Brand managers are continually pressured to achieve maximum efficiency with their advertising budgets. For signage to deliver returns, it needs to be innovative.
Pushing the boundaries in grand format not only gives customers public recognition, sign shops get noticed too. Standing out from the crowd requires savvy marketing and execution of an eye-catching project to establish a place in the grand format industry. Large and novel installations on buildings, sports arenas, and fleet vehicles, draws local press coverage and serves as a marketable testament to creative and operational talents.
Delivering an innovative product alongside more traditional solutions diversifies product portfolios and as any investor knows, diversification is one of the hallmarks of long-term success. It signals experience to potential customers.
"Our customers continuously impress me with the original applications they design and produce," says Ziki Kuly, director, North America large format industrial division, Hewlett-Packard (HP). "I’ve seen customers produce everything from huge bus, building, and train wraps to the largest billboard in the world. We see great opportunity for growth in the outdoor signage market. "Outdoor advertising is one of the few forms of traditional advertising still seeing growth," he continues.
"Our end users are doing a lot of work beyond traditional banner applications," shares Andrew Oransky, director, product management, Roland DGA Corporation. The economy, he notes, plays a part in driving creative signage.
"The most successful print providers continue to grow through innovation," Oransky observes. "It’s no secret that prices on staple sign applications—banners and real estate signs—are under pressure. However, we still see growth from printers that are able to identify niches with increased value." Window dressings, inflatable displays, awnings, tents, canopies, even umbrellas are rolling off grand format machines, he adds.
The falling real estate market places a damper on some conventional signs, says Roy Shearer, founder, Alabama Big Print. A 20 year printing veteran, Shearer jumped into the grand format market last year with the purchase of Roland’s 104-inch Advanced Jet AJ-1000 printer and finds himself doing everything from large truck wraps to window signs and 30-foot banners that duplicate the look of a giclée print.
But innovation isn’t just in the look of a graphic—it can also be in the process. Environmentally conscious brands—and their agencies—are increasingly receptive to "green" graphics, explains Tom Riley, VP, marketing, Gandinnovations.
The next push in innovation will come in the form of green inks, predicts Randy Rickert, GM, Mutoh America, Inc. "The marketplace is driving that revolution," he says, pointing to Wal-Mart and Starbucks as two high-profile brands demanding more environmentally sustainable signage solutions from their many suppliers.
While vinyl banners remain a grand format mainstay, the harmonic convergence between hardware, software, media, and the creative hands of the print maker ultimately drive innovative signage.
Standing Out in the Desert
Event graphics companies are called on to provide signage to augment a main event. It’s rare, however, that the graphic is the main event. But this was the case when CGS Imaging Corp., based in Maumee, OH, produced a 10,000 square foot centerpiece for Crown Royal’s "Your Name Here" NASCAR contest.
Contestants entered the contest to have a race named after them—in this case the 2008 Sprint Cup at Richmond International Raceway. Crown Royal, the contest sponsor, took two finalists up on a televised helicopter ride over the desert, revealing an immense graphic. A Mustang pulled a strip of the graphic away to reveal the name of the winner. The entire stunt was, according to Crown Royal, its first-ever press conference in the sky.
Pulling it together on the ground, however, took the work of CGS Imaging Corp. owner and founder Chuck Stranc.
A self-professed newcomer to printing, Stranc says he joined the digital printing industry by accident. "It’s safe to say that I didn’t know what digital printing was five years ago," Stranc confesses. He proved a quick study. Through vendor partnerships, key hires, and plenty of on-the-job training, Stranc built CGS Imaging into a 16 employee printing firm focused on standout signage for special events, particularly for the country’s largest spectator sport—National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR).
"We didn’t start out doing grand format, we didn’t have a mentor, we learned it on our own," Stranc recalls. The company was able to ramp up business in a short span of time because it found a niche and didn’t attempt to be a jack of all trades, he adds.
Each job brings with it new challenges and new lessons. The "Your Name Here" contest was no exception. The mesh graphic was displayed on the floor of a dry lake bed in the desert 30 miles south of Las Vegas, NV—"the middle of nowhere," says Stranc.
It was important to Weaver Media, the creative team behind the promotion, that the copy was sharp, as it would be displayed on TV and viewed from circling helicopters. Also, the desert floor could not show through the mesh.
The entire graphic, Crown Royal’s logo, was printed and fabricated in CGS Imaging’s 18,000 square foot facility. Twelve, 3.2-meter panels were printed on HP’s five-meter HP XL1500 using 3M Mesh Banner Material IJ53 through an ONYX ProductionHouse RIP. The printed mesh was then placed on the shop floor. "We always inspect the entire graphic for imperfections or drop outs" before finishing, Stranc relays. Satisfied with the work, the strips were hand cut for shaping, welding, and stitching.
The shop planned to stake the mesh to the desert floor, but the desert winds—which are particularly fierce in March when the sign was installed—meant they needed hefty webbing throughout. "Usually you’re printing mesh in squares or rectangles, but this was contour cut to shape so we had to sew the webbing around the contours," explains Stranc.
"For this kind of work you need to be able to do finishing in-house," Stranc continues. Having the space helps too, he says. "We found that large, open space is a must to improve your quality control." Only a year ago, CGS Imaging was in tighter quarters—3,500 square feet—and Stranc says he saw a significant improvement in the company’s quality control after upsizing.
Stranc also learned a valuable lesson during the shipping process. "A lot of delivery companies become nervous when you ask them to deliver a large package to no address in the middle of the desert." After several phone calls, they finally found a cross dock that Yellow Freight would ship to and a courier brave enough to transport the package to its desert drop off.
