fact that inkjet and dye sub inks will seep into the garment fibers and will not sit up on the surface of the fabric like the much thicker screen printing inks. Some people even prefer the matte, flat look of digital printing.

Overall, screen printing is great for everything from shirts to hats to messenger bags and even the back support panels of fabric fold-up chairs. Short of actually embroidering your logo and message on the fabric, the tactile nature of screen printing does give the user a more substantial "touch" factor in using the printed product. But you do need to consider the set-up costs and the number of shirts or other products you will want to print.


[Steven Waxman is a printing consultant. He teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.]

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