Pointers for Designers Working with Apparel Companies

Paint the Stars article header

There is often a disconnect between an artist and a screen printer. Problems often arise when there is a lack of understanding of the print process and a lack of communication between the designer and client. Screen printers get mad when a customer sends them a job that has a bazillion colors and is outside the realm of their capabilities to print. Designers get upset when a client can’t afford to pay printing costs on his brilliant 16 color shirt design.

So what should a designer know about working with apparel companies? What do they expect? How can you improve your chances of your designs getting approved?

Awhile back, I had asked Dave Pearson, founder of awesomely successful UK-based fashion company Paint the Stars, a few questions about this. And his answers were fantastic and insightful. Dave offers this advice to all designers who design t-shirts for clients.

I know that Go Media would often do 4 or 5 concepts for a company and they would all get rejected. We would be upset that the client didn’t accept our “artistic vision.” When truthfully, part of it was our fault for not following some of these suggestions. However, after reading through Dave’s suggestions, our approval has begun to increase noticeably.

Show Preliminary Proofs

Paint the Stars Skull DrawingI’d say one of the main problems we encounter when we hire people is that more often than not, designers don’t provide any kind of preliminary proofs. As a designer as well as someone who hires people, I know from both sides that design rejection sucks for both parties; for the client it’s always difficult to tell a designer that you’re ‘not feeling it‘ for whatever reason – it is essentially telling them that you don’t like their work. I’ve never found that to be an easy thing to do because designers work hard, so to be told that it’s not good enough can make you feel like you’ve wasted your time and, if it’s something that happens more than once with the same client, can start to make you question both your ability and your choice of client – nobody wants to be paid $200 to do 5 different designs before one is accepted.

I’ve had designs rejected before, I think it’s apparent that most clients find it difficult to do, because no-one ever says ‘Nah, that sucks’ ..they usually say ‘That’s awesome but…‘ or the classic ‘I’m not feeling it’. But because I’m also in their position I can sympathize with what a difficult thing to do that is when someone is putting their art out there for your acceptance. The flipside of that of course is that designers should be aware that the industry they are in is pretty black & white – clients rarely say ‘yeah.. it’s alright, I’ll take it‘, so they should be able to take rejection with a pinch of salt because of course, it’s never personal.

How to avoid getting your ego bruised

Paint the Stars Skull Shirt designed by Jeff Finley of Go Media The reason I always ask for proofs at the sketch stage is to try to avoid situations like this altogether – if someone provides you with a rough sketch that gives you some basic idea of where they’re going with it and you don’t like it, it’s not so much of a kick in the balls for them to be told that you don’t like it, because it’s just a sketch. When someone presents you with a full resolution ready-for-print design as your first proof it’s a lot harder to dismiss their efforts without alienating them, upsetting them or even pissing them off. We’ve actually taken a design before because we felt bad for the guy who did it because he clearly put a lot of effort into it, and we probably shouldn’t have done that. I think it’s equally important to receive proofs at each stage of the design process, not like for every hours work, just regular updates to keep track of the progress, again to avoid wasting everyone’s time and stepping on people’s toes.

Working with the brand’s art direction

Direction is a double edged sword for some companies (ourselves included) for a number of reasons. Many companies like Johnny Cupcakes and Pyknic have some of the most amazing and random ideas for tees and I’m told they’re quite specific, but generally their stuff is spot on because of it – of course giving a specific brief can give mixed results, especially when you have a clear vision in your mind of what you want, meaning that anything short of it will be a disappointment, which puts a lot of pressure on the designer.

But the brand’s idea sucks

The other element of giving direction is that sometimes your idea is god-awful. Generally a designer will know this, and will try to work with it as best as they can, but as the saying goes ‘you can’t polish a turd‘, so it’s not always a bad idea for an artist to try to implicate their own ideas onto the design, and usually, so long as the client is kept in the loop and its worked out, the client won’t mind you trying, and they certainly shouldn’t be afraid to suggest or try something if they feel it’s going to better the design.. we encourage it. Of course, if someone is 100% set on an idea then just do what they say – you are being paid and if they have enough faith in both the idea and your design then you should take their word for it and do it. You may hate how it turns out, but if it’s what they asked for – they’ll probably love it.

Go Nuts!! But first…

Paint the Stars Candy Hoodie designed by Go Media The other direction form, or non-direction rather, is saying to a designer ‘go nuts‘, and it’s equally risqué – this is usually based of the artists’ portfolio or reputation, and in some instances they’ll hit one out of the park, and in others they could miss the point, and you’ll be left embarrassed when you have to tell them that it’s not what you’re after, even though you clearly specified that you wanted them to ‘go nuts‘. This happened to us recently with one of our favorite designers, and it was embarrassing, but the problem there was probably in the artist not knowing enough background info on our company, which is something we should have made him aware of. If you have enough faith in a designer then allowing an artist to do what they like isn’t a bad idea – we work with this guy called Drew on every range, and his stuff is consistently amazing, but the problem with that is he doesn’t let us direct him, he just comes up with something, and we have to hope its good. As I said, it pretty much always is, but there have been times when things have needed changing. If you have your own style, or a designer has enough faith in you to have free roam of your imagination, then take a look at their existing stuff and come up with something that both stretches you and could fit into their range. That’s why they will have asked you.

