15 Awful Mistakes Made by Designers in the Music & Apparel Industry – 1 of 3

Fail Kid

Designers in the music and apparel industry are some of the most talented designers around. I’m willing to bet there isn’t a sector of graphic design that allows more creativity and more artistic freedom. Despite the amazing talent and style, the “scene” suffers from a few fatal flaws that need to be remedied. If you’re a designer and your client base consists mostly of bands and clothing companies (myself included) then you need to read this.

I’ve interviewed nine of the premier designers in the music and apparel industry. Each designer had lots to say about the subject and spoke from their own experiences as well as what they observe in the design community. I’ve compiled a list of 15 mistakes and summarized the key points for each. I decided to split this into 3 posts because there is just so much information to take in. Parts 2 and 3 will be available soon.

Designers who offered their opinions to this article.

Rob Dobi Dan Mumford Derek Deal
Jimiyo Geoff May Justin Ryan
Laurie Shipley AJ Dimarucot Jimmy Heartcore

1. Not Charging Enough

This topic rears its ugly head on internet message boards all the time. Experienced designers are upset when they’re trying to earn a living doing what they love while “kids in their mom’s basement” are doing it for free and taking their clients. Anyone can find a copy of Photoshop and start imitating the trends and offer their work to their favorite bands for free. Derek Deal put it nicely:

People get into this industry because of their connection to the music, and tend to do a lot of favors to be affiliated with the bands that inspire them. – Derek Deal

Many of the artists I interviewed charged next to nothing starting out. It’s how they built their portfolio. But they were smart enough to raise their rates as demand increased.

At first, I believe it’s okay to charge a little lower than expected just to get your feet wet, but when you become a little more established, don’t fear raising your prices. Then again, don’t gouge them either. – Chris Sandlin

Design is not just a throwaway commodity

I know some very talented designers that complain they can’t pay their bills or quit working a second job. I later find out they’re charging $50-100 for a t-shirt design that takes them 12 hours to complete. They’re sad and depressed and are struggling. Being a designer does not mean you aren’t allowed to make a good living.

You want to be the “go to guy” for labels and merchandise companies so you think charging next to nothing for your work is the way to become that guy. You couldn’t be further from the truth. – Geoff May

It confuses clients when designers do not understand pricing and fail to charge what they’re worth. It furthers the perception that design is just a “throwaway commodity.” Clients will think that every designer should be charging that low.

It devalues your work. When you give your work a price, it sends a message to the client about how much value they’re getting.

Large companies/labels and bands know this. If you quote them at 10% of what they were expecting, they may think the quality won’t be good and go with someone else. If you don’t buy this, just look at those freelance sites where people post jobs and artists/coders all over the world bid on the project. More often than not, the middle of the road or high price gets picked over the low end price. – Justin Ryan

Phantom Planet designSome blame can be put on the client. for bullying designers into lowering their prices. They threaten them by giving the job to someone else. They will also try to lure you in with promises of “exposure” which I will cover in Part 2.

Designers need to be firm in their pricing and not be afraid to lose jobs because of price. I know I fall victim to this from time to time. I know a particular client might not have money, but I’ll really want the job. Sometimes I’ll get the job and I will create something I’m proud of. But at the end of the day my bills aren’t paid.

I used to believe that to be able to get projects I should lower my prices. That hurts you a lot because you become valuable to a client only because you have the lowest price. With confidence and a better folio, I’ve set a minimum price for design work and let go of clients who can’t go bare minimum. This weeds out the ‘price-sensitive’ client. The good clients come back to me and say “we’d rather pay you your price because you do quality work.” – AJ Dimarucot

That said, it’s becoming harder and harder for a designer to support himself (let alone a family). When tee companies are charging over $100 for a t-shirt it’s only fair for designers to start charging what they’re worth. How do you know what to charge? Well, Bill already wrote a handy guide for designers about pricing. I suggest you give that a read.

