Design graphics for heat transfer success

Winning Graphics

A constant contributor to both industry events and trade publications, Jimmy Lamb is also the manager of communication at Sawgrass Technologies. Learn more about Sawgrass Technologies at

In recent years, there has been a tendency for apparel decorators to fall prey to the concept of “price is everything” when, in reality, the focus should be “perception is everything.” The amount of money that you can charge on anything (and everything) is directly proportional to the value the customer places on the product. The real truth is that it’s only worth what someone will pay for it.

This is the most fundamental aspect of setting up a profitable pricing strategy. When decorated-apparel professionals end up engaging in painful price negotiations with customers, they are, in essence, lowering their price-point to the expectations of the customer’s perception of value. This is especially common in more competitive markets, such as in team sales. But decorators should instead turn the focus on raising the customer’s perception of value to their ideal price point, regardless of how aggressive the segment.

The key is turning the ordinary into extraordinary. And the really cool thing is that it doesn’t cost much (if anything at all) to increase the perceived value of the product which, in turn, raises the potential selling price and corresponding margins. How do you do this? Incorporate the wow-pow factor—raise the level of visual impact of each and everything you produce.

Pumping up graphics definitely adds a little more time on the production end. But once a few are developed, they can be used as a template and additional versions for other team members can be setup and processed quickly. This is a prime example of raising the customer’s perception of value, rather than lowering your price.

Step up the game

Many in our industry try to do the customer right by taking an order exactly as the customer describes it, without any thought on how to move it to a higher level through visual enhancement. But since most customers are not coming to the table with a wealth of creativity, the resulting products mirror this weakness. They’re boring. And, of course, boring brings with it a lower perception of value.
It all begins at the order-taking stage. First, obtain the information the customer wants to deliver, in black and white. Next is to figure out how to colorize it into a truly exciting product without crossing over into the world of clutter or cheesy—which is easy to do with graphical enhancement. Creativity must be balanced with practicality and sophistication.

Let’s start with a T-shirt design, for example, that commemorates a championship baseball team. Here, the customer’s objective is to deliver the following information: team name, the type of sport, and the glory of the moment. You can construct this pretty easily using basic text and a simple baseball graphic as seen in Example 1.

The image delivers the message the customer asked for, but in very basic terms. In comparison, the design in Example 2 is going to have a higher perceived value, which means the potential for higher margins and more units sold.

A little creativity can turn a customer's basic design into something special 

Artistic resources

For those without the artistic talent to create stellar designs, there are plenty of excellent resources available online that make designs available for purchase. It’s simply a matter of customizing the graphic using a standard program like CorelDRAW, Illustrator or Photoshop.
Good art is not a place to skimp when it comes to price. While there are tons of sites selling or giving away clipart, much of it is not of high-quality in terms of resolution and/or creativity. Focus on the sites that really do provide art and pay close attention to the licensing requirements, so you don’t run afoul of any copyright or trademark issues.

While there are all kinds of interesting and unique images available for purchase, the best way to de-value one is to use an inappropriate combination of text. Last time I checked, I had access to more than a hundred different fonts, so there is plenty of opportunity for creative text. But that doesn’t mean that all of them are appropriate for any given situation.

In reality, font choice can easily be defined by the market. For example, with sports the most common fonts are basic block styles; scripts or specialty fonts are rarely used. So while it might seem creative to use Chiller for a high school football team named the Phantoms, it probably won’t be very effective, as it will clash with the expectations of the customer.

Also be careful not to use too many different fonts in the same design. It looks amateurish and can actually wear on the eyes. Ideally, stick with one or two fonts per layout and, instead of using different fonts for emphasis and creativity, use different manipulations of the same font. Shadows, slants, bold-face and size can add a lot of interest without going over the top. The outline is one of the more popular styles for athletics and is a great way to incorporate school colors within the text.

Ultimately, the goal of the decorated product is to deliver a message. Therefore, it’s of the utmost importance that text can be clearly read by the casual observer. This is a key point of the order taking process—identifying and ranking the components of the design in terms of importance. We’ll use a T-shirt or plaque that reads: Lewisville Cougars, 2011 State Champions, along with the appropriate images, for example (see Example 3, page 16).

Looking at the big picture, our example gives a lot of text to have to reproduce. Thus, it may be best to use an arc to render “Lewisville Cougars” on top and “State Champions 2011” on the bottom.

This may work for this example, but note that many arcs can be tricky as they are sometimes not so great in the readability factor. For example, script fonts are extremely hard to read and typically looked very unbalanced in an arc format. Thus, a block style is usually better. In addition, it improves things even more if the lettering in an arc is all capital as opposed to mixed-case. Finally in regard to utilizing arcs—use the same exact font in the top and bottom of the arc.

Other ways we could play with our example design… if the emphasis should be placed on “Lewisville Cougars” more so than “State Champions 2011,” two straight lines of parallel text would probably be more effective. Lewisville Cougars could be bold and straight, whereas State Champions 2011 could be slightly smaller in height and slanted to the right. This gives a higher level of prominence to the team, while at the same time drawing attention to their achievement.

The fun reality of the matter is that there are 101 different ways to create a unique and exciting layout for just this one example, providing as many opportunities for getting it right. And it doesn’t have to be over-the-top, just interesting and readable. And, the more unique it is, the higher the perceived value; the ultimate goal.

The “I” in team

Another component of creating extraordinary designs is personalization. Any opportunity that exists to enhance products with a name and title or position, is an opportunity for more markup potential. If the product is one that can support a photographic image, the cash register is going to jingle a few more times.

However, one of the downsides to personalization is that it has traditionally been limited in terms of mass-production. Newer technologies such as digital direct-to-substrate/garment printing, transfers and sublimation simplify this. They allow for a template to be customized by dropping in personalization as needed. It may be a bit slower to produce 48 personalized pieces than 48 look-alike ones, but the corresponding increase in markup will more than justify the extra time.

Another approach that works well for apparel is to stick with a standard design for the front and/or back areas, and then add personalization to a stand-alone area such as a sleeve or the back yoke. Screen printing could be used for the large areas, and then a digital process for the personalized sections.
Regardless of the method used to accomplish it, the bottom-line is to always focus on turning ordinary designs into extraordinary works of art, as its one of the simplest ways to make higher margins and to move ahead of the competition. Treat every job, no matter how basic, as an opportunity to create excitement through visual enhancement.