Here’s How to Make Amazing Artwork Your Shop’s Competitive Advantage

Artwork is among your shop’s most valuable, and profitable, assets. “Graphics are our industry’s currency,” says Craig Mertens, general manager of GraphicsFlow. “The shop with the more relatable artwork will win in the marketplace.” 

Successful decorators use graphics as their competitive advantage. “At the end of the day, when faced with options, buyers will usually choose the shop with the best designs and graphics, given the emotional connection to their brand and identity,” Mertens says.

At Night Owls Print Shop, the art team is one of the shop’s most important assets. “We couldn’t put out the level of work that we do without our team,” says Co-Owner Valerie Solomon. “If you’re printing any full-color design, you rely on your art separations to make printing and setup easier. That’s why skilled artists are vital.”

“Anyone can put a logo on a shirt, but not everyone can put killer artwork on a shirt. That’s the superpower you’re looking for to increase your sales.”
Marshall Atkinson, Atkinson Consulting

Even if you’re running a DTG shop, a talented art department will set you apart. “Artists challenge the status quo or think outside the box, so that gives you a competitive advantage,” says Michelle Moxley, innovation director at The M&R Companies. “Plus, on-press artists can drive innovation into an embellishment, expanding your capabilities and accentuating your uniqueness to the market.” 

As a decorator, you know your customer artwork files are among the most valuable assets you have … and your artwork department is one of your main revenue generators. However, if your graphics workflow isn’t tight or your graphics files aren’t organized, you’re leaving a lot of money on the table. “Anyone can put a logo on a shirt, but not everyone can put killer artwork on a shirt,” says Marshall Atkinson, business consultant at Atkinson Consulting and Shirt Lab Tribe. “That’s the superpower you’re looking for to increase your sales.”

Think of it this way: Your shop’s ability to place a “creative landmark” on a T-shirt sets you apart. Part of that is having access to talented artists. “Yes, you could use a clipart soccer ball, or you could design your own in your creative voice,” Atkinson says. “People come to you for that aesthetic or mojo you’ll be known for.”

We asked industry experts to weigh in on how to maximize your shop’s earning potential through your art department.

1. Store and file your artwork the right way.

One of the biggest mistakes shop owners make about artwork? Not thinking through the most efficient and effective way to store the graphics they create for their clients. “If you don’t set up an art filing and storage system from the beginning, it’s difficult to fix later down the road,” Solomon says.

“Graphics are our industry’s currency. The shop with the more relatable artwork will win in the marketplace.”
Craig Mertens, GraphicsFlow

When you’re a new shop owner, it’s easy for you or your artist to “remember where I put that brewery’s logo.” “Many shops don’t consider what happens when they start getting really busy,” says Zach Ellsworth, general manager at Stahls’ DFC. “When you have more than one staffer filing and retrieving art files, you need a consistent filing and storage system that grows with your business. Implementing the system and making sure it stays intact through employee changeover is the real work.”

Here are a few tips from Ellsworth:

  • If you’re a newer shop, choose early how your graphics filing and storage will work. Will artwork be filed by customer name? By a name your customer gave it? By the date the customer submitted it? By the process you used to decorate? Or maybe you’ll use a combination of all four. Will you label your artwork by an order number generated by your order management system?
  • Document the process for both the team saving your artwork files and the folks who’ll be responsible to retrieve them (if they’re different teams).  
  • Spot check the system from both perspectives. See how difficult it is to name and save an artwork file in the right place. Then put your production hat on and retrieve the file on a different computer. 

If you’re not using an industry-specific solution that creates image previews, that’s another common mistake. “Generic cloud storage solutions don’t create image previews for graphics formats such as Adobe Illustrator (.AI), Adobe Photoshop (.PSD), CorelDRAW (.CDR), and .PDF files, as well as for embroidery formats,” Mertens says. “Not previewing the file is a massive disadvantage for artwork collaboration or proofing. You’ll have to create a second preview file, like a .JPEG or .PNG.” 

Another major mistake? The absence of a standard graphic organization system. “This system should be used consistently across your shop to ensure your team can easily find the files,” Mertens says.

Mertens recommends storing files in a folder structure like this one: 

Folder #1 Client Name

Sub-folder: Project Name

Sub-folder: Production Files by type


Folder: Tesla

Sub-folder: Cyber Truck Promotion

Sub-sub-folder: Embroidery Files

Sub-sub-folder:  Screen-Print Files

Each graphic should also have its own identifying number. This is key, especially in the digital space where variable data, like imprint size and location, compounds the amount of files you’re creating. “Consider creating a unique ID number to assign each art file that gets referenced in each invoice,” Solomon says. “This is ideal, especially for reorders.”

Tip: Take the pulse of how your artwork filing works for your staff. “Change your storage and filing process if no one’s following it,” Moxley says. “However, be adamant that it’s followed to the letter, not just partially followed.”

