Insider Tips for Printing Light Designs on Dark Shirts

Whether you’re an experienced screen printer or a newbie, learning the art and process of white prints on dark shirts has a learning curve. However, if you take the time to become an expert in turning out bright white (or lighter-hued) prints on black shirts, your happy customers will thank you. We asked five seasoned printers to show off their light-on-dark chops. Plus: insider tips for getting great results.

 

This White Print’s Definitely With the Band

Being a touring musician is tough enough, but when you add in the responsibility of selling custom band merchandise, it can be overwhelming. Fortunately, the Chicago Signs and Screens team was able to help out the Been Stellar band when the crew came through Chicago. “We turned around their shirts the next day and kept them stocked up for the rest of their tour,” says Mike Kupfer, co-founder. “Additionally, we used a halftone print process and recreated photos with rich halftone textures for Been Stellar’s print. It’s safe to say they were highly satisfied with our ability to deliver promptly and keep their merch table stocked!”

 

 

It’s Always a Beautiful Day With Pink Designs

Misti Money, owner and designer at 6Money’s Creations, created this pink-on-navy blue design for her T-Shirt of the Month Club that sends women across the country freshly designed t-shirts 12 times a year. “This ‘Make Today Beautiful’ t-shirt is exclusive to our club members,” she says. “Our members loved that the design wasn’t solid, and offered an updated look to what could have been a traditional, boxy design.”

Money chose a solid navy short-sleeve t-shirt to pair with the design’s lighter pink shade. She used her white toner printer for this design since it helped her achieve the exact pink tone she wanted. “The printer places a base of white toner on the designs, which helps us not have to worry about dye mitigation or fear of the dark color showing through on the lighter-colored design,” she says. “Using this equipment also saved us time and labor costs, since we only had to print and marry the designs.”

Pro tip: When you’re creating a white or light-colored design, think of ways to add interest and different elements to a design. “It’s a great way to get an edge over your competition,” Money says. “We can increase the perceived value of an ordinary t-shirt with a retail design.”

 

 

The Profit’s in the Details

Eric Solomon, owner at Night Owls Print Shop, shows off two examples of a white discharge ink print on 100% cotton t-shirts. “Discharge ink works by replacing the dye of the garment with specifically formulated ink,” he says. “For these two customers, we used a white discharge ink to get a very bright, and soft white print.”

Pro tip: You can get very detailed prints using a 157, 200 or even 230 thin thread screen with a white or light discharge ink.

 

These White Prints Stand Out From the Pack

 

LaTonna Roberson, owner of T-Shirt Shop Dallas and Lady Print Boss Consulting, turns out fantastic white prints on black shirts that her diverse client base loves.

Here’s a rundown of four recent white prints her team produced:

  • Roberson’s team printed the “Cruising through life one port at a time” message using a 156 mesh screen on basic black t-shirts. “When you add a grunge effect to a white design, it gives the shirt a lot of character,” she says.
  • The “Warrior Vision Walk 2019” license plate design used the shirt color as the lettering. “We printed the white ink with two passes of a 156 mesh screen to give it a nice bright white,” she says.
  • Roberson’s team added a small amount of puff ink to the “Vibe City Church Logo” design so that it appears raised on a premium Next Level Unisex Cotton T-Shirt. “We printed it on a Workhorse automatic press using a 110 mesh screen,” she says. 
  • T-Shirt Shop Dallas turned the “1900” design into a vintage-looking white print from a customer’s pencil drawing. “We converted the drawing to digital art, and defined a few of the lines so we could get the details to print,” Roberson says. The team converted the design to a one-color halftone and ripped it at 45 degrees. Then, they manually screen printed the shirts with a 230 mesh screen.

 

A Next-Level Design for Next-Level Firefighters

The 45,000-member-strong Firefighters Association of the State of New York relies on Howard Potter, CEO of A&P Master Images, and his staff to create standout t-shirts for their members. The team used the shirt’s background in the “Red Line of Courage” artwork to bring the design to life. That’s the amazing part of halftoning a photo to screen print it,” Potter says. “Then, we used the red to symbolize the firemen, and to draw your eye in.”

