Friday, 15 August 2014

Website Launch (+tips for making your own website)

PART I - My website (the tips are in part 2)

Finally a new blog entry, if only to announce that I have finally launched my personal website.


The main part is the gallery, where you can find all my t-shirt designs with links to the online stores where you can buy them.

There are also Photos and Misc sections for postcards and other products that I sell, but the pages are still under construction, and there's an 'under construction' Art section, where my future art prints will be exhibited.

On the news page you will find any updates on my recent activity.
On the links page you will find, well, links to all my website profiles related to design.
You can also head over to the quotes page, where you can read the genuine responses of famous people and animals when asked about StrayCat Graphics.

There are also lots of cats, hover titles and an Easter egg or two. Happy browsing! :)


PART II - The promised tips

To make this entry at least a bit useful, here is some advice for those about to make their own website.

NB! This implies that you have some knowledge in webdesign, otherwise it would be easier to find/pay someone to do it for you.
If you are learning on the spot, the process would take quite some time, so it's up to you to decide if it is worth it and if the skills you'll learn are going to pay off in the future.

(You may, of course, be using a content management system and ready made themes, but I am a DIY kind of guy, so I'm not going to cover that case, and I'll just assume you are writing everything from scratch on notepad, the way I do it and the way it should be done, haha.)


Preparation:

1. Before you start working on your website, you should have a clear idea of what you want to achieve with it. What are you offering, what would a user expect to find on your site, what is your target group, what would be the best design and approach, etc.;

2. Find a suitable hosting for your needs; take the following into account:
- Where is the server based? Where are your visitors going to access it from? I live outside USA, but I aim at the US market, so I found a local host, which offered a US server for a good price;
- Do you plan to change or have the option to change your host, domain or anything else in the next three or four years? There are tons of hosts with good advertising and not so good services, which can be really cheap, but only if you sing up for a long period of time (usually four years). If you are not OK with that, perhaps you should spend a bit more money for a one-year deal with a recognized provider;
- How much space and other extras do you need? Some premium deals offer lots of space, sub-domains, etc., but if you are not going to use all that, you might settle for a cheaper plan;


While designing:

3. While designing, be aware of the most popular resolutions overall; your website might look great on your desktop monitor, but awful on your laptop;
- according to w3school's statistics, only 7% of people have a resolution of 1024x768 or lower (not counting smartphones, I guess);
- most laptops work with 1366x768;
- more and more people browse through mobile devices (a useful chart for smartphone and tablet screen sizes can be found here and here respectively);

4. Keep your design consistent. You may have a great idea for the layout of a particular page of your website, but if it differs too much from the rest, user may find it confusing. Always think twice before spending time and efforts to make a cool design, only to find out it doesn't fit in;

5. Read a bit about writing website content (copywriting) and attracting and keeping the users' attention. What fonts you should or should not use, how should paragraphs look, what images are appropriate, is there too much going on, etc.


Regarding the code:

6. Once you start working on your actual website, keep your code clean and simple; there's no need to put everything within DIVs;

7. Write good meta data; skip the keywords, modern search engines only use those to detect spam; instead focus on clear, informative titles and descriptions of your pages; use the 'author' meta tag as well, and if you write articles, you might want to verify your authorship by linking your website (with rel="author") to your google+ profile and vice versa;

8. Text links are better than image links SEO-wise, though I myself use image links for the sake of design

9. Static websites (just plain html and css) have nice and simple URLs that are user- and search-engine-friendly. Dynamic websites (javascript, php), on the other hand, are more convenient if you have a catalogue, for example, and have to work with a database. Bonus tip - you can rewrite your dynamic URLs to static ones, but it can be tricky;

10. Set up google analytics on your website;

11. Make an xml map (there are services like xml-sitemaps.com that do this for free, if your site has less than 500 pages) and submit it to google webmaster tools;

12. After you've uploaded your website, run a check for broken links (again, there are websites that do this for free);

13. For more info on similar topics, be sure to read the Steps to a Google-friendly site, Google's Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide and Google's Webmaster Guidelines;



Saturday, 17 May 2014

Graphic Design Basics: Colours, pt. 2: Rich Black

In part 1.5, we settled for CMYK over RGB, as far as designing is concerned. And one the most important differences between the two is their default black.

RGB black is nice, deep and... well, black. CMYK's default black is dull and... grey. Why so? Because it uses only one ink, which may look well while you are designing (depending on the options), but when you export the file or, God forbid, print CMYK black, it shows its true grey nature.