There is always an exception to the rule. Doing work for free or cheap for something you strongly believe or for a good cause is acceptable. I do it all the time. Working for charity or a music festival that I feel passionate about is OK with me. Sometimes it allows you to do something more bold or daring because a client’s wallet isn’t associated with it. It allows me to spend time experimenting – something clients often do not have a budget for.

2. Ignoring Typography

Adam Law, Go Media’s own typography purist, put it best:

Typography is not something to be slapped onto a design at the end of the design process. The typography is just as important as the imagery, if not more, and should receive equal consideration from the beginning of the process. The goal of any good design is to communicate a message, and I find it disheartening when well executed imagery is ruined by a lack luster typographic treatment that seems completely disparate from the communicated idea. – Adam Law

Type is not an afterthought

You’ll be surprised at how much this happens. Artists often consider type to be an afterthought to a design. My fellow animation students in college suffered from the same problem. You’ve probably seen this – a brilliantly executed drawing or animation combined with awful type (maybe with an emboss or amateurish glow or drop shadow).

Browsing through Emptees, I see this comment A LOT: “Love the drawing, hate the type.” And also “Great design, but the type looks like an afterthought.”

Examples of “afterthought” typography

I’m no world class typographer, but I know how to place a bit of type or make something look cohesive, and I really hate when I open up a booklet that has great cover artwork, to find some horribly placed quickly done last minute layout, a lot of the time i think its really thought of as unimportant, and a last minute addition. – Dan Mumford

Watch your edges! Putting type too close to edges happens to be something Bill talks about in his discussion on spacing in his 7 Rules to Becoming a Master Designer Series.

Dan Mumford adds:

Don’t put type too close to the edge, it makes work look really amateurish. Of course, I’ve had work printed where I left a good 1cm from the bleed and the pressing plant cropped it so badly that the type only just made it, so keep that in mind with large bodies of text. – Dan Mumford

3. Unprofessional Behavior

Lack of maturity in the design community is a big problem today. I think it’s mostly because the Internet makes it easy for a 15 year old to compete with real pros like Ray Frenden. I think Ray is one of the most professional and mature designers I’ve ever come across. I wish I could have included his expertise in this article, but he wasn’t able to get back to me in time.

Maturity goes a long way.

But anyway, what constitutes unprofessional behavior?

  • How you write in emails (caps lock, spelling, grammar, etc)
  • How you speak on the phone (nervous, mumbling, etc)
  • How you act in online forums (trolling, name-calling, etc.)
  • How you treat other designers (patronizing, being disrespectful)
  • Bad-mouthing clients in public forums

Regardless of if you are the artist or client, projecting professionalism during the first few communications with each other is important. “Yeah yo, I’d be down to throw down fo ya. Wat you need?” is unacceptable. – Jimiyo

From my experience with places like Emptees and other design forums, there are certain individuals that stand out. There are those who give thoughtful insights and treat others with respect and there are those who act like children, have poor grammar, and call names. The rest kind of blend in and go unnoticed.

One of the sad realities in this business is that sometimes you are going to make something for a client, and absolutely fall in love with it, only for them to straight up not like it. Don’t let it make you bitter towards them. Most clients can sense this and will not stand for it. It’s kind of like being a chef. Not everyone is going to like your signature dish. – Justin Ryan

4. Over Promising

If you can't do it just say so.

A common mistake made by designers is over promising. I have done it before. In fact, we ended up losing a lot of money on a project because we over promised and couldn’t deliver on time. We took a major cut in our income because of it and we are still recovering months later.

But we’ve all been there. A new record label contacts you and needs three designs by the end of the day. Out of fear of losing the job, a designer will likely tell the label they will do it no problem (and probably without getting a deposit first, a double fail).