A&P Master Images started working with FASNY about a year ago. “They’re really great people, which makes us want to go over the top for every design they need done,” Potter says. “They want designs that take it to the next level to inspire their members and the community.”

Pro tip: Use Adobe Photoshop to create your halftone dot matrix, and use no less than a 230 mesh screen. “The higher the mesh, the finer the detail you can pull from the dot matrix of the image to give it a cleaner look,” Potter says.

 

 

Tractor Supply Gets Dimensional

The A&P Master Images team created this white-on-black print for a Tractor Supply distribution center in Kentucky to give to people throughout the state. “The white technique I used on this was a complete halftone design,” says PJ Loomis, design manager at A&P Master Images. “We used one screen for the border of the state. Then, we needed another screen for all of the white detailed images. Lastly, we used one red screen for the color splash.” 


To create a highly detailed halftone screen print, remember that the imprint always looks best digitally on screen, even after it’s been separated and rendered. “The real trick is before making the dot matrix, right before you bitmap the design to create the points, you must burn and dodge the areas of high detail, with it in grayscale,” Loomis says. The goal is to get a high contrast with the details so the image pops out, and doesn’t look “muddied” when printed. “Sometimes, you need to overcompensate the details in a halftone design to achieve the correct look,” he says.

Pro tip: Loomis used the state border outline by itself to make it a brighter, more solid print than the rest. “This technique produces the effect of a 3-D border for better depth and dimension in the design,” he says. “If you keep the high details more faded than the border, you can achieve this look!”

 

 

Light-on-Dark Tips to Keep in Mind

If you’re new to white prints on dark shirts, here are a few tactics to remember. Of course, as you develop your own skills, you’ll figure out what process works best for you and different jobs.

1. Use a lower mesh count. Try well-tensioned screens between 110 and 195. The higher the mesh count, the less ink you’ll waste.

  1. Choose specific emulsion and white ink. Try using an emulsion with a high solids build. Pick a white ink that’s opaque and easy to work with, so that it’s not so thick. Stir it well when you’re ready to use it. Otherwise, store your ink container at room temperature.
  2. Build up your ink layers. On your first pass, your white ink may not completely cover your dark shirt. On your next pass, after you flash your first print, you’ll add another layer to create the top layer or overprint. This step takes practice, so build in time to learn white-on-dark printing before you start offering it to clients.
  3. Keep on printing! Don’t be shy about asking other screen printers for pointers on white prints on dark shirts. That way, you’ll be ready to offer your customers this great option sooner, rather than later.

Here’s What Separates Amazing Band Merch From the Rest

It’s a regular occurrence for Rich Santo, CEO of Culture Studio, to watch his team take an order of hundreds of thousands of printed shirts for a huge music artist like the Jonas Brothers, Lady Gaga, Billie Eilish or the Foo Fighters. It’s also the norm for his team to print these massive orders and ship them to a concert venue within 48 to 72 hours.

Culture Studio annually turns out 10 million printed garments, a huge portion for major bands in all genres from rock to pop to hip-hop. “We understand the music business and are built for speed,” Santo says. “Everything’s super-fast turn, and frankly, a little insane.”

Breaking into the music merch business isn’t for the faint of heart, and requires special skills to excel in this market. However, if you want to know the ins and outs of working with bands, we asked experienced shop owners to share insider tips on how they’ve become the go-to shops for some of the biggest music artists around.

 

5 Ways to Wow Your Music Artist Clients

So what does it take to be the print shop that’s with all the bands? We run down five tactics, from choosing the right apparel, to the right on-trend decoration, to being able to function at warp speed.

1. Start with the right apparel.

First, you need to have an understanding of the band and their fans. The demographics for each music genre and band are different, and chances are, you’ll work with bands in more than one genre. If you’re marketing to a rap star’s followers versus a country-gospel group’s fans, you’ll find it’s much more than just the artwork design that goes on the merchandise that’s important. The merchandise itself matters a lot. 

First, depending on the fans’ age and style of music, you’ll choose different types of apparel that will fly off the shelves. Older metal fans will appreciate wearing a regular-fit T-shirt that’s a bit oversize, or a zip-up fleece or a dad cap. Younger fans of musicians like Ariana Grande likely want cropped hoodies, crop tops, tanks and other “younger” styles. 

