How long, how often and how exposed – we are talking about graphics here….

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.

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The proof of the pudding (graphic) is in the viewing

If your graphic can not been read and understood in a few seconds, you are wasting your money. I am not talking here about art graphics but graphics for advertising and communication. Let’s look at the factors that play a big role:

Viewing Distance. This is perhaps the most important aspect to consider to ensure that your graphic is effective. Graphic size. image quality, text size all need to be created accordingly. To keep it simple I will classify three viewing scenarios:

Close Range: Viewing distance from 2′ to 20′. This would apply to retail locations, exhibits, trade show displays, information graphics and signage, etc. Image resolution should be 125 ppi to 175 ppi and fonts in the 32 to 160 pts range. Because the viewer will  have usually a bit more time to view and read, the message can be more elaborate and detailed.

Mid range: Viewing distance 20′ to 50′. Typical scenarios would be entrance halls and lobbies, entertainment venues, malls, conference centers, window graphics, vehicle graphics, wall  murals, etc. For this viewing distance range images should have a resolution of 75 to 125 ppi and text should be not be smaller than about 2″ high for the “fine print” and 3″ to 10″ for the main message. Here, the viewers will often only have a short time to see and comprehend the information. Images should therefore be large and words for the main message few and clear.

Far: This applies mostly to outdoor installations and very large venues such as stadiums. The viewing distance can range from 50 to hundreds of feet. Graphics in this category include billboards, banners, building wraps and large event signage. Graphics installed along  highways and roads will only be viewed for a few seconds. Image resolution can be accordingly lower, 10 – 20 ppi is often enough, but text size must be large, perhaps starting at 10″. Text must be short – perhaps no more than a second to read – and images should be large.

There has been much written about signage size and design. The above only touches on some fundamental aspects. A good publication about sign legibility can be downloaded from the United States Sign Council.

Other aspects to consider are color and font type. Text colors need to be in clear contrast to the background. The larger the viewing distance the “cleaner” the fonts should be. They also may need to be outlined to enhance clarity. More about color further below.

A special word about trade show graphics. Although the are usually viewed from a short distance, they too need to capture the interest and deliver the message in a very short time to cause the show visitor to stop. The main both graphic needs to state, in large size, the company name, the product and a tag line that will state the competitive advantage or specialty. This can be supplemented with a large picture if desired. Avoid to just clutter the booth graphics with a lot of small pictures and detailed product descriptive text that is not very legible from the aisle. (Engineering oriented companies tend to do this). That belongs into a brochure.  The goal is to make the visitor stop so that you can talk to them.

Light and Environment. In order to be able to view a graphic clearly and quickly, the light conditions have to be right. Sounds simple. Here are a few issues to consider:

Glare: This happens often in trade show environments, in malls, on outdoor windows, conference rooms with windows just to list a few examples. You have no control over the surrounding light. The best defense against glare is a matte or textured laminate.  This also applies if you use spotlights to illuminate your graphics.

Stray light: This could be a light source behind your trade show booth belonging to your neighbour but penetrating through your graphic display. Or sunlight light shining from a window through the back of your roll-up banner stands you set up in a conference room. Same for billboards and banners: you don’t want to see the shadow of the support structure on your graphic if the sun light comes from behind. The cure is simple: use material with a light blocking layer. They cost a little more but prevent your graphic from looking bad or even un-viewable.

Backlighting: Graphics that are backlit in moderate and low light environments will catch your attention far more and dominate any reflective graphics around them. Yes, light boxes and light arrays cost money. The same goes for bright LED displays and signs. Graphics for backlighting are typically printed on backlit film. Fabrics are also well suited for backlighting and are used to an increasing amount in trade show displays and exhibits.

Color. Just drive along any highway or walk around a trade show and observe which billboards can be read easily and which ones not. First and foremost, text must clearly contrast the background. For graphics viewed from afar the choice of color is more critical as some colors and background combinations are clearly more visible than others. For example: black on yellow (Best Buy), black on white (yes, boring but visible), white on blue, white on green, red on yellow, yellow on black.  (more information about creating graphics for outdoor advertising can be found on the Advertising Assoc. of America website ). Color plays also an important psychological role as each color is associated with a meaning. I found a good overview on this web page:
Some colors are also associated with institutions and environments, often to the point of being overdone. Does every political sign really have to be red and blue and every environmental related poster green? But it works.

This is a big topic and I realize I am only scratching the surface.

In the upcoming blog I will address the influence on material selection and cost depending how long and often the graphics are going to be used. In the meantime, please let me have you comments and questions. I will be happy to respond.


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The 3 most important considerations for graphics: installation, installation, installation

Picking up from the February blog, let’s look what really needs to be considered first when designing for a new graphic: where will the graphic be installed? Just look at the headline picture above. Four entirely different scenarios and, as a result, four very different material and design requirements. It’s the first question I always ask the customer: where does the graphic go?

Indoor: Any material can be displayed indoor, protected from the elements. The question here is more about the degree of exposure to the surroundings: people (touching), fumes (from kitchens, workshops), handling (moving the graphic around), etc. Accordingly the graphic will or will not need extra protection with laminates and ability to be cleaned. Materials for indoor can also be of lighter weight. For banners, for example, 9 mil thick PVC, vinyl or polypropylene will be sufficient. Dye and pigmented inks will be fine and, in low exposure situations, even without lamination. Graphics printed with solvent, latex and UV inks are more scratch resistant however and will less likely need lamination. Posters can be paper but here the problem is more how wrinkles, tears and creases can be avoided during the installation. For posters I prefer to use synthetic media that is tear resistant and also stays flat and does not tend to buckle as paper does.

