To Draw, or Not to Draw (and with what?) That is the Question….

by Tom Chambers

Of the 3 major stages in the process of creating sublimated goods, the last two are easy to learn and do – pressing with a heat press, and printing your design on your sublimation printer.  Then there’s the first stage, where it all starts – the part where you have to design and set up whatever it is that you want to print.

Yes, sublimation is easy and (almost) anyone can do it.  Designing your artwork?  That is a different thing altogether.  The world of graphics design can be a secretive, wonderful, complex, difficult, and on occasion even a seemingly magical realm of gurus, self-help videos, seminars, and even college level classes.  So where do you start, and which program should you choose?

Full disclosure – I’m biased.  I use CorelDRAW Suite because that’s what I learned 20+ years ago, and I keep using it because I like it, it’s easy (once you know how), and it’s inexpensive for what you get.  I’ve designed everything from custom drawn artwork to full color brochures, magazine ads, and 8’x10′ popup banners in it.  But that wasn’t always so.

In the beginning, I tried to teach myself Corel.  After a couple months I could do some basic stuff, but I wasn’t really happy with what I could (or couldn’t) do.  I struggled with some things until I finally took a series of in-depth classes lasting 4 days.  After that, the sky was the limit and the whole thing became just plain fun.

To do sublimation, your graphics program needs to be able to handle two types of images – vector and raster.  Simply put, vector is clipart-type drawings, and raster refers to images made up of pixels, like photos.

You also need to be able to turn off color management in the graphics program – OR it needs to be able to handle the color correction required for sublimation either on its own, or by using a color profile designed for it.

Here is a list of the 3 most popular graphics programs for sublimation, and the pros and cons of each.

  1. Adobe Creative SuiteAdobe Illustrator (vector) and Adobe Photoshop (raster)

Pros:  This is the flagship, top of the line graphics program suite, with the most features, power, and overall support.  Widely taught in colleges and other institutions and used by many graphics designers everywhere, it’s easy to find classes, self-help books, and videos.  You can literally design everything from magazines to full color banners for skyscrapers; retouch photos, and create original artwork.  This is what made the word “photoshopped” a part of mainstream vocabulary.  Completely control your color output with use of custom profiles, or turn it completely off.  If you can fully master these programs, you will most likely be at the top of the graphics design world.  Versions are available for both PC and Mac.

Cons:  The learning curve is steep and long.  Think Mount Everest here with years of preparation.  You will likely need lengthy training and many classes unless you are gifted that way, have lots of time, and can teach yourself.  The programs and features are complex, and not always intuitive.  Color management and settings are almost as difficult as the programs themselves.  It is expensive, and all recent versions are now subscription based.

  1. CorelDRAW Graphics Suite – CorelDRAW (vector) and Corel PhotoPaint (raster)

Pros:  This suite is probably the most widely used in the decorated apparel industry for a variety of reasons including a more attractive price point, availability in both purchase and subscription models, and being easier to master with a shorter, gentler learning curve.  While possible to teach yourself, classes or videos will shorten that time dramatically.  You can design almost anything in Corel that you can in Adobe, and the tools are more intuitive and easier to work with.  Color management can be turned completely off, or configured in a myriad of custom ways with or without profiles.  Settings are a little easier to work with and more intuitive.  Update:  Available for PCs, and finally as of early 2019, Corel is also available for Mac. 

Cons:  Corel can occasionally act up in ways that will remind you how important it is to save your work often.  Outside the decorated apparel industry, it is less widely used and supported.  It can be difficult to find classes in your area, forcing you to use online classes if you can find them, or self-help options like webinars, videos and books.

  1. Sawgrass Creative Studio

Pros:  This program is entirely web based, accessible from anywhere on most computers, tablets, and even mobile devices, and handles both vector and raster images.  The price is hard to beat as well – free, with the purchase of any Sawgrass sublimation system.  This is probably the best option out there for anyone new to graphics design that wants to get into sublimation as quick as possible.  And because it’s created by the people who brought you desktop sublimation in the first place, it’s designed specifically with that in mind – giving you access to thousands of clipart and graphic images, and templates for sublimation blanks to make everything as easy as possible.  Additional premium content is even available via a paid subscription plan.

Since Creative Studio is web based, it should work on any operating system on Mac, PC, tablet or smartphone, in Windows, Apple, Linux or Android, as long as the browser is compatible.

Cons:  There is almost always a trade off when something is easy – and that’s normally manifested in a lack of more powerful and advanced features.  While this is no exception, Sawgrass has done a great job of combining necessary features with something relatively easy to learn and use.

If you don’t have a stable high speed internet connection, this option may not be for you though, and if you lose internet, you won’t be able to access the program at all.

So which program should you choose?  The simple answer is “the one that you like that does the best job for what you want”.  If I were just starting out today with no experience, I’d probably use Sawgrass Creative Studio, and maybe at some point in the future, switch to Corel.  Any of the 3 options listed are great choices though.  It really comes down to what you feel comfortable with, and how much time and money you want to invest.