A Case Study


The imprinted apparel industry is rapidly evolving beyond the traditional spot-process silkscreen techniques that have been used for decades. It’s now relatively inexpensive for even the smallest shops to utilize new and innovative methods to get the products to the customer quicker and more efficiently than ever before.


While working as the Creative Director for Spectrum, the premier contract screen printer in Minnesota’s Twin Cities, I was tasked with researching the use of a cloud-based software platform that would allow our own customers to sell their products online and run more efficient businesses.


Custom Ink is the industry giant in the field of print-on-demand custom apparel.

The main objective was to study Custom Ink’s online platform to determine how to effectively adopt a similar program at Spectrum.


I partnered with our head of Research & Development, screen print wizard and local Minneapolis legend David Peroni. I handled much of the research and testing of the online stores, while he spent a considerable amount of time running test prints with our in-house direct-to-garment (DTG) printer, which allows for full-color process printing at a fraction of the cost and labor of traditional screen printing.


This project began around 2008, and competitors offering online design labs for print-on-demand were relatively few. At the same time, the DTG method of printing was still coming into its own. We were struggling with updating our in-house DTG printer, retrofitting it to allow us to print on darker garments. This was also meant to be a secondary task to my main role as Creative Director/Lead Designer, so I was only able to focus on this project during our company’s off-seasons and downtime.


This project was spread over the course of about 3 years. In that time, we had a short-term contract with Custom Ink, functioning as one of their contract printers in the Midwest. This allowed us to get a first-hand look at how their entire process worked, and whether or not it would be a benefit for us to adopt a similar program.


In addition to studying Custom Ink’s procedures, I began investigating Inksoft, a relative newcomer to the field (this was around 2009-2010). They were affording print shops the ability to set up their own online stores complete with a garment design lab, allowing their clients to create accounts and design their own shirts, bypassing both customer service and design departments. At face value, this appeared to be exactly what I was looking for.



I reached out to some of our more regular clients, focusing on those with smaller businesses of their own (often just a single salesperson with connections to local schools and organizations). I conducted 5 interviews, both in-person and over the phone. They were all asked the same questions.

  1. Have you ever used an online print-on-demand service? If so, which one(s)?

  2. Do you have an interest in an online design lab where you can decorate your own product?

  3. What product or products are you most interested in offering to your clients?

  4. Would you be more likely to use the design lab yourself, based on the knowledge of your client’s needs, or would you allow your client to access the design lab so that they could decorate their own products?

What went well?


Of the clients that I spoke with, four out of the five expressed great interest in a print-on-demand service, at least as a concept. I mocked up an example online storefront for them to experiment with, and with my assistance, they seemed eager and willing to give this a try.


Also, David was finally able to get the DTG printer fully functional for both light and dark-colored garments. We ran some tests using sample designs; we were able to run a decoration through the design software and have a completed pre-production sample within 24 hours of submission (versus a solid week using the traditional screen printed method). The quality and durability of the DTG prints were oftentimes superior to the spot-color screen print versions of the same designs.


What didn’t go well?


This all took place nearly a decade before I read Don Norman’s Design of Everyday Things, and as such, it was difficult for me to articulate to my clients that their lack of user comprehension with this new cloud-based software was not their fault. My clients were easily intimidated by the web-based interface and were too quick to chalk it up to their own ineptitude, as opposed to considering that perhaps the interface, itself, was at fault. And so, despite their initial interest, they still preferred to have the Art Department at Spectrum set up and manage the online storefronts on their behalf (effectively defeating the concept of the DIY print service).


What can be improved?


More partnership, more education. This project was completed nearly a decade ago; in that time, the cloud-based technology and browser-based interfaces have improved by leaps and bounds. Were I to introduce this service to those same clients today, I’ve no doubt that they could master it in a short period of time, with the confidence to spearhead the shops on their own without the need for me to manage it on their behalf.