“Punk and hardcore still like boxier-cut tees, and new age or indie rock want softer, fashion cuts,” says Dylan Gilligan, owner of Upstate Merch (@upstatemerch), which has been serving bands, from hardcore and metal, to hip-hop and Christian rock, for nearly 15 years. (Notable clients include Stray From The Path, Steven Page, Mott The Hoople, Fuel, Icon for Hire and Ryan Sickler.) “You need to understand the markets so you can recommend the right t-shirts.”

Let’s face it—one of the best ads for a band is the fan who still wears that iconic tour t-shirt from 10 years ago. But if the shirt won’t last the test of time, or feels rough and scratchy from the first wear, it’ll get shoved to the back of a drawer. “Bands used to say, ‘Give us the cheapest shirt,’” Gilligan says. “Now they want clothing people will wear over and over. They want a better-quality, fashionable, soft ringspun cotton shirt with a custom neck tag. It’s a whole branding experience. They monetize the shirts that continue to advertise their band for years.”

Santo agrees that bands want to be involved in the creative conversation from the get-go. “They’re going to make money on this merch, so it’s our job to give them fresh ideas,” he says. “We give them cool custom ideas, like a cut-and-sew piece we launched, or we show them a new t-shirt silhouette.” 

Culture Studio has built sophisticated in-house software (also available to other decorators at Stokkup.com) where they’ve aggregated national inventory from most apparel suppliers and mills into one location. “If someone wants a specific Gildan shirt, even in the tens of thousands, we can instantly see what’s available,” Santo says.

 

 

2. Choose wow-worthy artwork and imprinting methods.

If you score a license or contract to print shirts for a major label band, they’ll likely give you the images to print on the merch. But, if you’re working with a newer, smaller band, then they’re more likely to rely on you to do the legwork. You’ll have to flex your creative muscles to give them eye-catching artwork that fits the band and their fans. 

For inspo, look at what other bands in the same genre are doing with their merchandise. These designs may include:

  • Headshots of band members
  • In-concert shots of the band on stage
  • Lyrics/song titles or the band logo
  • Full-color images like album covers or images that evoke the band aesthetic
  • White or color prints on white or black shirts.

Both Culture Studio and Upstate Merch usually receive the artwork they need to decorate the merchandise. “Many top-tier artists have an extensive creative department with the band or label,” Santo says. “They provide a line sheet of artwork and creative direction on the apparel to bring together a collection for their tour or a retail store.” 

However, about 15% to 20% of the time, bands ask Upstate Merch to create artwork. “It’s a good idea to know what’s trending out there,” Gilligan says. “Bands need new and exciting designs to sell merchandise. Otherwise, they won’t make money off it.”

Beyond great apparel and artwork, bands look to your print shop for innovative decorating methods. “We’re doing a lot of foil applications,” Santo says. “Also, loads of mixed media, and hybrid prints where we pair digital and screen printing. In the past, everyone wanted softer discharge and water-based prints, and now we’re shifting to a significant amount of heat transfers. We also do a lot of custom dyes and washes so bands have something unique.”

3. Have a way to work with new bands or artists.

“While some bands will pay upfront, others will be short on cash,” Gilligan says. “That can be challenging for your shop if you’re a fan of the band and want to work with them.”

That’s why Upstate Merch created a blueprint for new “garage” bands getting merch for the first time. The first tier is a less-expensive shirt with a one-color print for an investment starting at $150. “Then we scale them to two designs on a better quality shirt,” Gilligan says. “We step the band up levels because if we help them at the beginning, they’ll stick with us for the longer term, with larger and larger orders.” 

Pro tip: If you’re wading into the band world, it’s a good idea to balance those accounts with corporate or educational clients so you keep your cash flow intact.

 

 

4. Be ready for tight, tight, tight turns.

Santo and Gilligan agree that one of the most important pieces of the band puzzle is getting the merch the band needs to the venue on time. With huge orders and tight deadlines, that’s no easy feat, especially if you’re serving multiple band clients.

