As I have owned and ran a screen printing shop for well over 30 years, and have been writing software specific to screen printing since the late 90’s, I’m often asked what is the best software to use.

Well, the answer to this isn’t cut and dry, as there’s software to run the numbers end of the business and other products that are used to create artwork, color separations for t-shirts and for film output.  We’ll focus on the graphics software here and leave the business side to another day.

There’s four different kinds of graphics software needed:

  1. Illustration
  2. Image Editing
  3. Color Separation (Programs such as UltraSeps)
  4. Raster Image Processing (RIP)

Illustration Software:
  Also known as “Vector Software” and first on the list is likely the most important as its the basis for artwork creation.  Illustration software such as Adobe Illustrator and CorelDraw are needed for setting type, bending and shaping text, effects such as outlines and drop shadows, etc.

They are also used to draw objects, trace objects, apply basic spot color to text and simple images and are usually used for all film output.  For printers doing simple work only, such as sports league printing and basic text and logo type images, Illustration software might be all that’s needed.

Adobe Illustrator is king of illustration software and is the industry standard.  Learning and using Adobe Illustrator is where most all of those new to the screen printing industry should start.  I would avoid CorelDraw as it really lags in acceptance behind Adobe products.

In fact, recently I was talking with a friend who owns and runs a very large contract screen printing shop printing millions of shirts each year.  I asked him how often he receives CDR files, which is artwork created with CorelDraw.  His answer was, “maybe two or three in the past year”.  So that alone should scare anyone from using CorelDraw as its simply not widely accepted or used in the graphics and printing community.  Stick with Adobe here.

Image Editing Software:  Also known as “Raster Software” and second on the list is software used to enhance, clean up and modify complex images such as photographs for example.  Its also used to create high-end artwork and to assemble multiple images and graphics into a final version.  If you’ve ever seen a t-shirt with any type of realistic image or complex, dynamic color image, chances are its created and color separated using Raster Software.

This type of software is also the kind used to generated high-end color separations for screen printing such as Simulated Process, CMYK, Index Color and more.  Without Raster Software, its impossible to create those eye-popping designs and print them easily to t-shirts.

Adobe Photoshop is the overwhelming choice with raster software.  In fact, a true competitor doesn’t exist!  And please, don’t believe anyone that tells you otherwise!

Photoshop can be a bit daunting at first for those with little to no experience with it, but don’t let that scare you away, as its imperative to learn Photoshop if serious about doing great looking art and color separations.  The key to harnessing its power is to realize that only a portion of it needs to be understood, especially for those in the t-shirt business.

Color Separation Software:  Also known as Plugins, Actions and sometimes Scripts, make doing color separations in Photoshop possible!  These programs, such as UltraSeps and QuikSeps than run within Photoshop greatly speed up the process of color separation, and in many instances generate perfect separations without any further adjustment needed!

They can process the most complex images, such as photographs and full color graphics down into usable spot color channels.  These spot color channels are then output to film to burn your screens with.

Attempting color separations within Photoshop without the help of programs such as UltraSeps is almost impossible.  And for those who can actually do it themselves, well, they’ll normally spend an entire day on a single color separation when UltraSeps could have it completed within minutes or sometimes seconds.

Even the most talented and knowledgeable artists and color separators use color separation programs as a starting point to save tremendous amounts of time.  And for those newer with far less experience, there’s honestly no way to avoid using one.  And considering the low cost of plugins like UltraSeps, its really a no-brainer.

Raster Imaging Processing Software:  Also known as RIP Software is a must when requiring high-quality film output to an inkjet printer.  A RIP basically performs two vital functions.

#1 Makes it possible for an inkjet printer to image accurate halftones and the ability to easily change the halftone frequency, dot shape and angle.

#2 Provides a denser (darker) image to the film itself.  It does this primarily by employing the use of more than the single black ink head of an inkjet printer.  Modern RIP’s such as FilmMaker and AccuRip can send information to the color heads of an inkjet with a black ink cartridge installed (such as the cyan, magenta and yellow) to function when printing just black.  They also allow the end-user to make adjustments to the amount of ink sent to these other heads.

Although it is possible to create bitmap halftones of a color separation within Photoshop and simply send that file to an inkjet printer without a RIP, the results are not as good.  The halftone dots themselves may not be as clean and smooth and the ink density on the film will likely not be as dark.

It’s also cumbersome and counterproductive to not use a RIP if serious about your t-shirt screen printing business.  In the beginning a printer might be able to get by without one, but once consistent orders start rolling in, a RIP is going to be necessary.  Especially when needing excellent and repeatable film output that is certain to result in good performance on press.