Here's what I am talking about:


Represented with digits, it looks like this:

Rich Black

R: 0, G: 0, B: 0. It's simple. You block all light and you are left with the fathomless, ghastly black of the void.

Poor Black

C: 0, M: 0, Y: 0, K: 100. Print simple black ink on a white base and you get meh black.

Truth be told, no black would look super black when printed on a t-shirt with a Direct-To-Garment printer, as illustrated by this RedBubble graphic, but still, rich black would look better than poor black.

So what's the trick, then?

Well, working in CMYK doesn't stop you from having rich black. The default black in the swatch is C: 0, M: 0, Y: 0, K: 100, but all you need to do is change the colour of your shape or path to:

C: 75%, M: 68%, Y: 67%, K: 90%

This is the CMYK equivalent of RGB black. Of course, it means it will use colour ink, as well as black ink, to achieve that deep look, but you shouldn't be cheap on the inks if you are printing a t-shirt. :)


NB! If you are using Adobe Illustrator, the default CMYK black would be displayed as regular, rich black on screen. To avoid confusion, set the on screen option to "Display All Blacks Accurately". This is found in Edit -> Preferences -> Appearance of Black.

NB 2! If you are printing from a .png file, I have noticed that Illustrator doesn't export rich black properly when you use the "export" option to create the .png. You don't get true rich black, but sliightly greyer black.

There's an option "Output All Blacks as Rich Black", but the funny thing is that it only works on default CMYK black, not on all blacks as it claims.

Here is what I mean:


The difference is not that big, but I still prefer my files to use true rich black. The only workaround I found is to save the file as .eps, open it with Photoshop, change the colour space to RGB and save as .png.
It takes a bit of extra time, but at least I can sleep soundly in the knowledge that my black is proper all the way. :D

That's it for now, stay tuned for more graphic design tips.

Also check out part 1 and part 1.5.



Friday, 2 May 2014

Graphic Design Basics: Colours (Pt. 1.5)

So, after everything we've discussed in the first part, there is still one big question left unanswered.

Should I design in CMYK or RGB and which colour space should the final output file be saved in?

During the designing process, I always work in CMYK. It excludes any unprintable colours from the palette and gives me a better idea about how the final product would look.

I've read some people saying that their printers actually have a greater gamut than CMYK SWOP (Adobe's default CMYK space), so they use RGB and while there will be some colour loss when comparing the final product to the RGB file, it still gives them a greater colour range. I don't know much about the various printers' capabilities, so I won't call bullshit on that one, but the CMYK SWOP space is big enough for me in any case, so I stick to CMYK, and I suggest you do too. (If you had a super-duper printer with a wiiide colour gamut, you probably wouldn't be reading this blog entry anyway.)

Next, you need to know what method would be used when printing the t-shirt. If you are doing the printing yourself, you should already know. If not, simply ask the people from the printing service or consult the FAQ of your chosen online retailer. The options are basically two:

1. DTG (Direct To Garment, or simply digital printing). In this case, you should save your final file in RGB. Inkjet printers would automatically convert the colour space to RGB, but you don't want to trust a printer with that, so it's best to save the file in RGB by yourself.
In addition, the best format to save in (unless the printing service accepts vector files) is png (it is lossless, supports transparency and doesn't take up much space), and png doesn't support CMYK, so you will be forced to save in RGB anyway.

2. Screen printing. With screen printing, you should not only use CMYK, but probably spot colours, if the press is manual. With automatic presses four colour printing is OK too. In addition, screen printing would require image preparation, which can be done by you (maybe I'll do a blog entry about colour separation in the future), or by the printing service. Again, you should ask them for guidelines.


Coming up: Graphic Design Basics: Colours Pt. 2 - Rich/True Black vs Default CMYK Black.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Graphic Design Basics: Colours (Pt. 1)

RGB vs CMYK

What are RGB and CMYK in the first place?
Well, RGB and CMYK are colour spaces. Colour spaces are abstract models or systems describing colours as numbers. CMYK is used for printing and RGB is used for monitors, scanners and cameras.

So what is the difference between the two?
There are several ways to look at it, but technically, RGB is an additive colour model, where red, green and blue light (hence RGB) is added together, producing various colours. It starts with a black base (absence of light) and it adds (emits), you guessed it, light.
CMYK is a subtractive model, it starts with a white base (a sheet of paper, for example) and reduces the reflected light via ink. The four ink colours are cyan (greenish blue), magenta (purplish red), yellow and black. (The K in CMYK stands for key, not for black. The key plate is the one that contains the details and usually uses black ink (if there are only two colours and no black, it uses the darker colour), so it's still OK to think of the K in CMYK as of black.)

