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The softer side of signage

Features, Graphics | June 1, 2009 | By:

Making fabric the medium for the message

A stone tablet may have served the early Viking explorers well, but the 21st century demands more flexibility—and certainly more mobility. That’s why soft signage continues to evolve. “You are seeing people’s needs for messaging change,” says Jason Amidon, 3M product marketing supervisor, noting a trend toward short-term means of communication. “You see a lot more 30-, 60-, 90-day type stuff.” And while billboards remain a cost-effective way to reach a large audience, Amidon says, “We’re starting to see more of a focus on some of the other mediums, such as mass transit.” When Southwest Airlines wanted to spread the word about a new flight offering at the Minneapolis, Minn. airport, it mounted king-sized posters on 750 buses in the Twin Cities, using 3M’s new changeable adhesive that permits fast installation and removal.

Billboard evolution

Richard Stepien, CEO of German-based Mehler Texnologies, has noticed an increase in moving signage of another sort: soft-sided trucks with printed curtains. “The truck is lighter and therefore uses less fuel,” he says. Topcoated acrylic allows companies to outfit their fleets with digitally printed branding that withstands the tough conditions on the road. “Topcoat has been around 15 years, but it wasn’t around on the digital products until seven years ago,” Stepien says.

That brings us back to traditional, static roadway signage, where big messages once meant big machines, which in turn meant big money. “The driver—what kept those machines going—was the outdoor billboard market,” Stepien says. “The types of materials they printed on were as inexpensive as they could get because who cares when you’re throwing it up 80 feet in the air? The little imperfections you really wouldn’t be able to see. As things went along, people became more quality conscious.”

That’s when HP, Mimaki and other printer manufacturers got into the game, Stepien says, with smaller but better resolution machines. “If Disney is putting Mickey Mouse’s picture up, it has to be high quality, whether it’s 80 feet in the air or not,” he says. Mehler’s clients include not only Disney, but also Warner Bros. Studios, Apple, IBM and Nordstrom.

The company also applies large-scale soft signage to reinforce the branding of such high-profile clients as the National Football League and the Super Bowl. “We put graphics over everything [an entire stadium] to make it the home of the national championship or the Super Bowl for a day. It’s not Tampa or Wrigley Field,” Stepien says. “Typically, we sell 10,000 to 15,000 yards [of mesh], five meters wide, just for the one-day event.” Recent years’ advances in topcoating mean higher white points “to give it more pop,” and better adhesiveness of the ink to the membrane.

Easier applications for vehicles

Vehicle wraps also are becoming pervasive, and that’s where 3M’s Comply™ technology comes in handy. “It has air channels in the adhesive,” says Ian MacRitchie, president of Alpine Graphic Productions of Ontario, Canada. “When the product is applied, it allows the air to escape. It’s much easier to apply over all the compound curves of a vehicle. In the old days, you would end up with a pile of bubbles that had to be addressed by pinholing.”

“It makes it where you might not need a professional installer,” says Amidon, who also touts his company’s Controltac™ graphic film, a 2-mil. vinyl with removable adhesive. “It creates a temporary barrier between the adhesive and the substrate. It’s more conformable. You can slide the product around, then apply pressure and push the barrier—plastic pillars—back into the film, allowing the adhesive to bond.” All of the films are PVC based, though Amidon says non-PVC options will be “a trend moving forward.”

The environmental influence

That trend to meet the demand for environmentally conscious products appears to be the main driving force behind developments in soft signage. Victoria D’Angelo, owner of New York-based Dream Digital Printing and Dream Green Banners says her Eco Canvas product is made in the United States entirely from recycled plastic bottles, can be used indoors and outdoors and has a canvas finish. “It is a very versatile fabric,” she says. “We can put art panels on it. We have even made dog beds out of it. It is washable and produces brilliant color.”

When it comes to printing, Dream Green uses AirDye®, which eliminates the use of waste water and allows printing on two sides of the fabric with different results (solid and print, two different solid colors or two prints). “We are using that on a polycharmeuse that looks like silk,” D’Angelo says.

