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Fabric graphics create enticing exhibits

Features, Graphics | July 1, 2007 | By:

Is it any wonder than an exhibit and graphic design that will grab your audience’s eye is foremost on every exhibitor’s mind?

As a veteran exhibit manager who has been managing trade show exhibits for longer than I’d like to admit, the biggest change I’ve seen in the exhibit industry is the movement that was started by Moss almost 25 years ago—incorporating tension fabric in exhibit construction.

In the last decade, a number of other tension fabric suppliers have entered the exhibit marketplace—Fabric Images, Transformit, and Pink Inc., to name a few. Debra Roth, President of Pink Inc., describes the growth: “Today’s exhibitors and event planners no longer look to the traditional square pipe and drape booths. They want architectural style, multi-functional designs, and artistic impact. Using tension fabric structures allows the client the versatility to create a look unique to the target industry, while achieving the desired marketing effect.” According to a recent article on industry trends in Exhibitor magazine, it is estimated that 40 to 60 percent of custom exhibits use tension fabric.

A printing technology-driven trend

Innovations in digital-printing technology and equipment have revolutionized both the accessibility and cost to produce wide-format, high-quality, full-color fabric prints. This technology gave exhibit designers a whole new lightweight strategy—both 2D and 3D media for eye-catching, lightweight exhibit architecture. Exhibit manufacturers now have the ability to print on fabrics with standard and UV-resistant inks and stretch the fabric skins over frames to create a myriad of options.

This trend toward fabric exhibits has caught on like wildfire with exhibitors, who are always looking for cost-control options without losing their visibility and flexibility on the show floor.

Why fabric?

Exhibitor interest in using fabric as part, if not all, of their exhibit properties continues to be driven by a number of trade show industry trends:

  • Shrinking budgets for trade show participation based on competition for marketing dollars with private corporate events and Web initiatives.
  • The increasing cost of petroleum-based exhibit materials such as Sintra® and laminates used in conventional hard-wall exhibit components.
  • Escalating material handling (aka drayage) costs as general service contractors raise the cost per hundredweight (CWT) to compensate for lost revenue due to decreasing weight of lighter exhibits. (The 2006 Annual Tradeshow Week Survey estimated an average cost of $72.49 per 100 pounds with special handling of freight.)
  • Installation and dismantle (I & D) labor costs for a carpenter that averaged $68.75 per hour in 2006.

Based on the ability to reduce the costs of exhibit design, construction materials and production, shipping, material handling, I & D, and storage when using fabric as a major exhibitry component, there’s little question why exhibitors are replacing their outdated, heavy, custom hard-wall exhibits with tension fabric ones. It’s all about doing more, with less—to stretch the budget!

Kimberly Kee, President of Kee Consulting Inc. of Castle Rock, Colo., strongly believes in the value of tension fabric displays. “One of the best ways for my clients to get more visual bang for their buck is through the use of tension fabric. I especially like the ability to add images and messaging without closing off a space, such as with translucent fabric applications, which gives the exhibit an ‘airy’ feel to it. I also like layering the fabric to add dimension and movement to a space. Both of these applications make a space eye-catching and inviting to attendees. Add to that the fact that we can just roll them up for storage after the show is a huge bonus, saving on both shipping and storage fees.”

Form follows function

An effective exhibit design will attract trade show attendees’ attention using color, light and motion and take into consideration the many functions that need to take place in the exhibitor’s booth space.

Exhibits constructed of tension fabric over lightweight aluminum or plastic frames offer exhibitors a more economical option to attract attention while creating eye-catching style and efficient functionality. Fabric-based exhibits are also fast and simple to assemble and are surprisingly sturdy.

Solid, patterned, or image-printed fabrics can be used to create innovative, attractive exhibit components. The design possibilities are endless in creating both 2D and 3D forms, structures and shapes to define the exhibit space with freestanding exhibit walls, theater and seating areas, conference rooms, storage areas, staircases, reception counters, product displays and even artistic sculptures.

So many choices

For the exhibitor, the hardest part of making the transition from the old-fashioned standard hard-wall exhibit construction to fabric may be selecting from the plethora of options of shape, color, size, fabric, printing method, and lighting to use. And it’s a multiple-choice question where there aren’t really “wrong” answers!