Founded in 2008, Culture Studio considers itself a technology and logistics company first, since the team has built an enviable system that lets them say “yes” to a 600,000-shirt order that needs to be turned around in 48 hours. When the team receives an order, they can first check for that level of inventory via their software. Then, once a team member has inputted all of the pertinent information (including how many units, number of imprints, where they need to be and when), the software determines how to allocate the jobs. 

Culture Studio has 135,000 square feet of production space located across the country, including in Florida, Illinois and Texas, so the program can assign a number of shirts to a specific press in a certain location. The shop offers additional services, like adding an inside tag, a hangtag, folding and polybagging, which Stokkup takes into account to get the merchandise to the right location on time.

“We’re moving products at a huge scale across the country,” Santo says. “What shines through is our capacity and inventory to satisfy our clients so they make money on merchandise.”

While Upstate Merch caters to new or smaller bands, they still work on tight turn times. For that reason, Gilligan keeps 5,000 black t-shirts in stock. “We can make the screen, print and ship the shirts the same day,” he says. “It’s a huge win for us and the band.”

Here are three tips from Upstate Merch on getting merch where it needs to go on time:

  • Get the shirts there as early as possible. “We aim to get the shirts to the venue two to three days early,” Gilligan says. “Build in time for the weather and carrier delays. The band might be paying you $1,500 for the order, but if it’s late, that can mean a $6,000 loss for them.”
  • Consider delivering to a UPS store near the venue. If you’re delivering a smaller order, send it to a nearby UPS location. “A rep for the band can show their ID and get the merch,” Gilligan says. “That way, there’s no chance of the boxes getting lost at the venue.”
  • Label the boxes well. Gilligan serves artist John Mulaney, who needed merch for 60 concert dates. “We printed the shirts upfront and then packed each box, with the shipping date, concert date, venue and what’s in the box,” he says. “We make sure the band merch person knows how many boxes they’ll be getting and what’s in each.”

 

 

5. Decide whether you’ll offer online merch stores.

Online merch stores were a bigger thing for music artists during the pandemic, when people couldn’t attend concerts in person. “We’ve seen a significant decline on the e-retail side since the pandemic,” Santo says. “Now, fans want to be at concerts and in stores to buy merch.” 

Upstate Merch fulfills some online stores for music artists. “The name of the game is warehouse space,” says Gilligan, who uses the “fundraiser method”: setting up the store for free for the artists, stocking shelves with designs and promoting the store. “We make $15 per shirt and the band gets $10 per shirt, since we don’t require bands to buy the merchandise. The band gets $10 per shirt. We also require them to buy back the stock back at wholesale if it doesn’t sell. With a store, you’re taking a chance on a band.”

Your Takeaway

Ultimately, only you know whether or not your shop has the chops to work with bands. Gilligan and Santo both had roots in the music industry before opening their shops, so they knew what to expect from the scene. “This isn’t entirely tongue in cheek: Be ready for a little insanity,” Santo quips. “Everything is last minute, under pressure and at extensive volume. Unlike corporate or retail, everything’s based on an event date. Many buyers will contact you 48 to 72 hours before a huge show with an order for tens or hundreds of thousands of shirts. You need to be prepared for that kind of turn.”

 

 

 

Pump Up Your Shop Profits With Promo Products

To stay competitive, it makes sense to be as much of a one-stop print shop as possible. In this way, you can provide the convenience of supplying all the logoed items an organization might want while ensuring that you’ll be making a profit on these items. 

“Today’s consumers wantand expecta single source for their branded merchandise and promotional marketing needs,” says JP Hunt, co-founder and president of InkSoft.

“This need creates an important monetization opportunity for print shops. By adding promo products to your product offerings, print shops can position themselves as full service, be far more competitive, and reach a larger market and customer base. Upselling and cross-selling promotional products is a powerful way to drive more revenue, profit and customer satisfaction into your business.” 

Let’s break down how to add promo products to your shop today, with advice from the experts.