In short, RGB combines light to create brighter colours and CMYK combines inks to create darker colours.

Here's a practical example: everything you see on your computer monitor, tablet, and phone is in RGB mode, and they use a direct light source to display colour. (What you see on your TV is probably in YUV mode, though, but that is an additive space too.)
The Game of Thrones poster on your wall and that ticket for the Arcade Fire concert you printed on your home printer are in CMYK mode. (Your childhood drawings are not strictly CMYK, because you probably used more watercolours than four, but they are still subtractive.) They use paint/ink to affect the amount of white light reflected from the surface, thus producing a colour image.

Or, the SUN is RGB, and the MOON is CMYK. (This is not right, of course, but you get the point.) The sun is a direct light source, while the moon reflects light. That's the second way to think of RGB and CMYK.

And the third way is even easier. You can imagine CMYK as a limited version of RGB in terms of brightness (this is technically correct only if we talk about what you see on your monitor).



On the other hand, CMYK has a greater number of colour shades, at least in a perfect world. CMYK is a four channel mode (cyan, magenta, yellow and black), and with 8 bits (2^8 = 256 colours) per channel this means 256 x 256 x 256 x 256 = 4.3 billion colour shades. RGB only has three channels (red, green and blue), which means 256 x 256 x 256 = 16.7 million colour shades.

In other words, CMYK has a greater gamut (colour range), while RGB has a brighter gamut (none of the 4.3 billion shades would be so bright as RGB colours can be).

But you can't really see the full glory of those 4.3 billions on your laptop or on your t-shirt.
First, the human eye itself can distinguish "only" 10 million colours.
Second, everything you see on a monitor is, as said, in RGB mode, which can simulate CMYK, but is still limited to 16.7 million colours. Or to 900,000, really, because computers work mostly with sRGB (the colour space created for standard use on monitors and printers). And even if you use Adobe RGB in Photoshop, that still gives you about 1,3 million colour shades.
And third, you don't need so many colours. In Photoshop, for example, you can only enter integer percentages for the CMYK values, which gives you 100 x 100 x 100 x 100 = 100 million combinations out of the potential 4.3 billion. Because, let's face it, C:55,00% or C:55,04%, it doesn't make any difference.

And in practice graphic designers work with a lot less colours. To avoid differences between what the client sees on a monitor and what is printed (to make things worse, different printers give different results), designers often use colours swatches. The standard here is the Pantone matching system. The Pantone process colour swatch book has 3000 colours (although there are some swatch books that go up to 20,000+) and the Pantone solid colour swatch book has 1,114 colours.

And now that I've mentioned Pantone, I think I should say a few words about:


Spot printing

We've been talking only about CMYK printing so far, or, more correctly put, about four colour process printing.
A spot (or solid) colour, on the other hand, is one that is printed with its own ink, and not with a mixture of different inks. As mentioned, the most widely used spot colour system is Pantone.
Spot colour printing is practical when you are using few colours (no more than three), otherwise it gets expensive (because you need a new plate for each colour).
Also, CMYK can't recreate all Pantone colours. It is a subtractive model as well, but it uses 14 base colours, unlike CMYK's four. The CMYK counterparts are usually really close to the Pantone colours, but sometimes the difference can actually be noticed by the naked eye and you might want to use spot printing.

I won't go into any more details (I couldn't even if I wanted to, I've never had to use spot colours and printing so far), I just brought the subject up because I felt the post would be incomplete if I didn't. If you're interested, you can read more about spot (and global) colour here.


This completes the first part. Check out part 1.5 for an answer to the question What colour space should I work and save my files in?

Coming up: Graphic Design Basics: Colours Pt. 2 - Rich/True Black vs Default CMYK Black.


Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Copyright issues and Zazzle content guidelines

Is my artwork/design infringing any copyrights? If you are asking yourself that, the answer is probably yes. Well, actually, copyright laws are vague and even if you are familiar with them, your interpretation might be different from that of the other party. So after having wasted some time on designs which turned out to be unusable due to copyright claims, I am now going only with "safe" designs. Here are some quick guidelines: 1. Typefaces are not subject to copyright; fonts (the software used to write with a particular typeface), however, are. Logos can be copyrighted too. So selling a t-shirt with this image:


would be illegal. But this would be OK:


2. Quotes are not subject to copyright, or at least partial quotes. You can't copyright a short phrase like "Baby, I love you", but you can copyright the lyrics to a whole song. The line between a "general" and a "distinctive" quote is vague, I guess, but overall short phrases are OK to use. That's why they couldn't copyright the "Keep Calm and Carry On" phrase, for example. 3. Movie titles and character names are also somewhat vague. Titles are generally not subject to copyright and you can't hold the rights for the name John, of course, but you can't name your dragon Smaug, that's already taken. That's why I had to remove any references to The Hobbit, Smaug and Tolkien from the description of this design:


So it became simply a random dragon. 4. Parody is apparently protected by fair use. But parody as in "criticism on the original subject", and not parody as in "something funny". That's way this design of mine was taken down by Zazzle:


Zazzle received a complaint from the copyright holder and simply notified me that they are taking it down. There wasn't much I could do. I thought this counts either as parody, or is original enough to be considered a separate work of art (I hadn't used any parts of the original "Get Lucky" cover design, I started from scratch, using the image only as reference). But that wasn't the case, or at least I wasn't willing to waste time arguing. At any rate, even if you use a photo/image only as reference, if it's close enough to the original, you can get sued. That's why the Associated Press filed a lawsuit against the guy that made the Obama Hope poster:


(Eventually they settled the thing out of court.) And that's why I can't use this design:


(Originally I couldn't find the copyright holder, but I was conscientious and looked deeper and find out that the photo was taken by John Wyatt. I don't know if this is the writer John Wyatt (1925–2006), but even so, there is still someone holding the rights. (Usually 70 years have to pass since the author's death before the work of art gets into the public domain.) Theoretically, I could find the copyright holder and reach an agreement with him (some people would let you use their work for free, if it is for non-commercial use, but for commercial purposes you'd usually have to pay royalties), but I don't think the wasted time and efforts would be worth it. 5. Depicting celebrities is also illegal. That's why I decided to go for a "stickman" Steve Buscemi in this design, and not for an actual silhouette portrait.


Due to Zazzle's content guidelines, I also had to remove the text below the quote, which said "Mr. Pink". Because Zazzle's guidelines are even stricter. You can find the full list here. The first point, which refers to copyright, is, once again, not very clear. - No text or images that infringe on any intellectual property rights including, but not limited to copyrights, trademarks and rights of privacy/publicity. It is nearly impossible to get a proper explanation out of the support team and my experience with them has been almost as frustrating as this guy's experience with Apple's Genius Bar. Basically what they say (if they say anything at all) is usually this:
Generally speaking, we are unable to carry products containing a copyright or trademark protected title, name, or image. Examples of infringing material include: --pictures and/or names of celebrities --names of characters from books, films, or television shows --titles of books, feature films, television shows, or magazines --images from films, television shows, video games, or the internet
And this doesn't apply only to the design itself, but also to the title, description and tags of the product. That's about it. I hope this might save you some time and troubles. PS Here's a tip - if you use Zazzle's "Quick create" tool to create a batch of products, they are going to be examined carefully and there is a greater chance that they will get rejected. If you create a single product, it gets published directly and while it may get rejected subsequently, this doesn't happen as often. I am not talking only about designs that are in the "grey area" of copyright, I don't condone cheating the system. But designs might get rejected due to other reasons as well, for example tag spam. I had a single product accepted, and then a batch of products with the same design and tags rejected, because of tag spam. (Even though the tags I used were all related to the design.)

PPS If you like the "Get Lucky" design, you can download the hi-res, 300ppi png file (with transparent background and without the StrayCat Graphics logo) here for free and print it at a local shop or whatever you like.

PPPS You can also download the Tolkien design for free here (12" x 12", 300 ppi, transparent background).

Sunday, 30 March 2014

My first sold t-shirt

While I've busy setting up my store on Zazzle, I unexpectedly made my first sale (yeay!) on CafePress.
I had only two designs there and had given up on using the site, because it is anything but user-friendly (at least for the sellers). But I might begin uploading there again, since I don't seem to be able to sell anything on Zazzle.

Here's is the design in question.



If you like it, you can buy it on Zazzle or CafePress.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

About selling t-shirts

So you think making and selling t-shirt designs would be a good way to earn some cash? This may and may not be true, depending on what you think a good way to earn money is and there are some important things you’d want to know before giving it a try.

I don’t mean to sound disheartening, on the contrary, I’d like to encourage you by preparing you for what lies ahead.