Fabrics are currently used in all sizes and types of exhibits:

  • Custom-printed tension table covers that give ho-hum tables new style and can highlight company logos, product names, and tag lines.
  • Tabletop exhibits, both pop-up and short retractable banner stands, for small shows and start-up exhibitors.
  • Single- and double-sided 8-foot-tall retractable banner stands that are small enough to fit in a carrying case and which will easily fit in an airline’s overhead luggage compartment; some even come with interchangeable cartridges for quick, easy graphics swaps. With additional connectors and precise printing, contiguous exhibit back walls can be built by joining individual banner stands.
  • Pop-up exhibits that come with either small individual 3D “handkerchief” panels or with the fabric graphic already attached to the aluminum pop-up frame that stretches out when the frame is extended.

Gary Survis, managing partner of First Trade Show of Woodbridge, N.J., notes: “Today, we are finding that tension fabric displays present a great alternative to the same old pop-up display. Portable tension fabric displays set up in minutes, are lighter, and ship in smaller packages. It’s easy for us to demonstrate the benefits of a tension fabric displays over the traditional pop-up. They look great, are cost effective, and help customers stand out in the crowd.”

  • Hybrid displays using a combination of a lightweight aluminum structure covered with fabric, exposed architectural truss, and lightweight laminate panels. One satisfied owner of this combo type of exhibit system is Susan L. Hatch, CTSM, event manager of GE MDS LLC of Rochester, N.Y. “It definitely has made a difference in the look and feel of the company—we promoteour products to be industrial, and this booth with the fabric has given us an industrial look. At every show we attend I have an attendee or another exhibitorcome up and tell me what a great booth we have,” Hatch says.
  • Custom exhibits using a variety of shapes to create and define exhibit space such as cubes; domes; circular pods; disks; wings; rings; teardrops; crescents; pyramids; flutes; and tapered, rectangular, square, or oval wall panels.

Constructing the framework

Various diameters of framework, usually 1 to 3 inches, are used to construct the perimeter framework and inner spreaders (also known as “spines”) that give the unusual shapes and strength to tension-fabric exhibit components. Within the same exhibit, there may be various sizes and shapes of tubing making up the hidden inner skeleton vs. the visible external architectural and structural components of the exhibit.

A number of lightweight materials can be used to create the various framework shapes. These materials include anodized or powder-coated aluminum tubing, extruded PVC, polycarbonate rods, and steel in various round and square shapes. For ease of shipping, setup, and dismantle, frame components attach using various types of male/female connectors, snap buttons, permanent internal elastic cords, and hook and loop.

But don’t be fooled—some of the tension fabric designs actually have no internal framework. The tension is created rigging them to the ceiling, truss or exhibit hard walls rather than using the typical frame. After the framework is constructed, the tension fabric is stretched over the framework and fastened using zippers or pillowcase fittings.

Integrating fabric graphics

In addition to creating exhibit structure from fabric, graphics printed on various textile materials can also create a strong visual impact. But, as with all exhibit design, their form, too, must follow their function.

Effective exhibit graphics should accomplish two exhibiting goals: 1) to convey the exhibitor’s message quickly, clearly, and concisely; and 2) to qualify a target audience. A combination of elements should be considered when designing effective graphics: size, shape, background color, text font, color, and height placement, and lighting.

Popular for increasing visibility across a crowded trade show floor, overhead tension fabric signs and banners showing corporate logos and product IDs come in a variety of standard shapes such as round, triangular, square, rectangular, and spherical. Some of the more unusual and custom overhead shapes include pinwheels, ribbons, serpentines, cones, and funnel shapes. In addition, hanging fabric banners between top and bottom poles creates gravity tension displays.

Virginia Ann Holman, senior director of TSYS, says: “TSYS has used logo sails and fabric graphics in its exhibit stand most effectively. They are not only cost effective to ship, but the color is vivid and creates a unique visual appeal for our trade shows.”

Tension fabric ceiling canopies are also hung above exhibits to block out ambient show floor lighting, to create shadows and to project images using projectors, intelligent lighting, static, and moving gobos. But let the exhibitor beware: Fire marshals frown on the use of large overhead canopies that will block water from their ceiling sprinkler systems from reaching the exhibit space below it, so check with the local fire marshal on your design.

“We used a digital projector to display multimedia contentthat paralleled lifestyle imagery on a 16-foot circular tensionfabric disc suspended from the ceiling at an angle overour 20×20 booth. We eliminated the need for static signage and expensive printing costs. The tension fabric discweighs less than 100 pounds, takes 20 minutes to an hourto put together andrig, literally is the cheapeststructure you can hangandcan be seen from anywhere on the show floor. Fabric is my new secret branded item,”says Allison Saget, event marketing consultant with EvenBLT.