Outdoor: This poses more of a challenge for materials and inks due to the exposure to rain, wind, sun and dirt. Inks and media need to be outdoor durable even for short-term use. Banners are probably the most used outdoor media and the most important question is how the banner will be installed. I will address this question in more detail in the next blog. For now, it is important to specify a banner material that is strong enough for serious outdoor exposure. Unfortunately, there is a lot of cheap material on the market that ultimately will not last. A good, long-term banner material needs to be scrim vinyl, 13 oz with a 1000×1000 denier weave or better. The material of choice for most outdoor graphic applications is vinyl. For shorter term use such in promotional window graphics, decals and  signs, lamination is not needed. For longer term signage lamination is essential and will substantially increase UV protection and shield against abrasion. As always, you will get what you pay for: cheaper vinyl and laminates will not last as long.

Location: This is of particular importance for outdoor graphics. A southern exposure to the sun all year long requires high quality inks, media and laminates with UV filters to resist fading. Darker yellow and red colors are particularly vulnerable. For banners, wind is another big factor. In my experience wind slits don’t work, look ugly and just weaken the banner and possibly tear. For high wind exposure hems need to be tape re-enforced. Mesh banners will let some wind through but are considerably weaker and should only be used against a support structure such as a fence, scaffolding, etc. 

Surface: There has been enormous progress made in the development of digitally printable graphic media. There is now a media available for virtually any surface even including outdoor sidewalks and streets, brick walls and carpets. Graphic designs have to take into consideration the surface, material width and method of the installation. Wall, floor and vehicle graphics are installed in panels and you don’t want a seam in the most difficult to match up spot. Uneven surfaces need more material to cover a given visual width and length (think of a corrugated container wall).

Display Systems: It’s the old chicken and egg question: Do you design the graphic first and then try to find a suitable display system or select a system and the design for it? I think the latter is a better approach and is more likely give you an optimal result. It also lowers cost by using standardized size display system components and fit the graphics accordingly.

Mobility: If graphics have to travel the selection of media , display method and design can make a big difference in shipping and storage costs. The use of rollable media, soft signage, and in particular fabrics, together with modular frame components can reduce weight and transport dimensions drastically and in particular for very large installations.  Collapsible frame system and roll-up banner stands are popular too for the same reason. Rigid panels and boards are out. To ship a banner stand may cost $20-30. To ship a same size 20 sq ft rigid graphic including crating will be $200 or more.

In my next installment I will address the issues surrounding of how a graphic will be viewed and what needs to be considered to achieve success. In the meantime I welcome your comments and like to hear about your experiences.

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Ever Had A Question About Large Graphics?


It has been swirling around in my head for a long time already.  How can I communicate and share the many trials, tribulations and successes in creating great large format graphics and their installations with our clients, prospects and anyone in the marketing and creative community? Our website, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and e-mailings are all providing some information but not the whole story. I believe a blog is a great vehicle to accomplish this.

First, some definition: This blog is about large format graphics. This includes signs, posters, banners, trade show displays, wall, window and floor graphics, vehicle graphics, architectural graphics, decals, event graphics, point-of-purchase graphics, in-store displays, exhibit graphics and anything that is not printed on your regular printing press. The topics will not only include and address the creation and production of digital graphics but also the associated display hardware and digital display systems integration.

I would also like to share information about new materials and processes and ideas to generate the most impact from your visual displays. It should not be a one way street however. Please share your comments and experiences and most of all, ask questions!

So, let’s get started.

The End Comes First

Natural progression dictates that we start at the beginning. In the case of graphics that would be with the design. From my vantage point that is the last thing to worry about. I like to propose that the order of points to consider should be as follows:

1. Where will the graphic be installed?  Indoor? Outdoor? Location? What surface? Stationary? Mobile? In a display system? Protected? Durability requirements?

2. How will the graphics be installed? Frame? Sign holder? Light box? Banner stand? Exhibit system? Attached to surface? Hang loose? Weight limitations?

3. How will the graphic be viewed? Close up? From far away like a billboard? What distance? How high up? Surrounding light conditions? Glare issues? Backlit? Surrounding colors?

4. How long and often will the graphic be used? 1 time? 5 years?

5. Removability and disposal importance? Clean removal without residue required? Environmental consideration for disposal?

6. How exposed will the graphic be? Out of reach and touch? Exposed to touching and  handling? Exposed to food, grease, dirt, chemicals. etc.?

7. How large does the graphic have to be and how many?

8. How transportable? Travelling trade show or exhibit? Shipping restrictions and weight considerations? Storage considerations?

9. Image quality importance? Top photographic image quality required? Color matching?

Now after establishing the surrounding conditions of the graphics lets look at design issues:

10. Design components.   Are pictures available of sufficient resolution? Do the pictures require retouching and other manipulations? Are existing logos scalable or of sufficient resolution? What fonts are to be used?

11. Design Format. What design software and file format will be used?

 If you have the answers to all of the above you are ready to start with the design, call for a proposal and start the dialogue to establish the best solution for a successful project. In the upcoming blogs I will address each of the above points in detail. Stay tuned.



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