Print expert Marshall Atkinson shares his essential steps to mastering the art of proofing

Every job that you produce in your shop will need to undergo some basic scrutiny to determine if it’s okay to print. After your press operator sets up the job, the next step has to be getting someone to okay the job so it’s ready to run. This could be a member of your art staff, a floor supervisor, maybe even a salesperson or customer service rep. It’s crucial though to have another set of eyeballs look the job over, and then sign off on job by autographing the work sheet.

A big question that has to be asked regarding this step is: “Are you training your staff to proof?” What goes into the decision that the job is okay to run? Do they know what questions to ask? Do they have the guts to tell the press operator that something with the job isn’t right and needs to be corrected? Are they experienced enough with your process to know what to look for?

Here’s a quick list of the things that you need to review when proofing a job during the approval process:

1. The basics

It all starts with the information on your work order and art approval form. Press crews shouldn’t have to think. All of the information they need to set the job up properly should be on one of two forms: the work order and the art approval form.

The work order has to have the basic information regarding the job. Shirt colour, quantity and sizes, number of print locations, due date, sales rep, and any special instructions should all be on the work order page. If your system has room for it, the work order could also contain a list with your print order, with screen colours, mesh counts and flash/cool down stations (listed in the correct print order).

The art approval form must contain dimensions for each location, colours, imprint location tips (3” down from the collar for example), job name and number and so on. If you can, print this approval form in colour, so the press crews can see a basic representation of what the design should look like. The work order and art approval form are the key components in the proofing process, as you will use these to compare to the first strike off. Before signing off on a job, read these forms carefully so that you comprehend exactly what should be expected with the print.

2. Work macro to micro

To get started proofing, review the shirt just in general basics and then get down to details as you proceed. Compare the strike off with the order information. Is the job printed on the correct shirt style and location? Is it correctly printed on the shirt and not off-centre or crooked? Are all the colours registered to each other? Are there any obvious problems that need to be corrected? How is the print quality: smooth and nice on the shirt or are there discernible issues?

3. Printing on junk shirts or pellons

Lots of shops may print the first strike off on a junk shirt or a pellon. This is a common practice and a good one as you don’t want to ruin good blank shirts for registration test prints. However, you should not sign off on a job by using a test print on a junk shirt or pellon – ever. There is more to the job than just colour and registration, as placement and the general quality of the print on the real production run garment is critical too. If the junk shirt or pellon looks great just say to the printer: “Can you show me one on a real shirt?” I’ve seen jobs that look great on a test print but have issues later when printed on the actual shirt for production. Be careful!

4. The index finger rule

I like to use my index finger and point to areas on the shirt and then on the art approval form. This is great for reviewing spelling with verbiage, but also wonderful when comparing different elements. I call it the ‘Old Librarian’, as that’s kind of what it looks like. For proofing I have always gone with the approach that there is something wrong and I just have to find it. It’s like a game: “Find what’s wrong and win a prize!” Carefully compare both and they should be the same.

5. Using measuring devices

There are two measuring devices that you should always use – a ruler and a Pantone book. If the art approval form shows that the design should be 12” wide, then it needs to be 12” wide. Close doesn’t count, as that is what your client is going to find wrong. For colour matching, it’s critical that colours are accurately mixed and printed. It doesn’t matter what’s in the bucket, what matters is what’s printed on the shirt. If you have problems matching colour hues when printing over a white underbase, you should learn the tricks needed to match colours accurately. Colour matching is easily the number one reported problem from clients in printing, so great care should be taken to ensure that you hit the colours specified. When reviewing for colour accuracy, sometimes lighting can affect how the colour looks when comparing from the T-shirt to the Pantone book. If you are unsure, I always recommend going outside and checking out the differences in natural sunlight (or use daylight corrected bulbs in a viewing area). Fluorescent bulbs can give off colour casts and that can alter your perception of how the colour appears.

6. Ask for help

When in doubt, ask for help! I can’t stress this enough. If something just doesn’t look right, but you can’t decide what is the problem or maybe even how to fix it, the best thing you can do is to ask someone else’s opinion. A few minutes spent explaining the problem could save you a lot of money, rather than just signing off on the job and moving on.

7. Slow is fast

You can’t rush quality. No matter how long it takes to get the job approved and printing correctly, it’s always going to be faster than reprinting the job in a few days if you approve something that isn’t right. Be sure your staff is comfortable with spending the time making it right. Press crews are often judged on the amount of work they print a day, their set-up times and other factors. Quality printing has to be one of them. It doesn’t matter how fast a printer you are if your client rejects the print. Slow down and do it right.

8. Training

For some that’s a dirty word. Use real examples and show your staff problems so they know what to look for. What does ‘out of registration’ look like? Find a print with the circle R that’s missing. Show one with reflex blue over white, and how the blue will print lighter. Use a shirt that was printed slightly crooked, or over to one side. Trust me, over time you are going to see all of these and more. Save them, and use your mistakes to train your staff to know what to look for in quality control, and how to manage the challenges.

Getting screens set up and registered so the job is ready to go is a skill that press operators and crews have to handle every day. Getting their work approved so the job can be produced and the next one got going is a skill too. You have to know what to look for, questions to ask, and have some intestinal fortitude to tell someone that there’s a problem. The more that you train and insist on excellence in your shop, the better your final product will be going out the door.

Marshall Atkinson is the owner of Atkinson Consulting, LLC, a service firm focused on the decorated apparel industry for process improvement and efficiency, sustainability, employee training, social media marketing, and long term strategic planning. He has over 20 years experience in the decorated apparel industry and has championed two companies to become SGP certified sustainable printers. A frequent trade show and webinar speaker, he also publishes his own weekly blog.