Choosing the right graphics program

Decisions, Decisions


Dane Clement is president of Great Dane Graphics, a company specializing in pre-separated artwork specifically designed for use by screen printers, embroiderers and digital decorators. Clement has been in the industry for more than 20 years designing artwork, is a frequent speaker at industry events, a regular contributor to industry trade publications, and author of T-Shirt Artwork Simplified, a full-color, step-by-step guide to creating artwork with Adobe and Corel graphics programs. Contact Clement at or visit

If you’re the non-artist type who struggles just to draw a decent-looking stick figure, you may be put off at the thought of purchasing graphics software; you may even wonder if you really need it. Rest assured, a professional graphics package is an absolutely essential purchase for your business, and you definitely want to know what to look for before making what can be a fairly significant outlay of cash.

Yes, you really need it

In the same way that every screen printer needs a press, you also need a graphics program, even if you don’t plan on creating artwork in-house. When freelancers provide artwork for screen printing, you need a way to open the file, look at it, possibly make changes, and output the film. In an ideal world, you’d never need to open the file because your freelance artists and customers would provide perfect images every time, but let’s be realistic here: You’re going to need to make changes, whether it’s just changing a date, resizing an image or tweaking a color.

Some screen printers try to perform these types of functions in programs such as MS Word or PowerPoint, but that’s like opening a beer bottle with your teeth—it ain’t pretty, and it ain’t right. Likewise, you also could try saving the file you receive as a PDF and then open it in a viewer; but again, that’s a sloppy, cumbersome workaround. Just like with any job, it’s all about using the right tools.

The right tools in this case give you the power to do everything from edit artwork and create separations, to manipulate clip art and add company names and dates to images. At a basic level, you could combine elements from various clip-art files to create a “custom” image for customers, complete with their company names. On a more advanced level, you could create completely original artwork. For instance, you could sketch a design on tracing paper, scan it, then bring it to life on screen with vector outlines, solid-color fills and so on. Further, you could scan photographs and tweak them, perhaps smoothing the edges, for reproduction on a digital direct-to-garment printer, for instance.

Your choices

In some ways, your choice is a fairly simple one: You can either get CorelDraw’s graphics suite or Adobe’s graphics suite. These two 1,000-pound gorillas absolutely dominate the industry, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a properly equipped screen printer who doesn’t own either of these two powerhouse software packages. If you own a Mac, your choice is even easier, because CorelDraw is PC only (although newer, Intel-based Macs can run PC software).

True, there are some low-end, low-cost options out there, but the simple truth is that the Adobe and Corel packages are your onlyreal choices for the decorated-apparel industry. If you choose anything else, even if it works fine for your shop, you’re going to be an island that can’t exchange files with anyone else.

When you purchase CorelDraw or Adobe Suite, you’re not really buying a single graphics program; you’re getting a suite of programs, each geared toward a particular type of image. If you want to print a photo-realistic image on a T-shirt, you’ll be dealing with a raster image, which is better-suited to a raster-oriented program. Likewise, if you’re doing simple line designs, you’ll probably use a vector-oriented program. If this seems confusing, don’t let it intimidate you. You don’t have to become an artwork expert, but you do need to get your head around the concept of the two main types of artwork, and when to use each type—and again, which corresponding program to use.


What you get: Adobe Graphics Suite comes with Illustrator and Photoshop. While you could buy these two programs individually, it makes sense to buy the lower-priced bundle, as you’ll be using them both. The CorelDraw suite comes with CorelDraw, PhotoPaint and a few other miscellaneous programs.

Compatibility: Adobe is cross-platform, which means that artists who work on Macs can save the file and you can open it on a PC with no problem. That’s a little more difficult with CorelDraw because it’s PC only. With this software, each party would need to save the output file into a format, such as Illustrator, that the other party can read. Doable, but not automatic.

Another issue is DCS2.0 files, which are desktop color-separator files. If you were to create an image and separate it for screen printing, you could save it as a DSC2.0 file, and bring it into Illustrator, add text, and output your separations. However, to do it in Corel PhotoPaint, you must have version X3.

My feeling is that, while you may not need all of Adobe’s power at the onset, it’s good to know that the power’s there and waiting should you eventually require it. However, CorelDraw is wildly popular, so clearly it works well for many people in the industry.

In use: Frankly, I’ve personally found CorelDraw to be a little clunky to use, not quite as smooth as Adobe’s software. However, CorelDraw is cheaper and easier to learn, so it’s quite popular. And while the truth is that both software packages can get the job done, it’s also a simple truth that Adobe Photoshop is the graphics industry standard.

Making the purchase

Whether you buy your software from a physical store or an online store, stay away from shady companies offering too-good-to-be-true deals. For instance, don’t even bother responding to e-mails offering Photoshop at $59. In all likelihood, the software is pirated, which means it’s illegal to purchase, it won’t come with support from the manufacturer, and it may not work properly—not to mention that it’s unethical and illegal to use bootlegged software.

You could purchase the software used from an individual or another business, although you’ll want to find out from the manufacturer if they allow a license transfer. Without the license, you may not be able to get tech support or software upgrades—the latter of which is extremely important, as suppliers frequently offer new versions with powerful features and compatibility with the latest computer hardware and software.

Once you have your software in hand, dive headfirst into the many manuals and audio/video tutorials available from the suppliers, as well as numerous third-party companies, including Once you’ve watched a few tutorials and spent some time with the manual, start experimenting with the software. It will seem like you’re walking around in a foreign country at first, but eventually, the software will start to make sense. Over time, it will become second nature to you, and you’ll be cranking out high-end artwork—or at least print-quality stick figures—in no time.