Fabric printing processes

To create the desired exhibit environment, exhibit designers often mix and match printed and unprinted fabrics.

To print wide-format tension fabric, printing processes vary based on the purpose of the specific exhibit property as a part of the overall exhibit, the type of image being printed, the type and available width of the fabric selected, and printing methods available for that fabric. Consideration should also be made of the ability to accurately match an exhibitor’s PMS (Pantone Matching System) colors.

Common methods used to create the tension fabrics for exhibits include:

  • dye sublimation
  • direct fabric digital printing (inkjet)
  • silk screening
  • changeable or removable vinyl graphics, especially on rental properties

Types of wide-format fabrics

Depending on the printing process used, exhibit designers have an extensive variety of wide-format fabric types.

Fabrics that are available in widths of 60 to 160 inches are generally considered “wide-format.” These fabrics vary from:

  • light- to heavyweight
  • opaque to clear
  • matt to high-gloss sheen
  • low to high reflectiveness
  • varying degrees of stretchability, washability, fire retardancy, hook and loop compatibility, and weather resistance for outdoor use

Popular fabric types used in exhibit design include stretchable polyester, velvets and velours, satin, metallics, poplin, oxford, muslin, twill, canvas, knits, gauze, mesh, netting, lining and blackout fabrics, and lighting and projection screen fabrics.

Illuminating fabric

Regardless of the fabric(s) chosen, illuminating it comes down to only three choices: internal lighting or external lighting, or a combination of both. It’s up to the exhibit designer to determine whether to conceal the light source within a fabric structure or use up-, down-, front-, or back-lighting to accentuate the exhibit design.

Depending on the goal of the lighting—to highlight, diffuse, create shadows, or add color splashes—and the type of lighting selected, it can offer anything from soft mood lighting to dramatic eye candy using theatrical lighting with corresponding sound.

Some of the most common sources of fabric lighting include programmable color-changing LEDs, ceramic metal halide, compact fluorescent, and theatrical lighting with color gels. Fabric also is used to construct hanging lanterns and lampshades as an additional exhibit design element when combined with internal lighting.

Unprinted wall panels are often used as projection screens to project images using changing, colored lighting, moving gobos, or projected images using a rear projection system.

To reduce or eliminate the ambient show floor lighting and accentuate the exhibit’s lighting, exhibitors often hire show floor electricians to temporarily disable the convention center’s bulbs above their exhibit.

Regardless of the type of lighting chosen, it has to generate low heat that will not melt or burn the fabric.

Catch their eye with motion

In addition to color and light, motion is the final attention-grabber. To add motion to tension fabric displays and banners, exhibit designers use a variety of mechanisms to catch the eye of attendees. These include fans to flutter banners and flags, motorized turntables for rotating overhead graphics, and colorful projected moving images such as gobos to create the illusion of movement in the exhibit.

Pobody’s nerfect: fabric challenges

With all the positives of using tension fabric in exhibits, there still can be challenges to producing and installing fabric exhibit components

  • Printing on stretchy fabric such as Spandex without distorting the imagery and text when stretched over structural frames.
  • Acknowledging the fabric’s useful product life based on usage in various environments, i.e., its resistance to UV light and color fade.
  • Adhering to regulations enforced by show management, the general contractor or the show venue that may require a letter from a certified structural engineer attesting to the exhibit components’ structural integrity, especially if suspended overhead.
  • Installing and dismantling light-colored fabric exhibit components in a less-than-spotless trade show environment (Tip: Provide drop cloths, white cotton gloves, and even Swiffer® dusters or hand vacuums with upholstery attachments to keep fabric clean.)
  • Planning ongoing fabric care, including the ability and method to clean fabric(s) during ongoing use and handling and its ability to withstand ironing and/or steaming out wrinkles.
  • Providing specific directions for the exhibitor’s I & D contractor on proper techniques for unpacking, assembly, disassembly, and repacking to prolong the life of the exhibit.

Stretch your imagination with tension fabric

So the next time an exhibitor says “Build me an exhibit,” think outside the tired old box-frame construction and stretch your imagination and design possibilities with tension fabric.

Candy Adams, CTSM, CME, CEM, CMP, CMM, aka “The Booth Mom®,” is an independent exhibit-management consultant, trade show and event project manager, exhibit-staff trainer and coach, well-known trade show industry speaker, writer, “Best-of-Show” exhibit judge, and Exhibitor Show faculty member.

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