Setting Up an Art Department

At one point or another, every decorator and award dealer must answer the question: Should I use freelance artists to do artwork and separations, or should I handle it myself? If your shop is considering bringing artwork in-house, you're in for a challenging yet rewarding journey -- one that requires some smart decision-making in terms of design and layout but ultimately will help take your shop to the next level.

Your first step is to determine the size of art department that's appropriate for your shop's needs. Do you need a small, one-man department or a full-blown staff with four or more artists? In all likelihood, if you've been handling art via freelancers up to this point, you'll probably want to start with a single in-house artist, but there's certainly no right or wrong way to approach it. "For a start-up, you're talking about adding an art station - the basics," says Thomas Trimingham, consultant,, McHenry, Ill.

Determining your art department's needs lets you move on to the next big question: Where are you going to put everything? "It should be near customer service but separate enough so that it's not in a high-traffic area," Trimingham notes. "Make sure it fits into traffic flow of your sales and production departments."

A few extra footsteps to take between the art department and other key areas of your shop may not seem like a big deal, but order after order, day after day, those steps add up to a huge waste of time. "I've seen shops set up art departments on a separate floor, which makes it difficult, because you have to walk a long distance to get to sales or production," Trimingham says. "It slows things down."

You'll obviously want to keep artists away from excessively noisy areas (right by the embroidery machines, for instance), as their job requires considerable concentration. Also, if at all possible, avoid putting them next to exposure units, dryers or inks -- hardly a setting for creative stimulation.

"You may want the art department located a good distance away from the lobby where your clients will normally visit. I say this because most creative people listen to music, and depending on the mood for the day, it may be loud music," says Dane Clement, president, Great Dane Graphics, Maple Grove, Minn. "Let them do it -- provided, of course, that it's not disruptive to other departments."

One handy technique for determining art department layout is to plan out the artists' location and seating configuration by using grid paper to diagram different options. Use the grid to look at how various placements affect traffic flow, as well as practical considerations such as whether a desk will fit comfortably in a particular area. "A lot of people get all their furniture, and then they set it up and shuffle it all around," Trimingham says. "Use the grid to explore the possibilities."

The Right Arrangement

You should be mindful of the typical workflow for artists, possibly creating a drawing station and a scanning station, advises Clement. "A typical scenario for an artist working on a job is to sketch an idea and then revise it to finished pencil on tracing paper," he says. "Then he scans it into the computer and turns it into a finished piece."

The drawing area should include all necessary art supplies (pencils, markers, straight edges, sketch pads, etc.) so that all the artist's tools are ready to go when inspiration strikes. "One of the biggest time wasters is having to locate all the appropriate tools and supplies and then start sketching," Clement says. "One area devoted to this task will greatly enhance productivity."

Shops with especially large art departments may want to group artists together in clusters, with a designated team leader for each area. "Spread them out so they don't distract each other," Trimingham says. "It's effective to have them in a horseshoe configuration, so they can talk to each other when they need too, but they still have separation."

Not Too Far Apart

If at all possible, avoid putting artists in cubicles with high walls, as creative types typically don't like to feel walled in or "trapped." Also, remember that artists need to be in a quiet area, but not necessarily totally secluded.

"An art department should be one room if possible; however each artist should have his own area, divided by a counter or walls so that others can see over them from a sitting position," Clement says. "This will allow the artists to bounce ideas off of each other without having to leave their station. One can offer suggestions to another by simply looking at the other's monitor. A design will always benefit from the input of more than one person."

On the other hand, some artists may prefer complete seclusion when they're working. Regardless, while you want to give creative types a fair amount of latitude, it's probably not a good idea to let them work in isolation. "You want to minimize distractions but you have to make sure they're staying on task," Trimingham says. "It's important to have accountability."


An easy way to make sure your artists aren't spending the day playing solitaire or goofing around on Facebook is to set up their monitors facing out, so that you can see the screens as you walk by. "For some people, these sites are an addiction, and they don't shut them off," Trimingham says.


As you're developing your area for the art department, be especially mindful of the space's lighting. In general, the art department should be a low-light space, as strong lighting can cause glare and eye strain, Clement says. "Each station should have its own desk lamp for workable light," he says.

Ideally, the area also shouldn't have fluorescent lighting, which flickers extremely rapidly, giving employees headaches. "That's why your eyes get so tired. Your eyes are actually dilating really quickly," Trimingham says.

Worse yet, fluorescent lighting can distort the way colors look on the monitors. In other words, it may make a burnt orange look like a deeper shade of orange, which in turn could lead to color-matching problems during the printing stage. The ideal scenario is for the artist to have natural light, either from windows or skylights; ambient, non-directional lighting also works well.

"Natural light coming from the window is good, unless there's a lot of traffic buzzing by, or other distractions," Trimingham says. "Also, you don't want windows on the east or west side of the building -- or get some good blinds to keep the glare away."

Clearly, creating an art department isn't as simple as setting up a desk and a computer in a corner and letting the designer do his thing. But with some careful forethought, you can make sure that the process of creating an efficient layout is a painless one -- and you can ensure that your new department is creative and productive.

You Are Not Alone

If you have enough experience with artwork, you may feel comfortable doing the bulk of the planning about your new art department. However, if you're not comfortable going it alone, or if you simply don't have time to research all the various factors that go into setting up an art department, you don't have to tackle it by yourself.

In fact, as with any business endeavor you undertake, it's a good idea to consult with others in the industry who've already tackled the task. Talk with decorators who've successfully integrated an art department into their company, and talk in depth about the challenges they faced, and how they overcame them.

Besides relying on industry consultants, it's also helpful to work with your prospective artists to set up their department. After all, who knows better what works for an artist than the artist himself? "He's the one who's going to be doing the work, so his input is primary," says Thomas Trimingham, consultant,, McHenry, Ill. "But some owners are artists, and they'll make the decisions themselves."