This shouldn’t need to be said, but Atkinson has visited lots of shops where artwork’s saved on the artist’s desktop. “Computers crash all the time, so why aren’t they backing up their graphics?” he says. “If that happens, you’ve lost years of work. All of your graphics should be saved on a server or in cloud storage.”

Plus, security should be your main concern, no matter what digital asset management solution you use to store and organize art content. “Cloud-based solutions generally have backup and encryption capabilities,” Mertens says. “Local file storage on a hard drive or in a local network is prone to hardware failures and security issues like ransomware, viruses, malware and data theft.” 

For example, GraphicsFlow is a new graphics productivity software solution built for the branded merchandise industry. “This solution brings together the ability to store, manage and organize graphics with art approvals and graphic presentations,” Mertens says. “Users also get access to a library of 25,000 vector-based and production-ready graphics.”

2. Get the highest level of artwork detail from your clients upfront.

First, you and your team need to know the specifics of your shop’s production processes in and out. That means you’ll show your buyers visual examples of what types of artwork you need for each decorating method. “Even if it’s a simple graphic for vinyl or embroidery, your buyer needs to see specific examples that show the image size and imprint location,” Mertens says. “Don’t forget text readability either. Top shops have a visual library outlining their specifications for each process.”

“The biggest bottleneck is helping customers understand the limitations of their chosen print production method.”
Zach Ellsworth, STAHLS’

You should train every staffer who takes orders to get the top level of detail you need to nail the artwork the first time—to get the order printed and out the door. Atkinson has seen more shops using outsourced (even overseas) artists, so that’s another reason to get as much detail about the graphic as possible. “Outsourcing exacerbates the need to have a really good creative brief and explicit instructions, so they can make the art look fantastic,” he says. “If there are delays in the process, you can’t do the digitizing or burn the screens until the artwork is correct.”

Here are some things to consider as you’re building your artwork brief template:

  • When does the client need the final decorated product? “This may seem obvious, but shops fail to get the final in-hands date,” Solomon says. This is also where you explain your timeline to the client so they understand how any delays on their part (like approving artwork) can jeopardize their delivery date.
  • Does the client want the artwork on other items? “A mistake is not asking your client if they want the graphic on more items, than just a T-shirt,” Solomon says. “Sometimes a client throws a curveball at you, after they approve the final design. They also want you to put the art on a toddler onesie, tote bag, towel and koozie. Now, you have to rework the design for all of those items, wasting time and money.” This isn’t on your client; it’s on you: They don’t realize they need to tell you all the items they want imprinted before you create the artwork.
  • What exactly does your client want (or not want) in their artwork? The more questions you ask, the better. That includes the copy (and verifying spelling), the graphic itself and where you place the elements within the design’s composition.

Atkinson likes to focus on the pertinent negative. “That’s when you ask the client what they don’t want,” he says. “If the design is for a rodeo, and the client tells you they don’t want cow skulls or a font that looks like ropes, that saves us a lot of time. We know where not to go in the design.”

Then, get into as much detail as possible by providing a list of questions for your staff to ask. For example, if the shirt is for a fishing tournament, you’ll ask: Do you just want a fish, or do you want a guy catching the fish? What kind of fish is it? Should the fish be photorealistic or a cartoon? Should the fish be incorporated into a logo format? Do you have examples of how you see this? Have you had this type of artwork created before, that we need to match?

3. How many revisions do you offer?

While the goal is to get first-take approval 85% of the time, there will be clients who want changes. Night Owls give clients up to three overall edits in their design, before an hourly fee kicks in. “This lets our clients know that they need to be as detailed as possible in any of the changes they want,” Solomon says. “That helps the design process move along quicker.”

4. Can your artist send over a thumbnail sketch?

Atkinson recommends having your artist send your client a hand-drawn sketch that shows where the text and graphics go. “Clients like the power of making changes,” he says. “If your artist sends over the thumbnail, the client’s more likely to make changes then, rather than later. This is a powerful way to get client buy-in upfront.”

Moxley advises keeping data and analytics on your artwork approvals to drive decision-making about your approval process. “If you keep data sets, you can review them and set SOPs,” she says. “For example, in our factories, we used a print information sheet that showed how many flashes and print heads were required for each job, and if the job contained a special effect.” 

That data gave Moxley and her team an overview of the samples for any given time period, helping them avoid bottlenecks and look for ways to group jobs, saving time and reducing friction points. 

5. Identify and eliminate the biggest bottlenecks in your artwork process.

We asked the experts where they’ve seen the biggest jams in shops’ artwork process. Here’s a quick list of what to look for:

1. Helping clients understand the limitations of their chosen decoration method. Hand in hand with that  is helping clients visualize how their final product will look. “When we’re helping our customers understand the limitations of a chosen print method, we do our best to provide concrete examples of what can happen if it’s not right for their design,” Ellsworth says.

