Jul 21, 2008

Why Contests Don't Accept Gradients and Unlimited Colors?

T-shirt design contests and people selling apparel in general use a limited amount of colors and usually tend not to use gradients in their designs. The reason for this is because for every color in the design, it requires additional screens which adds to the overall cost of the shirt.

For dark shirts, there is usually a base white, and highlight white which adds to the total number of screens required to print accurately the digital representation of the design. The base white is used so the other ink colors that are brighter, like red, yellow, etc, will not lose it's intensity once the ink hits directly on the dark shirt. Sometimes bleeding of the shirt color through lighter colors is also a problem.

The solid color requirement is due to the work required to separate a design to get it ready for print. Essentially, if the site or printer, does not require you separate the design, they are paying someone with a specialized skill to separate the design. If the work is done in Illustrator or vector, which some sites request, provided that the colors have been assigned a Pantone color, it's print ready.

Otherwise, the design will have to be separated. Solid colors are easy to extract from a design. Using select color range, channels, levels, etc makes it very simple to extract each color on to it's own layer/channel.

For example, this design would have to be separated into three screens. Pretty straightforward.

The extraction and printing becomes much more difficult when there are gradients involved. Depending on the mesh of the screen, ink type, squeegee pressure, the original separation and intensity of the halftone dots make controlling the outcome more difficult. Duplicating the exact gradation in the digital design is quite difficult to separate and reproduce. Since most contest sites are on a time schedule, and less expensive shirts sell just as well as a full color design, they are less likely to take on complex gradients.

Gradients are converted to halftone patterns, manually or through a machine called a RIP.

It's actually not a true gradient, it is an illusion created by dots that increasingly becoming spaced where viewed from afar looks like a smooth gradient.
On dark shirts, gradients are especially difficult to reproduce. Not only is there the difficulty of printing gradients to match the digital design, there will have to be a base white underneath the lighter colors. To create a base white to coincide with the gradient above it without it peaking out from underneath the above color is a technically quite difficult. Take a look at some of your shirts, sometimes there will be spots where just a little bit of white is peeking out. That is due to the lack of precise registration, which is the lining up of screens.

In this example a simple red gradient is shown as it would be burned onto a screen in halftones. You can imagine how difficult it might be to get base white from peaking from underneath the red dots.

Beyond that, if look at the digital representation of the gradient, the best way to represent it would actually be to take a full intense red as well as a dark red (not one, but two colors), and slightly overlap the two so there is no instance that the base white will accidentally peak through.

Alternatively, they could screen the red over the black, depending on the intensity and opaqueness of the red, it should darken when it hits straight to shirt. Unfortunately most designs are not boxed in like this example, so its usually much more difficult to do. One could also expand or reduce the red or base white by one pixel to solve the issue.

Take for an example, Jeff Finley's design for Designbyhumans.com.

I assume that they decided to take on the difficult and expensive design, because it was one of the highest voted designs at DBH as well as being a predictably hot seller. It's a great example of a solid separation. It took quite a bit of skill to pull it off. Imagine the task of whittling down a digital image made of 16 millions colors into a 9 color design. I'm not 100% certain what processes they used in the separation, but I have a feeling that to get the widest range of color, they would have had to implement simulated process which involves mixing gradient halftones into each other to create different hues. Not only did this design cost more, it took the expertise of an skilled separation artist to create.

In summation, using numerous colors and gradients not only make a design more difficult to print, it will also increase the cost of the shirt production, but will also increase the time involved because of their need for a skilled separation artist. Although companies like Threadless and Designbyhumans have the resources to print such designs, I would assume when it comes to deciding what to print, companies consider the profitability of the design.

I would recommend that designers take this information into account when creating their design. Although a full color illustration may look great on a shirt comp, there's more to it than just art that increases the possibilty of it getting to print or the usefulness to a potential client.


Jeff Finley said...

Nice read Jimiyo, very informative. I understand that you're trying to educate designers who don't know apparel production to really stop and think about the process before they just design something in full color. However, in the same sense, you almost sound likes you're admiting it's too hard and expensive and designers should have sympathy for color separators and keep the work simple with only a few flat colors.

Anyway, you should write some stuff on apparel production for the zine. Our readers would love it!

jimiyo said...

I agree with ya Jeff. Feeling wordy, I got tired of writing, and decided to leave out the counterpoint. I dont want to discourage wildly colorful and complex designs, as separations arent as difficult as I made it sound. Also, if it wasn't designs pushing the limits and challenging DBH, they would not be where they are now. DBH thrives on being an innovator. ALTHOUGH, I wonder sometimes when they print the one color design that only got a handful of votes get printed, that they arent just trying to take a break, and trying at least cover some financial bases.

I think this article is meant for designers who may not be aware of the topics I touched on.

I've seen the lack of it in action at emptees. People throw every color in a design, and think about maybe printing it for themselves for their apparel line. I dont think they are anticipating the cost, and just think their gradients look neat.

Most important, I wasn't trying to insinuate that your design was poorly done. I think it's a great design, although to be frank, being on a shirt, you cant enjoy the depth of color and richness you can digitally, or I assume if it was printed on paper.


I also base this on some experience of large screenprinters.

I used to work for a Nascar affiliate printing company. They were always lamenting how all their designs were the typical Jumbo sized, 8-12 color designs. They had friends in the Country Music industry as well as a leg in the mass marketing outlets like Walmart and Target. My boss vented once that it was difficult to get ahead financially with time consuming jumbo 10 color designs, while their friends were doing modest sized, high quantity printing of 1-3 colors. It didn't matter how many colors the art was, it was the market they went for that ended up being the flaw.

I dont know the point.

Money is important. Art is too, but if you are making art for a consumer based product, I think it should still dictate a little bit of how you approach the final product. I personally enjoy it, because it's a challenge.

How can I create more depth, but only using x colors. How can I shade if I can only use line. Etc etc.

Anyways Jeff. I would love to write for http://www.gomediazine.com/, let me put it on the to do list.

The Tee Off Calls!