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How to maximise your designs for making merch

Making your designs into printed merchandise can be daunting, so we’re here to demystify the process and give you some tips on prepping your designs for products like enamel pins, screen-printed t-shirts, art prints, embroidered caps and more…

Merchandise can be a valuable income and a brilliant way of showcasing your design and illustration talent. There are so many options out there that the best route to turning one of your designs into printed merchandise can be confusing. We’ve covered print-on-demand services in the past, but what if you want physical items to sell at events, display on stalls or sell online on platforms like Etsy or your own website?

We’ve distilled our design knowledge into some bitesize tips that cover what print companies generally want to receive for different projects and ways you can apply your designs to a wide variety of commonly sold products.

What printers want: the basics

Different print companies have different preferences. So depending on what print company you use, their specific requirements for a project may vary. Don’t be disheartened by technical jargon, here are some general rules to live by:

  • If a print website supplies their own blank product templates, use them, or at least check them against what you plan to send them to ensure the size and settings in your document match.

  • 300dpi is the standard minimum resolution for raster artwork, so keep this in mind when creating your illustrations and design work.

  • Us a CMYK colour setting. This is because printing works in CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black), but your computer monitor works in RGB (Red, Green, Blue).

  • Most websites will accept .EPS format for vector files and layered .PSD, .PDF or high resolution (300dpi or greater) .PNG, .TIF or .JPEG files for raster artwork.

  • 3mm is a standard size bleed for most artwork—this means your design ‘bleeds’ over the edge of the page to avoid gaps on the edges when the product is trimmed. For example, an A3 size art print needs to be designed with an extra 3mm of background on every edge.

  • Keep text and borders away from the edges of your designs to avoid losing bits of text on items like art prints or postcards that are trimmed from a larger sheet of paper.

  • If you’re using fonts for typography, remember to embed your fonts when you export your .PDF or ‘Outline’ your text using Convert to Curves, so that no font replacement is required at the printers end. If you send your print company a design with a fancy font in that they don’t have installed on their computers, it will display as a default font at their end.

Keeping your options open

There’s no use in making a 5-inch by 5-inch design in raster and then hoping to make a good quality A1 poster out of it further down the line. It’s good to think about the potential your design has to become merchandise while you’re designing it. Merchandise design will require your file to exist at lots of different sizes, so think about making your original design as large as the biggest product you envisage making, or make the design in vector so it can be scaled up to any size.

You also need to think about how your design will look on each item. To avoid it looking ‘stuck on’, consider your image placement. Perhaps you could turn a single image into a repeating pattern or change up your background elements.

Another thing to consider is whether you can make your design work as a simplified version. There are certain processes that will benefit from a single colour design or simplified graphics, so thinking about this at the start might be helpful further down the line!

One design and three variations using monochrome and single colour versions.

Creating your original artwork in vector can be a great time saver. The beauty of vector is, it’s always editable, can be scaled to any size—from a 3cm badge to a 30metre banner (or bigger), it’s crisp so screen-printers love it, it’s easy to recolour and it never loses resolution.

Different types of merch to consider

1. T-shirts

Boom box design by Matt Searston on a black t-shirt.

T-shirts are one of the first things that come to mind when we think of merchandise, and rightly so. They are a staple of many designers and illustrators merchandise lines.

In these increasingly digital times, many good quality t-shirts are still screen-printed using traditional methods. Your design is transferred to a screen made of fine mesh using a photographic process, ink is passed across your design on the screen using a squeegee, with the ink going through the screen to apply your design onto a t-shirt or other surface. This can be partly automated but many companies use a rotating carousel and drying machine but the printing itself is done by hand.

A person applying ink to a screen on a t-shirt printing carousel.

When designing with screen-printing in mind, think in layers. Each colour used in your design will be printed with an entirely different screen, over the top of a previous layer. Each screen costs money and time to dry and print. So the more colours, the more expensive your design is likely to be to produce.

When supplying a design with multiple colours, each colour needs to be on a separate layer of your file so a screen can physically be made to print that part of your design. With all that in mind, single-colour designs are usually cheapest and can also look incredible when done well.

If you’re printing on black t-shirts some colours will need to be ‘overprinted’ as the inks can be a little transparent and can get lost on a dark coloured garment. This means the base layer of white ink will need to be printed behind your colour and importantly this needs to be factored into your design. A good t-shirt printing company will be able to give you advice on what they need to make your design to look awesome!

DTG vs Screenprinting

DTG or ‘Direct to Garment’ printing is getting better and better, it used the be a realm of plasticy ‘stuck on’ prints on cheap-looking t-shirts but it’s come such a long way in the last few years. If you have a complex, colourful design with lots of colour and tone variation this might be a good choice for your design but shop around.

