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Custom Printing: Designing Mock-ups for Our Boss’s Tattoo

Photo purchased from …

I usually like to limit my writing to subjects I know, understand, and/or have researched heavily. But earlier this week one of our bosses (my fiancee and I have multiple gigs we have cobbled together, including art therapy with the autistic, graphic design, writing, and commercial printing sales) asked us to help design her new tattoo. For free, obviously. She is our boss. She also needed it immediately.

Even though we had done nothing of the sort before, my fiancee is an art therapist, and I have a background in fine arts, commercial art, and commercial printing, so designing for ink on skin seemed do-able. After all, design principles are design principles—whatever the substrate.

This Is How We Approached the Assignment

Our boss is becoming a member of a religious organization, and she had found two relevant phrases, in Latin, that she wants permanently emblazoned on her arm. Our task was to come up with designs she would approve and then pass on to her tattoo artist the next day.

We started with the two Latin phrases and our boss’s comment that she wanted something feminine, and we went to the computer. Since the computer in question has no design software at the moment, we opened a word processor file and copied the two Latin phrases four times. My fiancee and I both had the idea that a script font would be the ideal rendering, so we chose four script fonts (on which we could both agree), set the type, and sent a PDF off to our boss.

We figured she would choose one of the four, and the script type renderings of the phrases would be the base of the tattoo design. We would then embellish the words with floral artwork. She chose the Latin phrases set in Zapfino, a legible script face (of key importance but not always a foregone conclusion for script typefaces).

She wanted the Latin phrases enhanced with flowers, birds, and such. So we went online and found samples of floral flourishes for her approval. Being old and somewhat less technologically advanced, we regressed to our cut-and-paste roots, and took photos of the computer screen to text to our boss.

She liked the flowers, so we proceeded to quick-and-dirty sketches, known back when I was doing graphic design for a living as “roughs.”

Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, we would usually start with “thumbnail sketches” (small, loose drawings by hand just to suggest the “concept,” the idea behind the logo. (A logo is the closest thing I can envision—within the corporate world–to the tattoo my fiancee and I were in the process of designing.) Since we already had the concept (approved by our boss), we skipped the thumbnail sketches and went directly to the “roughs” and then the “comps.”

Now in normal circumstances, if I were designing this alone, for my regular rate, for a client with a budget and a reasonable time frame, I’d probably do the roughs and comps directly on the computer using proper graphic design software. I’d save the PDFs and then send them on to the client. I’d include comps developed from full-size roughs developed from numerous hand-sketched thumbnails. My client would first approve the concept through the thumbnail sketches, then pick perhaps three of them for me to develop into full-size renderings and then an almost-finished final comp.

But my fiancee and I were doing this as a favor. This was an immediate design challenge to address, and I had to get back to my other work. Also, all our boss needed was a handful of somewhat-developed ideas (i.e., more akin to the “roughs” stage noted above).

So I reverted to the handwork, tape, and photocopying I did in the ‘80s and ‘90s because I could do this in my sleep, quickly, without needing a computer or printer (once I had the raw materials).

I printed out two sets of the text file and various sizes of the drawings of flowers, vines, and such, to cobble together by hand until my fiancee and I both liked the results. My fiancee took a set and I took a set, so we could do two different options simultaneously (and so our design ideas would not be potentially in conflict).

This Is What We Tried to Do

Whether it’s a design on paper, banner fabric, or skin (as a tattoo), presenting type and imagery has to address certain design fundamentals. Here is what we had to consider:

    1. The rendering had to be legible. Custom printing in ink, applied with a tattoo gun on our boss’s arm, would require a typeface of a readable size and type design (as noted above). It had to be script but it couldn’t be too floral because it had to be readable from a distance at a reasonably small size (two phrases, one above the other, containing three Latin words each).


  1. The flowers we added had to be recognizable at a small size. Our boss wanted the dots above two letter “i”s to be birds, and she also wanted a sun between the two phrases. We showed her in our quick-and-dirty paste-ups rendered with paper, scissors, and tape, that even at a large size these would be difficult to grasp as images.

(We knew that anyone who saw the tattoo would also see it only briefly, so—like a logo—immediate recognition and simplicity of design would be of paramount importance.)

When all was said and done our boss had three options created by the two of us, in quick-and-dirty format for her tattoo artist to review and amend.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

Design principles are the foundation of everything from the paintings in the Louvre to print books and magazines to tattoos rendered on people’s arms. Here are some things to consider, no matter what you design.

    1. The message is key. In the case of the tattoo, the readability of the text was more important than the attractiveness of the flowers, sun, and birds.


    1. That said, the frame enhances the portrait. The floral style of the type and the flowers nestled in between and around the words provided a tone or atmosphere for the overall tattoo.


    1. Size matters. If the overall image looked good at the large size at which we had created it but then became illegible when reduced down for application to our boss’s arm, it would be useless. It would not communicate its message. Think about this if you’re designing a logo. If you can’t read it on a business card (or if a logo mark is confusing), you’ve lost your audience. Conversely, if you will need to enlarge the logo for a sign, a vehicle wrap, or an exterior banner for the side of a building, make sure you look closely at a physical print of the final-size logo (or other image). Does it still look as good?


    1. Think about the substrate. In the case of our boss’s tattoo, the substrate was her arm. Arms move around a lot compared to business cards with logos on them. You can easily miss the tattoo words or floral design. Design accordingly. You may only have an instant to create an impression.


    1. In addition, colors are affected by their surroundings. In the case of the tattoo, our boss is Caucasian. Perhaps too much yellow in the tattoo would be excessive. Perhaps blues and purples would create a nice contrast. Consider this when you’re printing four-color work on a cream paper stock. The cream paper will affect the colors of flesh tones.


  1. When in doubt, hire a professional. That’s why we handed off the drawings (photos of the rough options for our boss’s tattoo) and let her move on to the next steps with her tattoo artist.

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