Why Your Shop Should Offer Promotional Products

Let’s talk about the most obvious reason to add promotional products to your existing line of SKUs. There’s profit to be made for your print shop. “Here’s the basic strategy: Would you like fries with that hamburger?” says Marshall Atkinson, business consultant at Shirt Lab Tribe and Atkinson Consulting. “If you can sell them a t-shirt, you can sell them the tote bag, stickers, water bottle, pens and other hard goods for the event. If you don’t sell those additional products, someone else will.”

Promotional products bring in an average 40% profit margin. If you add promo items to your existing decorated-apparel business, you can quickly increase your bottom line. If your customers are already happy with your printed t-shirts, they’ll love that you’re now a one-stop shopfulfilling all of their logoed products. 

Most businesses understand the value of investing marketing dollars in logoed promotional products. That’s in part because 72% of consumers “believe that the quality of a promotional product is directly related to the reputation of the company.” Plus, while internet advertising is important, surveys show that customers “are 2.5 times more likely to have a positive opinion of promotional products over internet advertising,”

Here are more industry stats that show the power and longevity of logoed t-shirts and promo products, which you can also share with your clients:

  • Most households own an average of 30 promotional products, and 53% of people use a logoed product at least once a week.
  • 81% of consumers keep custom promo products for more than one year, and 40% keep promo items for a decade or longer. 
  • The most popular promotional products today are apparel (28%) drinkware (8.4%), writing utensils (6.6%), bags and wallets (6.3%) and technology (5.6%).
  • 83% of people are more likely to do business with a brand that gave them a promotional product.
  • Nine in 10 people recall the company’s name or logo on the promotional item they received.
  • 89% of the population owns a logoed pen, pencil or another type of writing instrument; 73% of consumers own custom bags; 64% of consumers own customized desk or office accessories; 45% of consumers own personalized umbrellas; and 33% of consumers own customized power banks.

 

 

Be More Than a ‘Shop That Sells T-Shirts’

We’ve talked before about becoming more than a print shop that sells t-shirts. To increase your profit while expanding your business, you must be an authority in the logoed products business. If your customers can trust you to select the right mix of high-quality logoed items for them, you relieve them of a huge burden and help them achieve their marketing goals.

You already know there are certain key elements needed to create decorated apparel, like great artwork and lasting imprints, and the same is true for promotional products. “The good news is that you’ll outsource the decoration of these products to your suppliers,” Atkinson says. “Take upfront payment from your customers, and the process is easy.”

Unlike a promotional products distributor who might take more time to peruse industry databases of thousands of promo products, it makes more sense for a printer starting out to have a shorter go-to list of the products the industries they serve most often want. “Just like with apparel though, there are many options when it comes to hard goods,” Hunt says. “Rely on your promotional product suppliers to understand and recommend what products are popular and trending as you begin building your catalog. Carefully curating the array of promotional items you’ll offer will help you sell these items more effectively.”

You’ll need to meet supplier salespeople to create those initial relationships. Ensuring you get high-quality products and partnering with a promotional vendor who understands what you’re doing for your clients is crucial to get the superior result your clients expect. “Develop relationships, because like any industry, there are people who are really good and you want to find them,” Atkinson says. “Choose suppliers you want to work with. Talk among your network to see what suppliers people recommend. A good first step is to order samples and experience working with that supplier.” 

Pro tip: With current supply chain issues, consider in-stock and high-availability items when you’re selling promotional products to avoid disappointing customers.

 

 

Here’s How to Select the Right Products to Sell

Atkinson recommends looking at what industries your current clients fit in. The top 10 industries that purchase promo products are business services, education, financial, manufacturing, healthcare, construction, insurance, technology, nonprofits and agriculture. 

Let’s say you serve a lot of gyms and yoga studios. What promo items can a gym, trainers and members use? Water bottles, towels, bags, t-shirts, yoga mats, magnets, pens, car decals and achievement awards for different milestones, to name a few. “Within each product type, find good, better and best options,” Atkinson says. “You should have a plastic water bottle, but also a stainless steel version, for example.”