2. Enamel Pins

Enamel pins have become hugely popular and collectable over the last few years, so are a great option for design-based merchandise. There are two different kinds of enamel pins—soft enamel and hard enamel. The main differences are that hard enamel creates a shiny flat pin where soft enamel creates a textured pin where the colour sits in the recess of a raised metal lines. More detail can be achieved with soft enamel and it is a cheaper process, generally making the pins more affordable to make, but the hard enamel has a shiny smoothness that is super appealing!

When you design for enamel pins each colour needs to be separated by a thin line of raised metal, the colours sit inside each outlined section, otherwise, they’d run into each other. You may need to simplify your artwork, spaces containing colour shouldn’t be too small and your outlines that will form the metal area should be around 0.2mm at the smallest. Here’s an example of our own Affinity enamel pin badges.

The metal part of pins can come in different colours and finishes, from gold and silver to multicoloured anodised metal, there are so many beautiful options to choose from.

The Affinity enamel pin designs alongside their colour swatches.
The Affinity Designer and Photo enamel pin badges.

3. Embroidered caps or beanies

Wearable merchandise can be both practical and beautiful. Embroidered caps, patches and beanies can make a fantastic addition to your merch line. Embroidered designs are created using different coloured threads sewn onto fabric. More colours mean more different threads, which can mean more cost to you. This is where having really strong line-art, or a design that works well in one colour once again becomes useful!

An embroidery machine at work making an embroidered cap.

Embroidery machines can do a great job of detail but generally need bold lines to look effective. Many will work from vector files such as EPS.

Below you’ll see our embroidered Affinity caps as an example. Sometimes less is more.

The ultra-rate embroidered Affinity cap.

4. Die-cut stickers

Matt Searston’s boom box design as a die-cut sticker.

Who doesn’t love stickers? A die-cut sticker is usually a single large design which is cut out in an irregular shape. Traditionally this was done using big metal cookie-cutter style dies which would be custom made and costly. Nowadays there are more digital and lazer cutters in use for smaller print runs, but the key thing is that they still need to know where to cut! That’s where you come in!

A design which you plan to have cut out is usually supplied to the printer with a separate vector layer, showing the shape you want cut and the position it needs to be in relative to your design. It can vary but printers may specify how complex the cutout shape can be—you may be limited to a vector shape with 5 nodes for example. You will also need to consider ‘registration’ or how the design lines up with where it needs to be cut and consider that there will be a margin for error—that’s why shaped stickers usually have a wide white border around them to avoid cutting into your design.

A die-cut vinyl sticker of the former Affinity Designer icon logo.
Watercolour Art Vinyl Stickers by Stationery Hoe.

5. Art prints with a fancy finish!

Art prints are an awesome way to share your work with your followers, there’s nothing quite like seeing your design framed and hung up in someones home! Of course, you can get a standard print made on high-quality paper; send a high-resolution version of your design at the correct size to your print company and job done! But what about the trend for art prints with gold foil, or areas that are varnished to look shiny?

An art print version of Matt Searston’s boom box design.

First and foremost the printers need to know which parts of the image you want to feature UV varnish or gold foil etc. Depending on the print company and the finish you’re looking for, this can be done in a few different ways, but communication is key.

One method is to use a Spot Colour and communicate that every instance of the spot colour in your design should be UV varnish or gold foil. If you export to PDF with layers enabled, you can make a separate top layer that contains all your Spot Colour instances. Name that layer ‘UV’ or ‘gold’ and it will be clear to the print-house which areas are designated your special finish.

Other inspiration

I hope we’ve been able to inspire you to see how one piece of artwork can become multiple really impressive merchandise designs. Here are some other ideas you could run with;

  • Turn your design into a repeat pattern for fabric, cushions, notebooks, or other stationery products that work well with repeating designs.
Repeat pattern cushion with a cat design.
  • Mugs or re-fillable coffee cups for on the go, the design world runs on coffee right?
An eco coffee cup with an illustrated design printed onto it.
  • Not all merch has to be physical, digital downloads for phone or desktop wallpapers are still a thing.
  • Matt’s boom box design appeals to music lovers, so merch targeted direct at musicians could be a winner—record slip-mats, guitar picks—you’ll find print companies offering all kinds of weird and wonderful products you can print your designs onto that might complement your design. Made an illustration of doughnuts…maybe a teatowel?! Drawn a mermaid…how about swimming caps? (these are all merch items we have seen illustrators selling!).

Remember to tag us on Instagram with #madeinaffinity so we can see your merch designs!