“The primary difference between AirDye and conventional dye processes is the complete lack of water at the point of coloration,” explains John Otsuki, vice president of sales for Colorep, the California-based company that makes AirDye. “The dye is delivered through hot air and bonds to the fibers. Conventional processes require large amounts of water and harmful chemistry and, due to the high temperatures required, also consume considerable energy.”

Colorep has conducted more than 1,000 tests of AirDye technology on fabrics and offers more than 200 fabrics in its ecobanner™ program. “Dozens of these are made from postconsumer and postindustrial recycled plastics, and many are made exclusively for us,” Otsuki says. “We have fabrics ranging from lace and sheers to heavy canvases. We also have special effect materials that have a variety of very unique appearances. … Some of the more popular materials contain features such as metallic shimmers, reflective sequins, stretch satin, light reflection, backlit diffusion, pearlescence and many others.”

Colorep also accepts used banners for recycling. “Unlike other printing processes, AirDye (and ecobanner) do not compromise the ability to recycle fabrics through standard processing,” Otsuki says. “Our fabrics can be recycled through standard PET recycling methods at waste processing facilities.”

Dream Green has just launched its own recycling program. “People that are doing banners can give back the fabric,” D’Angelo says. “We can turn it into several different items, primarily tote bags, and then they can either let us sell them for a charity or they can repurchase them at labor cost and sell them as their own product.”

Customers choose green

“The percentage of customers who buy green continues to grow,” says Nora Norby, president of Banner Creations in Minneapolis, Minn. “This year it looks like about 75 percent of our customers have purchased banners made from different types of recycled soda bottle fabrics.” Two years ago, Banner Creations only printed on one or two recycled fabrics. “Now we carry three or four, but have printed on close to 10 of them,” Norby says.

Creative Banner Assemblies, also in Minneapolis, uses two new substrates: a PET recycled fabric with a woven matte finish and recyclable banner fabric made of polypropylene that is as strong as 13-ounce PVC fabric, but at only four ounces is extra thin and lightweight. The company recently introduced eco-friendly bamboo display frames that are 90 to 95 percent recyclable. “You can get a complete eco-friendly package by buying a bamboo display and polyester fabric,” says Chelsea Favreau, marketing manager. In addition to bamboo’s eco-friendly qualities, she notes, “People are liking it because of the more upscale wood finish.”

Tomas Martin, product manager for HP, says the latest trend, “from consumers to big corporations and, therefore, print service providers, is an interest in how to do it all—the process of printing and advertising—in a more environmentally friendly way.”

The committee for February’s Special Olympics World Winter Games in Boise, Idaho, made it a mission to make the event as green as possible. Signage, including banners and window installations, was printed on HP’s first latex-ink printer, which debuted in 2008.

“We reduce emissions and can print on materials that can be recycled,” Martin says. “Clearly the quantum leap has been in the latex printer. We are going to invest in future evolution. We have a clear bet on latex.”

Signage from the Winter Games that could not be used for local Special Olympics programs was recycled. HP offers a large-format recycling program for banners and flags that allows customers to print a prepaid shipping label from the company’s website. The material is sent to HP’s central facility in Roseville, Minn., where it is separated and provided to an authorized recycler.

Retail signage grows

Nancy Browning, owner of S2 Imaging in Portland, Ore., says she has noticed a lot more retailers using soft signage. “The newer printers are better able to do more vibrant colors on fabrics,” she says. “There are new digital printers that are capable of doing a wider gamut of colors and a wider array of materials, so that options are quite broad. … There are every day new materials coming out to print on. It used to be signage was just done with vinyl. Now it’s all over the board.”

Clearly soft signage offers a versatile, high-quality, effective means of branding and messaging—even on stone. Alpine Graphic’s MacRitchie suggests an alternate way to carve your niche: 3M’s Scotchcal Graphic Film for Textured Surfaces. The removable film, which came out in 2007, adheres to concrete, brick, and stucco and conforms to curves. “We have [wrapped] some concrete columns in a commercial garage,” MacRitchie says. “It almost looks like it’s been painted on.”

With its increasing versatility, fabric signage offers customers ever more solutions, and that translates into the potential for more business opportunities in the soft signage industry.

Janice Kleinschmidt is a freelance writer and editor based in Palm Springs, Calif.

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