Understand the company’s background

Paint the Stars Sugar Skulls shirt I always try to tell new designers we hire a little bit about our company and what kind of thing we do, in our case it’s a pretty alternative ’emo’ (eurgh..) type brand, but with our own inside jokes and unfunny references to retro and nostalgia thrown in… we also try to out ourselves across as a brand who doesn’t take themselves too seriously. A lot of brands take the ‘doing it for the art‘ route with high levels of integrity, which is fine, but we grew up listening to Blink-182, and we’re all about songs about ‘dicks and butts‘, and we try to purvey to our customers and our artists that we’re not too serious and pretty fun. There’s a level of immaturity to our brand, but we don’t see that as a reason to have people only designing shirts with wieners on them for us, so there’s nothing wrong with doing something out of character or serious because that alone doesn’t change the fun/stupid fascia of our brand. Companies don’t want hundreds of tees that are the same, they just want the same undertone to run throughout the brand, which is our job when marketing, and not entirely yours when designing.. just be aware of what a company is about and has done previously, they will have asked you because your style is something that they would like in their line, not because they think you can copy their other shirts.

Brands want variety

I think it’s important for an artist to get to know their client, or at least what they’re about as a company – because that allows you to design accordingly. I touched earlier upon a tee one of our favorite (and everyone’s favorite) designers did for us – he came up with this beautiful shirt and it was incredibly pretty and we loved it. But we looked at it and came to the conclusion that it just didn’t fit in with what we are doing; it was almost too beautiful.. and it was hard to tell the guy because he is not only awesome, and busy – but we’d also told him to ‘do what he likes‘. I think the downfall of that in that instance was that he didn’t know enough about our company, and had we have told him he’d have probably come up with something different. In the end he came up with something a lot more ‘us‘, and ironically, one of the best shirts I’ve ever seen anywhere.. It’s out in September.. keep your lookin’ balls peeled folks, you’ll know which one I mean.

I should add, I don’t think companies should stick to 1 genre or look, but I think it’s apparent when something doesn’t fit into your line and is out of context with your company. We have no problem with trying new things and we encourage it.. our new range is very broad, without being vague, as a result of that and we’re really stoked about that.

Be nice and professional

Paint the Stars Lost at Sea shirt Finally, there’s nothing wrong with being nice to a client. We’ve actually found that the more high profile designers are a lot more pleasant to work with then the low-end ones which could be down to being more professional and aware of how manners affect clients. If you are friendly and approachable towards a client, there’s a greater chance of a). you finishing the project faster because you feel more at ease with one another to share ideas and critiques and b). being re-hired by that client for another project. We’ve had plenty of occasions where we’ve approached artists whose work we love only to get a bullshit response like they’re doing us a favor as opposed to the reality of us doing them a favor by giving them money. And there’s been occasions like that where we’ve chosen not to follow it up and work with people like that regardless of how good their work is.

Clients contact you because they think you are good at what you do and are willing to pay for your services. When people contact me for designs I always take both of those things as a massive compliment because that’s what they are. There’s no need for feigned enthusiasm or niceties, but a little manners like your mother taught you wouldn’t go amiss, because it makes you seem more approachable. If you went into a shop and asked politely to try on some shoes, and the sales guy sighed and threw them at you whilst yelling nothing but the cost, you’d probably go somewhere else for your footwear.


  1. Proof! Lots! It’s time consuming sometimes, but a) you’ll build up a better relationship with the client and b) it’ll save you time if it gets declined at the sketch stage.
  2. Don’t take critique or rejection to heart. Clothing companies don’t enjoy having to reject anything and we all appreciate how much time and effort goes into work. If your design gets rejected, it’s nothing personal, because if it, was we wouldn’t have hired you in the first place. You may find your rejection level goes down if you send more proofs, as it means you are getting direction constantly rather than springing a thumbs up/thumbs down on a final design, because it is usually harder to take rejection on a finished piece.
  3. Direction – Listen to what your client wants, if they are adamant about a specific design then just do it because it’ll be what they’re after, but don’t be afraid to suggest or sketch out potential changes because each persons’ imagination only stretches so far and you may have thought of something that they otherwise wouldn’t have. If you are given free roam of a design, find out a little about your client first. (See number 4)
  4. Know the client. When working with a new company, find out what they’re about if they haven’t already told you – ask other designers what they’re like, check out their existing work, or simply ask the client because they’ll be happy to tell you. This will improve both your working relationship with the client and the chances of coming up with something they’ll like. You wouldn’t design a floral shirt for a cyber-goth company.
  5. Be nice to clients, they want to pay you for doodling and messing about with Photoshop because they like what you do.. that could be the best job in the world, and you should realize how lucky you are to be doing it and to have people wanting to pay you to do it. Take it as a compliment. It also makes you easier to give direction or critique to, and can usually guarantee repeat business between you and the client.

Check out Paint the Stars online store, they have a bunch of really cool shirts!

Paint the Stars has really cool shirts!