From the first day I started work as a designer in the promotional products industry, I’ve seen the confusion and questions that arise regarding obtaining and using the proper artwork. “What kind of art files should I use?” “How do I get the right file types from my client?” “Do I need a graphic designer?” “How much should I pay for custom graphics?” “What is four-color process?” These questions are usually followed by furrowed brows, grunts and grumbles, and occasional weeping. 

The struggle to get the correct graphics for your clients’ orders is certainly real. This article, and its second part in next month’s issue, will answer distributors’ most common questions about artwork and ease some of the typical concerns. 

Industry artwork usually falls into two categories: existing artwork and custom-created artwork. The first refers to a logo or brand that has been produced and previously used by a client. It’s easy to obtain simply by asking your client for the type of file your supplier requires. However, since your client might not be familiar with specific file types, you first need to understand what your supplier is asking for.

The other category is custom-created artwork. It usually has a special purpose such as decoration for a custom product. Nine times out of 10, obtaining custom artwork requires working with an artist or graphic designer because of the specifications needed for the product.

The best product decoration is only as good as the artwork that forms its foundation. Let’s begin with the basics. 

Vector Images  Vs. Raster Images

Vector artwork is created with mathematical formulas used to calculate paths and curves, colors and more. In a vector file, the colors and size of an image can be altered while its clean edges are maintained, so the image will print cleanly and without degradation. Also, vector artwork can contain information regarding Pantone colors and can be easily changed to one-color art if needed, with a spot color assigned. A vector image can be resized to be as large as a building or as small as a postage stamp without losing image quality.

For promotional products such as pens and cups that typically require a one- or two-color imprint using Pantone or spot colors, or CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow and black), your suppliers will most likely require a vector file. These file formats use multiple types of file extensions including .ai (Adobe Illustrator), .pdf (Portable Document Format) and .eps (Encapsulated Postscript). Chances are good your client has the logo for the project available in a vector format.

Tip: If your supplier asks for vector artwork, simply ask your client for an .eps or .ai file instead of saying “vector.” If the client doesn’t have either file type, ask for a .pdf file. If you just need a logo, you can also ask your client for the artwork used to create their business cards—this is a great way to dig up a vector logo without stressing out your client. 

Depending on the product being imprinted, a supplier may ask for a raster file. This file type is used most often to add photo images to a product. In a raster file, individual shapes cannot be selected so images lose their sharpness when enlarged. Raster artwork is best created at the size at which it will be used. This file type can be reduced but not enlarged without losing clarity. When requesting raster files, your supplier might request a “high res” version, meaning the files are very large and created with a great deal of color information so the printed image is clean. Raster files are saved as .psd (Photoshop), .jpg (Joint Photographic Experts Group), .tif (Tagged Image File Format) and .png (Portable Network Graphics). 

Tip: Your supplier will never ask you for an image that can pulled from a website. Website images are usually created as extremely small files (72 dpi) which allow for quick download when you visit a site. They cannot be properly printed without looking blurry.

Viewing Artwork Files

Many distributors are unable to see their clients’ files because they don’t have the computer programs to open the files. You may sometimes be able to view eps artwork in your email browser, but not always.

One solution is to purchase and install a program such as Adobe Creative Cloud (www. adobe. com). This will allow you to purchase a license to use programs such as Photoshop and Illustrator. You do not have to be a graphic artist to use these programs and you can save time and money in the long run by handling simple processes yourself, such as resizing graphics or creating your own virtuals.

Tip: If you don’t want to purchase one of the graphic software programs, a simpler solution is to ask your client to take a screenshot of the file they are sending to you. If your client cannot open the file either, there is a risk you could receive the wrong artwork. I have heard many stories about distributors forwarding artwork to suppliers and the order being produced using an obsolete logo. If you or your client can open the file, you might also catch the inevitable “white file.” This is a file in which artwork is created in white and cannot be viewed in your browser. White files are sometimes created if the artwork is to be printed in white. Instead, have the artwork produced in black or any other color, but make sure the file is a one-color vector file and clearly specify that the artwork is to be printed in white when you send the file to your supplier.

Working With Color—Pantone, CYMK And More

If your supplier asks for artwork as spot color or the artwork has Pantone (formerly called PMS-Pantone Matching System) values attached, first ask your client if they have Pantone colors associated with their brand or artwork. If they don’t, you may need to find the colors that match their artwork. If you haven’t already purchased a Pantone color matching guide, you will need one so you can best match the colors you see on their artwork with the Pantone values in the guide. PPAI offers discounted pricing for members on Pantone products at 

Some Pantone color book options also contain CMYK (four-color process) values as well. Often, vector files that have previously been used for print will be set up as CMYK. Sending the vector artwork as-is to your supplier will normally do the trick without having to worry about conversions.

Tip: Keep in mind when checking your client’s file that if the only artwork you are viewing is on your computer screen, it is being illuminated from behind and viewed in an RGB (an additive color model using red, green and blue) format. Thus, the colors you see on the screen are somewhat different from how they will look when printed on the product. It’s better to match colors from a printed piece because unless you are printing on a backlit product or a light bulb, the colors might not match perfectly. When you use your Pantone guide to select colors based on what you are seeing on the computer screen (in Pantone or CMYK), always verify and get approval from your client. Sometimes, simply educating your client that there might be a slight color shift when a product is printed or embroidered will do the trick. 

A Caution  About PDF Files

If your client sends you a pdf file, it may or may not contain a true vector image. When a pdf file is created, it may have a low-res or raster file embedded within it. Unfortunately, there is no magical program created yet that can turn a low-res or raster file into a vector.  

Tip: The only way to truly tell if file images are not vector is to enlarge them as much as possible in Adobe Acrobat (this is a free download online and more than likely already on your computer). If you see  blurry edge or an image that looks pixelated (you can see the individual pixels that form the image), it is not a vector file. If you are still unsure, ask your supplier to check it out and let you know. You do not want to run the risk of an order being printed with blurry artwork. 

Changing Full Color To One Color And  Other Conversions

If your supplier is requesting a one-color version of a logo or piece of artwork, there are a couple of different ways to obtain it. You can ask your client to convert it, or you can attempt to convert a full-color file yourself if you know how to use Adobe Illustrator. You can also contract with a designer to convert a full-color file. If the logo does not contain any gradients within it or if it does not have much detail, it can be easily changed to one color, so it shouldn’t cost very much to ask a designer to do it.

Using A Designer

When you need graphic assistance, make sure you include the cost of that service in the cost of the product. Most of the time, you should only need the skills of a graphic designer or outsourced graphic conversion company to convert a .jpg logo to a vector file or to change colors in a file. You can save money by using an outsourced graphic conversion company for basic needs, but if you need to create custom artwork, it’s best to call on a professional graphic designer.  

Tip: If at any time you are confused about the cost regarding artwork creation, ask the designer. To you, two different jobs might look very similar but there are often many underlying issues that make art costs increase. A good designer will always offer an explanation regarding the costs and the time it takes, but he or she will need to see the artwork first before giving you a proper quote.

Tee Hamilton, owner of CreativeAlchemy, is a designer/illustrator who works with suppliers, distributors and service providers within the promotional products industry. She also presents education sessions on creativity and industry artwork. Hamilton has worked in many different industries in the U.S. and overseas to design children’s books, comics, giftware, toys and other products, and technology.