The life cycle of a large format graphic and how it is used and exposed has probably the greatest influence on the production cost of graphics and needs to be addressed in order to establish the appropriate material and production specification. Below are some typical application scenarios and suggestions.
One Day Event: The operative word here is low-cost. Yet, the graphic will still have to stand up to the environment and exposure in particular if the event is outdoor.
For posters - indoor or outdoor – I suggest an inexpensive wet strength 8 mil paper that can be printed with solvent or other waterproof inks and used without lamination. If the posters need to displayed on an easel, mounting on good old Foamcore will do. Or they can be direct flatbed printed on Foamcore, Coroplast or a similar inexpensive substrate. Inexpensive removable adhesive vinyl is for decals and signs is another good media for short-term use.
Banners: A lightweight 10 oz scrim banner or a 9 mil polypropylene banner media will do. For outdoor exposure add a taped hem or re-enforcement patch under the grommets as insurance against some wind bursts. Same material can also be used in roll-up or tripod banner stands indoors. Good outdoor banner stands are expensive and probably only justifiable if they can be used again for other events.
A few times: Above materials might be good enough to be used for a few times – if they are carefully handled and stored and damaged during the event. But that is usually the problem. Foamcore gets dented very easily and also bows if not stored flat. Banners just thrown in a corner will have creases and scratches if not rolled up on a core. It is probably advisable to spend a few more dollars for more durable substrates such as Gatorfoam, styrene or PVC
Daily for several month: This kind of use usually calls for more durable materials. The only exception would be a protected poster or sign installed indoor. For posters and roll-up banners rigid 9 mil PVC will provide durability without the need for lamination. For rigid graphics and signs Gatorfoam board (indoor only), Sintra/Komatex and styrene are good substrates. If used outdoor lamination should be added. Indoor banners can still be lightweight 10 oz scrim vinyl, 9 mil polypropylene or any fabric. Outdoor banners however need to be 13 oz (1000×1000 den) with strong hemmed edges to avoid tearing out of grommets. Fabrics, 6 – 8 oz, can also be used and again with strong hemmed edges. Outdoor pole banners, usually printed double-sided, should be at least 16 oz scrim vinyl or, better, 9 – 10 oz fabric. Window and floor promotional graphics usually fall also in this time frame. Window graphics will usually last this long without lamination. For floor graphics it is advisable to use proper brand name vinyls and the special non-slip laminates as recommended by the manufacturers. No cutting corners here.
Long term: For the purpose of this article, long-term will mean from one to several years. Banners are usually promotional in nature not required to last this long. So we are talking here mainly about signage, vehicle graphics, trade show and exhibit graphics. (trade show graphics are specifically addressed below). All these applications will require top quality materials, long-term durable substrates, lamination as well as inks that will not fade. Or, in the case of UV curable ink printed graphics, inks that will not crack or chip. Adhesive vinyl and laminate should be selected according to the manufacturer’s durability rating. Prints on paper (laminated) may be fine for protected exhibits but vinyl is probably a better choice if the print or sign is subjected to touching. For outdoor signs solid PVC or better, aluminum/PVC composite substrates should be used with the vinyl wrapped around the edges or edge sealed. Vehicle graphics require top grade, brand name cast vinyls and laminates and professional installation otherwise there will be disappointments. Please remember that the less expensive calendered vinyls will shrink over time. Anything applied in panels, for wall murals or on vehicles, should be printed and laminated with cast vinyls.
Trade Show Graphics: A special word about trade show graphics. They inevitably lead the hardest life of all graphics. It is therefore amazing to see the low-cost of trade show graphics offered by some companies on the internet. Buyer beware. In particular panels for pop-up exhibit systems have to be very durable to survive repeated use. They need to be constructed of a combination of a 12 mil + 10 mil or 18 mil + 5 mil polyester or rigid PVC light blocking print media with textured polycarbonate or polyolefin laminate. The proven combination of 8 mil photo paper with 10 mil opaque vinyl backer and 10 mil polycarbonate laminate will work too. I have seen some companies offering prints with UV curable inks on PVC – no laminate – but have heard about complaints of the inks chipping off along the edges. Inexpensive yes, good no. Roll-up banners are another species of prints that are offered at low ball prices. Laminated paper and vinyl banners just don’t work for this application. They usually curl terribly and laminated paper also kinks and creases. Polyester with a light block layer and rigid PVC costs more but works well. Woven fabric banners will stay perfectly flat and look very good except they do not block light. Same goes for exhibit system hardware. Cheap will not last and break more often than not at the wrong time. When you spend thousands of Dollars to exhibit at a trade show, skimping on quality graphic materials and hardware is bad economy. Forgive me, I had to get this off my chest.
In the next installment of this series about large format graphics I will address removability, disposal and environmental concerns. Meanwhile, please contact me with any questions, comments and feedback.