That includes having “real-life” pictures of typical print production issues or samples of what happens when designs are done right, when they’re not, such as if the print lines are too thin or the negative space is too small. “You should also show solid examples of original versions of artwork with a few production-friendly tweaks that build confidence in your ability to deliver a quality printed product,” Ellsworth says.

“Data and analytics on artwork approvals drive decision-making on your approval process. In my factories, we kept data sets on everything, so we could review them and set SOPs.” Michelle Moxley, The M&R Companies

2. Helping clients understand colors. “Color can be a huge issue,” Mertens says. “Since onscreen colors won’t match the final output, it’s critical to use color references like Pantone.”

That’s why you need to provide specific examples during the creative briefing process.  “The worst thing you can do is let your buyer direct the creative process,” Mertens says. “You’ll end up with artwork that’s impractical for the process. A stock library of art assets can help alleviate this issue.”

3. Helping clients understand design size. KR Hruby, who’s in the Print Innovation department at M&R, always presents clients with a shirt layout proportionate to a size large, with a fuller zeroed in the center and a faint outline of the printable area. “We include a disclaimer saying the client needs to print the art on paper and lay it on a shirt if they aren’t sure about the size,” he says. “A size revision is the most costly, as it involves all new screens.”

If you get out-of-the-ordinary requests, it’s a good idea if you can show printed examples of things like printing over seams, oversize prints or prints on toddler sizes. “You can put a pallet system and one press arm in your lobby and make a customer load a shirt so they can see the challenges,” Moxley says. “They’ll think it’s fun, and if they want a unique load, they’ll see why it’s more costly.”

4. Working your production schedule backward from the in-hands date. “You need to know your shop’s cadence and rhythm, so you can understand the timing between steps,” Atkinson says. That means mapping out your process end to end. “Your artists need to understand they have to hit their deadlines, because you can only move as fast as the slowest part of the process,” he says.

Here are some key people to have on your “artwork team:

Decoration-savvy customer service reps: For example, Night Owls works with many clients who provide their own art, that’s not even remotely production ready. “This can cause huge delays pushing an order forward,” Solomon says. “We either have to go back to the customer and ask for a high-resolution or vector file, or tack on an art recreation fee. That’s why a knowledgeable rep filling out the brief is so important.”

Artists with special skills: You might also want an in-house artist who handles difficult separations. “You can always try to save money by using automated separation studios, but you won’t be able to make adjustments to those seps based on how your shop prints,” she says. “Or worse yet, you’ll have a sep on the press that needs to be tweaked or edited immediately. Our prints are only as good as our separations.”

An art director: Atkinson recommends having an art director who can assign different jobs to different types of artists. “You’ll have your production artists who use clipart or templates for certain clients,” he says. “Other times, you’ll have higher-end work that needs to be totally custom and designed by a stellar artist in PhotoShop.”

Think of it this way: A skilled production artist could turn out two to three jobs per hour. A custom job could take another artist six hours. “An art director will also take into account whether you’re printing 500,000 T-shirts, so that determines what artist takes on the project,” Atkinson says.

Production coordinators: The very best shops Moxley worked for had art-experienced coordinators who controlled the workflow, from customer communications, to blanks to follow-ups. “Having that really organized person watching the flow gives you a customer-centric feel that customers come back for,” she says.

What to Do Today

As the economy attempts to rebound post-COVID-19, labor shortages and hiring continue to be a major issue impacting print shops and decorators. “Every business in our industry should turn to technology to maximize time savings and efficiencies, to do more with less,” Mertens says. “Now’s the time to address art department bottlenecks and friction to have a leaner and simplified way of operating in your shop.”

“Not setting up an art filing and storage system from the beginning is difficult to fix later down the road.” Valerie Solomon, Night Owls Print Shop

One other consideration is to examine the end customer experience. “Take a step back and look at the steps involved in your overall ‘art communication’ process,” Mertens says. “Be thoughtful about how you can reduce steps, complexity, and improve the experience to accelerate your sales process and provide the best customer experience.” 

Finally, when you’re planning (or re-planning) the artwork process, ask for perspective from anyone on your team who accesses artwork. “This includes customer service, graphic design, production art, production prep and equipment operators,” Ellsworth says. “Then, once your new system is in place, perform a daily check-in with your team to make sure the system’s working as you planned. Listen, tweak and repeat, until your team is a well-oiled machine.”


“There’s no idea key on a keyboard,” says Marshall Atkinson, business consultant at Atkinson Consulting and Shirt Lab Tribe. “If you’ve hired graphic artists who can think creatively, you’ve got an advantage over your competitors.” He advises shop owners to look for artists who can easily generate two to three design concepts for a T-shirt. In addition, he recommends including an artwork fee when an artist will need to spend a certain amount of time creating custom artwork. “Sometimes, the art department is one of the most undervalued and overlooked in a shop, but it shouldn’t be,” he says. “You often win big accounts because of your ability to create custom artwork.”

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