Megan Mair, Associate Creative Director at DESIGN Lab, speaks candidly with Neil Venkataramiah, DESIGN Lab Director and Head of Production, about the seemingly simple, but very involved process of producing a great t-shirt. DESIGN Lab is a successful Sydney based production house, specialising in the nexus between design and production.

Megan: Hi Neil. As far as popular mediums go, T-Shirts have already become the ‘must have’ item for creatives, designers & companies to take their image into the public domain via fashion apparel. Basically, every designer seems to want to put out a t-shirt line! As we know at DESIGN Lab, the concept of a ‘cool graphic’ on a ‘designer tee’ is more complex than it first appears, requiring expertise in production and the collaboration with various suppliers to achieve an excellent total product.

When people see a t-shirt in a retail store, many think ‘I could do that’...but as you know it’s a lot more complex than that! What’s the starting point to creating a great t-shirt ? (what are the things to consider/plan/what’s the market wearing etc)

Neil: The starting point to creating a great t-shirt design can be as simple as “who is this for?”. With regards to putting out a new seasonal range, there are a number of factors and influences to consider. These can involve foreseeing market trends in other parts of the world, or even looking at the best sellers from previous ranges and continuing to develop a signature style that is recognisable and unique to you.

Our production house DESIGN Lab is briefed on designing graphics for a wider demographic range, and hence needs to be aware of exactly who will be wearing the t-shirt, and in what context. So it’s not necessarily down to the individual taste of the designer, but rather, being aware of the market it is being created for, and whether that graphic will be a success in that particular environment.

Can you shed some light as to the processes of producing a t-shirt, from the design, to finally ending up in a store ?

For a t-shirt to end up in the retail environment for example, there are certain processes that intertwine design and production, and involve a range of different suppliers along the chain.

We will come up with a graphic that is based on an internal brief, or as in the case of DESIGN Lab, an external brief from a client. Generally a budget and a timeline will set up some parameters with the design...influencing things such as how many colours we can use, how many print placements we can have on the t-shirt, whether we can run the print into a seam, or even whether we can use specialised inks such as silvers, transfers or foils.

We will then generally e-mail the design to our printer. The nature of the design will influence who we use to print the t-shirt, as we use different printers for photographic transfers as opposed to standard plastisol screenprinting for example.

A ‘strike-off’ or production sample will then enable us to tweak things such as colours or the placement of the print on the t-shirt. We may want to lower the print placement by 1cm for example.

Once this initial production sample is approved internally or by a client, we will then go into bulk production and eventually deliver the stock to a retail store, or directly to a client’s warehouse.

This is only the graphic to print process too ! There are other issues to consider, for example, how do we manufacture the actual t-shirts? Again, primarily depending on time and budget, we can either manufacture the t-shirt locally, or we could use a stock service garment that has already been imported from overseas, or at the other end of the scale, we could produce the whole t-shirt overseas using our own customised patterns that we have developed and fine-tuned over time.

So there’s a myriad of different combinations as to how a t-shirt can end up in store, and the skill involves identifying the best process that will fit the design, budget and timing constraints, to get it there to brief.

Identifying the actual process to use, and how everyone will work together on that process, is sometimes as important as the process itself.

Are there any specialised skills and resources required to print a t-shirt ?
(eg: once graphic is confirmed, designer chooses suitable fabric/colour, we check stock availability & see fabric swatches, a sample of the tee is made up).

Having contingency plans are a crucial part of t-shirt production, or of any production for that matter. If a client wants a t-shirt in a certain fabric colour for example, you need to have certain processes in place whereby if that cannot be achieved for whatever reason (the fabric is out of stock, or timing issues), the next best options need to be made available. Sometimes these next best options are the only options, and this needs to be conveyed accordingly.

These contingencies apply across the whole printing process; from fabric availability, and down to the printers’ schedule.

The printing of a graphic onto a t-shirt can either be a simple or complex process. What do you think are the key steps to producing an effective print
design ?

I think the key steps involve a knowledge of the production process, and the limitations involved in that process. That is, knowing exactly what can and can’t be done in print design. It is one thing to design a graphic that may look great on the screen, but you still need to be aware of things like the amount of colours you can use, the maximum print size of the graphic, and even whether the t-shirt panels are printed before they are fully made. It’s similar to how other industries work with a knowledge of each other’s disciplines and constraints, such as with architecture and building for example.

A lot of the factors in print production are technical ones to consider, but also ones that are influenced by cost and timings. So especially when designing for a client, it is important to see these factors as part of the bigger picture, and not just isolate the graphic component as a stand alone element.

Printing a t-shirt is a collaborative process, and like any other collaborative process, it works most effectively when everyone along the chain has a sound knowledge of all the elements in that chain.

We sometimes think a t-shirt is like a blank canvas, for any artist/designer to apply their design onto, but more often than not, a cool design that works on say an album cover won’t translate very well as a t-shirt print...why is this so ?

A t-shirt like any other medium has its limitations with respect to production values. For example in Australia, there aren’t any screenprinters that could print say 15 PMS colours in a design. So there’s no point in getting a designer to design a graphic with 15 PMS colours in it, because it simply can’t be produced. So this initial communication of parameters is crucial.

But the skill is also in recognising what types of designs work best on certain types of products. That is a major skill in itself, and is the difference between a cool t-shirt and a t-shirt that has a design slapped onto it with no thought to design aesthetic.

A design still can work across an album cover to a t-shirt, but it may need to be modified, or have elements taken out of it, for it to really work on a t-shirt, and that is a skill that is honed by knowing what will work as a t-shirt design.

What do you look for when collaborating with other people, companies in production, design & print of t-shirts / apparel to ensure you have a successful product ?

I think the two crucial things are the ease of working with people, and also the quality of their work. You’re putting a team together around you, and the better that team works together, the better the end result is.

You can only really get a sense of how easy it is to work with people through trial and error too. That is, after working with them on a few jobs you get to know how they work under pressure, and how the quality of their work is affected - if at all - under pressure, and such.

And if you can have a few different people in place at each stage of the chain, you can put yourself in a position where your resources are never stretched, and you can make the call at the time of briefing them as to who you will be using, based on things like their availability and pricing. But having a key group of people in place at the outset of building up any production infrastructure is paramount.

You’ve been in the industry for almost 10 years, has the process become easier and more effective with print production & design. eg: internet, resources, print technology.

It has definitely become easier working with the internet, and especially so with overseas suppliers. Having everyone in the process at the same technological level really helps, because everyone is then working with the same tools and parameters. You’re only as strong as the weakest link in the chain, so the internet has definitely facilitated this. It has of course helped timings as well.

The process is an ever-evolving one though, and it’s something that you can never take for granted. Things can always go wrong so it’s important to almost think of everything that can go wrong, and that way you are in a better position to avoid mistakes from happening.

The internet has enabled collaborations with a broader audience including graphic designers, clothing labels, product companies etc each with their own set of ‘design & product requirements’....what are the key elements required across all these projects?

As mentioned above it’s key that everyone knows the production parameters that they are working to. It makes for a more seamless process and one that will enable, where applicable, timings and budgets to be hit.

Having a knowledge of the brand’s essence is also a way in which these brands can cross over into other media; that is, by being able to collaborate with a like-minded group of designers that understand that particular brand’s audience, and are able to capture that brand’s design aesthetic across these different media.