Geoff May has been in this situation before. He tells us that it’s a bad situation to be in for two reasons:

1. There’s no way you’re doing your best work. Period. If you’re cranking out a design in an hour you’re either the most prolific designer/artist in history or you’re not doing your best work. Sure, sparks of creativity hit us all from time to time and we’re able to make something amazing in a short amount of time. The odds of lightning striking three times on the same project are very slim. And by “slim” I mean “impossible”.

2. You are setting yourself up for failure and creating bad blood between you and the client. What happens when the deadline approaches and you’ve only just started the second tee? The record label is going to be curious as to why you told them it was no problem and now that the deadline has hit, here you are with not even half the job done. You think they’re calling you for their next project? Guess again. – Geoff May

Creating a false sense of security for the client is a no-no. Just be direct and straight forward. If it’s not possible, tell them! They will respect you for your honesty. To be honest, I would try to LOWER the client’s expectations. In fact, that’s a proven tactic to tricking your clients into happiness.

Words to live by: Under promise and over deliver. ALWAYS. – Geoff May

5. Not understanding apparel production

Vietnam Werewolf teeDesigners doing band merch or designing for upstart clothing companies SHOULD have a modest understanding of how apparel production works. When I designed my first shirt in 2004, nobody told me how it was to be done. In fact, the clothing company that hired me didn’t know either. All he knew was he wanted some “sick” t-shirts to sell.

Just from experience, I learned what was expected of me. I worked with a variety of apparel printers and they all want files different ways.

Jimmy Breen (aka Jimmy Heartcore) prints all his own shirts and also prints a lot of merch for Fueled by Ramen records. He has this to say:

Over the past several years of running my own print operation, I’ve encountered loads of artwork from designers that is horribly not ready for print. Sure, in most cases I can correct any issues – as a printer should be able to do. However, sometimes there’s just too much to fix.

If you’re giving artwork to your client that is for apparel production, and the artwork sucks – your client will end up getting charged more money from the printer for separations, corrections, etc. Do yourself and your client a favor. Learn the basics of apparel printing!

Each color in your design is going to have a separate screen for printing. This means that you want to keep the number of colors in your design as low as possible.

If you’re using Illustrator to design in, make sure all of your colors are uniform. Make sure the yellows are the same yellow. The black is black. Use the Pantone Solid Coated color book from your swatches library to select your colors. This makes printing directly from your file much easier.

If you’re using Photoshop to design, take care to put each color on it’s own layer while you’re designing. It keeps the printer from having to separate colors later on, and ensures that little details aren’t lost. Sometimes when separating out colors from a flattened image, Photoshop won’t register really small marks in a file and they end up getting left out. Label all of your layers by color.

Though there is a ton of information online, youtube is a great place to search for screen printing information. 95% of the people in the apparel industry use this method for transferring your design to a garment. Do some research!

I admit, I’ve designed shirts that people say are impossible to print. Stuff that goes over seams and uses too many colors. I am a firm believer that the designer doesn’t NEED to be the color separator as well. But people will disagree with me. Color separators get paid to do a job, and I will let them do what they do best.

I don’t want to do a shoddy job separating colors when the printer employs someone who can do this every day. I always find it annoying when some clients are able to print a flawless shirt using just a flattened JPG and other clients are confused and tell me their printer doesn’t know how to separate colors. Find a new printer!

Ignorance is only your fault

But being ignorant to apparel production is a mistake. If I can recommend a printer to my client that I work well with, it is not an issue. We work as a team. But if I am misinformed and have no resources to help a client get their shirt printed, then I am probably not going to get that client to come back to me.

To sum things up, young designers need to stop complaining about getting taken advantage of by clients and be firm in their prices. They need to quit acting like babies and be professional. You don’t have to be the cheapest and you don’t have to be an asshole to be successful. You just need to be good and reliable. And work on your typography and how it can be integrated more into the piece rather than stuck on at the end.

Feel free to discuss in the comments. I’m interested in hearing what you have to say.

10 more mistakes coming soon… A lot more controversial issues coming up in the next installment. Just give me awhile to get it edited and looking good.

Continue Reading Part 2

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