Here are some of Atkinson’s best suggestions for immersing yourself in the world of promo products to find the right items to sell based on your clients: 

 

  1. Join a promotional products organization, like PPAI or ASI. You’ll be able to browse product databases to see the most popular items and how much they cost. You can visit in-person and virtual trade shows to connect with suppliers and see what’s new. You can learn more about how the products are decorated as well. Nonprofit organizations like PromoKitchen can link you up with a free mentorship with an industry veteran. “Will you DIY it and struggle, or take advantage of the resources available to you?” Atkinson says. “It’s your choice.”
  2. Order samples, so you get to know the products and suppliers. “When you place a sample order, you get to try out the water bottle to see if you like it,” Atkinson says. “You also build a relationship with your supplier rep, and then learn how the supplier works and if they produce a good product. How long does it take? How does the logo look? Does it stand the test of use and time?”
  3. Charge for the real value you offer. Atkinson has talked to shop owners who spend three hours trying to find a great pen for their customer, and then the customer turns around and orders it from a site like 4imprint. “Develop a relationship with your customer,” he says. “Your value starts with your recommendations. Charge $200 to create that curated products list, and then deduct that fee from whatever the customer orders from you. Putting the time into your recommendations can turn the $2,000 order into a $10,000 order.”
  4. Get your feet wet with smaller, easier orders. “The more you do it, the more experience you get,” Atkinson says. “Some promo orders are very complicated, like developing a fully custom product in a China-based factory. Don’t start there. Work your way up to those orders.”
  5. Focus on a marketing push to let existing and new customers know about your new offering. “When you add promo products to your apparel line, you’re able to design the whole product suite for your client,” Atkinson says. “You can also custom box all the products in your shop and fulfill the orders. The value to your customer isn’t just that you’re sourcing the products. It’s that you’re solving a branding and exposure problem for them. When other people see those logoed water bottles or car decals, they say, ‘Hey, you’re part of my tribe.’”

 

 

Becoming a One-Stop-Shop Is Convenient for Your Client & High Profit for You

Companies, organizations, schools and teams: These are just a few of the many clients you can help by being a one-stop-shop for their promotional needs. In fact, most groups are candidates for logoed promo products for customer thank-yous, event swag, tradeshow giveaways, marketing collateral and even higher-end merch for sale. What does a company use when they want to extend their brand recognition efforts while also building a great fan base? Logoed products. And who do they go to for those logoed products? You and your print shop, of course.

The first step is to include promo products as part of every sales call. “Always present promotional products in the initial product discovery process,” Hunt says. “The biggest mistake is only using promotional products as an upsell too late in the process, which can seem like an afterthought to your client.”

Remember, the marketing executives in charge of handling orders for branded products are rarely knowledgeable about artwork requirements, timelines and other specifics needed to accurately order shirts, bags, water bottles, and the like. That’s where it makes so much sense for you, as the designer and creative director, to take charge of all the promotional items a client could ask for, becoming their partner for life.

Starting today, follow these tips from Hunt and Atkinson to hook clients on purchasing logoed promo products from your shop:

  1. Curate promotional products carefully to avoid overwhelming buyers with choices. “Think in terms of offering good, better, and best quality products in the most popular categories,” Hunt says.
  2. Get samples and use samples in your sales process. “At the very least, use product mockups to showcase your customers’ brand identity on recommended products,” Hunt says. 

Atkinson suggests when you think about the lifetime value of a client, say $50,000 over the time you work together, investing $100 to create logoed product samples with their logo on it isn’t an unreasonable investment. “You want to get that client excited about working with you,” he says. “While there are never any guarantees they’ll sign on, I can guarantee you’ll stand out when you try this strategy.”

  1. Use complete branded merchandise in all of your marketing efforts. For example, your shop’s Instagram images should showcase all types of logoed products, not just apparel. 
  2. Focus on merchandising and product relatedness. “Your product mix should seem holistic and related to each other,” Hunt says. “Avoid the notion of a hodgepodge of products. Ask yourself the question: Do these products logically go together? What story and feeling are created for the recipient with the bundle I’m creating?” 
  3. Bundling promotional items is another great strategy for managing and fulfilling online stores for clients like schools and corporations. With this, you can stock t-shirts and hoodies, but also water bottles, key chains, and whatever promo products make the most sense for that audience.