First, it’s not a “get rich fast” thing. It’s a business, and as every business, it requires investments, in this case mainly time, but also some money. I’ve already dedicated two months to doing research, making designs, setting up my online store and I am only now beginning to advertise on tumblr, deviantart and blogger, and I am yet to make my own website and facebook and g+ pages. And to actually sell my first t-shirt.

For some people things may progress faster, but as far as I’ve gathered from different online forums, the general case is that months should pass for things to get going.

And second, selling designs involves a lot more than just making and uploading them.

So, here’s a list of most of the things I have been busy with during those two months.

1. First of all, doing my research.
- What kind of designs people are interested in? Do I want to make a bunch of almost identical designs, make text t-shirts by the dozen and overall flood the internet with easy to make, stupid t-shirts, or invest time and efforts into making more clever, more artistic and better executed designs? And which ones would the customers prefer? (The answer isn’t that obvious as it might seem.)

- Is it OK to use pop cultural references, copyrighted material, etc.? (I’ll cover the copyright thing in a separate blog entry later on.)

- What about getting paid once the money starts raining? What do I have to know in order to fill my W-8Ben tax form? What documents do I need in order to apply for an ITIN number at the IRS (since I am a non-resident alien)? How and where can I certify a copy of my passport, so that the IRS accepts it?

- What kind of an online retailer it would be better to start working with? One that accepts all kinds of designs for all kinds of products, like Zazzle, Cafepress, Spreadshirt, etc., or one that prints limited quantities of t-shirts that have gathered enough likes, like Threadless or Qwertee? One that is popular and has tons of customers and designers, or one that has less (meaning that it will be easier to get noticed, but there are fewer people who buy from there in general)?

2. Once I’d made my choice (I chose Zazzle, but I’m beginning to think I should have tried a smaller retailer like Wordans), I had to get used to adjusting my designs to the particular requirements. It’s small things, mostly, but there are different details you have to take into account –ppi, files size, file format, working with CMYK or RGB, etc. Some retailers require 150ppi for t-shirts, others 200 or 300, some have a print area of 14” x 12”, some 11” x 11”, some use one printing method, others use others (for example there are very strict guidelines for plot printing on Spreadshirt) and so on. This is not that much of a problem, particularly if you are working with vector images, but it takes time, especially if you are uploading to several different sites.

Additionally, different sites have different systems for uploading designs and creating products, and they can be particularly tedious. I’m getting used to that of Zazzle, which is relatively user-friendly, but I gave up on that of Cafepress, which is simply abysmal.

3. Making the designs themselves. For now I stick to simpler designs, but I do intend to switch to more artistic and complex ones, as soon as my (hopefully) improving skills allow it. And I usually spend a lot of time even on simple vector graphics, because I want everything to be perfect. Which is stupid, because most people won’t notice the details, but I feel satisfied when I know I've done my job properly.

4. Some of my designs involve drawing, so I had to get used to working with a graphics tablet. It’s not as simple as I thought, there are various options (most of which I’m yet to take advantage of) and it takes time to start feeling at least somewhat comfortable with it.

5. Wasting time. Not procrastinating, but working on designs which eventually don’t turn out that good or get rejected for copyright reasons, taking hours to do something the hard way, when it could have been done a lot easier and faster, etc. These situations are bound to occur, but I try to think that I learn from them and this will save me time in the long run. (This is probably sloblock, but you gotta stay positive.)

6. Advertising my products. When I created my first few products on Zazzle, I didn’t expect to get rich within a week, but I was hoping for an occasional sale now and then. My expectations were based mainly on this video. The guy apparently made a hundred bucks in three months with just two simple designs and without doing anything else then uploading them. So If I uploaded ten designs on 100 products, I should expect regular sales each week, right? Well, that’s not really how it works. Zazzle is flooded with products and to get noticed, you have to make a lot more than 100 products and to advertise yourself. Make a website, a facebook page, blogs, everything, tag your products, use links, META descriptions and other basic SEO stuff. All of this takes time.

I am still in the beginning, as I mentioned above, I haven’t even sold a t-shirt yet, so I can hardly make any general conclusions, but I can say that it’s not that scary, at least if you can find your way around the Internet, you like new challenges and the activities described above don’t sound confusing.

But it is involving, you have to keep your store active, make new designs and advertise, which means dedicating some hours to your t-shirt business every day.

And you have to stay positive. Sometimes you might feel that your efforts are never going to pay off, but there are a lot of other people who have walked that road and participating in the forums (t-shirtforums.com, the Zazzle forum, etc.) can cheer you up.

In my future posts I will take closer look at some of the issues mentioned above. Take care for now!

- Lyubomir