Successful execution drives new assignments. "The more you do, the more opportunities you get. It’s working out well for us," says Stranc.
It helps to think of Freeman Company as something of an exhibition empire—the $1 billion-plus company produces expositions, corporate events, conventions, and exhibits from 70 offices in 40 cities in the U.S. and Canada. The mix of services is sweeping—from freight and audio/visual services to digitally printed graphics and grand format signage.
Integral to the company’s avowed desire to "make the impossible possible" are innovative digital graphics thanks to Mike Hidden, corporate graphics manager, Freeman Company.
A veteran of the billboard industry, Hidden joined Freeman’s Chicago, IL office where he manages EFI/VUTEk grand format printers, including the 196-inch EFI/VUTEk 5330 roll-to-roll printer, among other equipment.
One innovative application Freeman creates on a regular basis involves carpet. The company worked with printable carpet for several years to little effect before experimenting with Ultraflex Systems, Inc.’s Ultra Carpet.
"We used a number of different carpets, but thicker ones were wrecking our machines," Hidden recalls. "Ultraflex we find is thinner and more flexible—you don’t have to blast the heat, it dries much quicker, and the colors stay true," he explains. Color is especially critical, as previous carpets hardly retain any color.
Hidden’s team frequently produces 15x15-foot or 20x30-foot carpets for major trade shows. "Companies use them because it gives an extra special boost to the booth." The key is to make the logos dramatic. Too small, and people will step right over it. The carpets are printed with solvent ink and geared for short term, indoor applications.
In 2007, the Freeman team was asked by Ultraflex to produce a vivid carpet for its booth at the 2008 ISA trade show. The classroom-themed, 20x30-foot carpet was awash in different colors and designs, including a space designed to replicate wood. Unlike the simple patterned logos that are the staple of much of Hidden’s work, the Ultraflex carpet had to stand out. It was to serve as a showpiece for the media’s capabilities.
All carpet production is a two-man job, Hidden shares, and this was no exception. Ensuring proper media registration is perhaps the most difficult element in printing on carpet. "After ten or 15 feet, you’ll get a sag between the pinch rollers." To avoid any slack, Hidden’s team uses double-sided tape to adhere carpet to the rollers.
After the carpet is loaded into the printer, "someone has to watch it print," Hidden explains. The EFI/VUTEk 5330 was set to print at 150 square feet per hour to ensure proper registration and media handling when running Ultraflex’s booth carpet through.
The tiled strips were shipped to the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, FL and installed by aligning the edges and adhering them with double-sided tape. "We don’t want seams," says Hidden, so there’s no stitching.
Though printable carpets aren’t a new application, carpet remains a challenging media to print on. Each reacts differently to color. "If you’re not careful the blacks can turn gray and the colors get muted," explains Hidden. Despite the challenge, the growth potential is there, as proven by Freeman Company.
A Strong Serve
Bloomingdale Signs by Tomorrow, IL got its start as modest, family-run vinyl sign shop. It began with one computer; three employees—husband, wife, and son; and a 15-inch Gerber Scientific Products, Inc. plotter. It then transformed into a printing powerhouse due to the digital revolution.
"We jumped onto the digital bandwagon earlier than most and started growing," says Gary C. Schellerer Jr., VP, operations, and the son of company’s founder.
Today, the 35 employee company spans two facilities boasting 25,000 square feet of space with twelve production digital printers including two Océ Arizona 600s, two HP Designjet 5500s, two HP Designjet 9000s, a NUR Fresco, the HP Scitex XL1500, and an HP Scitex FB6100 printer. In addition to its print capabilities, the firm recently purchased a MultiCam, Inc. router with the MultiVision Digital Registration System to augment its finishing department, which also includes three laminators, heat welding, sewing, and vinyl cutting.
This capacity came in handy for a recent job on behalf of a major tennis tournament held, fittingly, at the HP Pavilion in San Jose, CA. The mandate included a blend of traditional signage plus a variety of creative and innovative displays, says Schellerer.
To make things more interesting the artwork came in much later than expected and very close to the date when the graphics were to be delivered. A total of 5,000 square feet worth of graphics were produced, shipped to CA, and installed in just four days.
The company went into 24/7 mode to meet the deadline, recounts Schellerer. "Having a design team in-house that works with all the major platforms gives us the ability to make changes to files very quickly," he said. "If we had to constantly go back to the agency, it would put us way behind."
What was notable about the project—besides its sheer volume—was the variety. Among the unique applications were a series of stair risers, column wraps, and what Schellerer dubbed Toblerone kiosks—self standing, triangular displays nicknamed for the Swiss chocolate candy they resembled. The kiosks displayed branding and directional information. They were printed on half-inch PVC and routed into shape with bleeds off the edges so that they could be wrapped without exposing the edges.
Advertisers try to find every place possible to put branding, Schellerer says, "and the more unique the location, the more likely it is to draw attention."
The stair risers were printed with the HP Scitex XL1500 on Avery Graphics transit film. "We loaded up three, five foot rolls and the file came in as a single page. We used ONYX PosterShop to do the tiling and to preview how the risers would print."
The risers were laminated with a floor graphic pebble texture laminate and hand cut into strips, and then labeled so the installers could properly place them on-site. The project also involved "turning tables into tennis balls" by routing out circular vinyl pieces with the company’s Graphtec America, Inc. FS5100 60-inch plotter.
Schellerer regularly employs a team of six 3M/UASG-certified installers who flew to San Jose, CA to complete the installation. Complicated installations are made more difficult when working off of third party measurements and site surveys and this proved no exception. A few of the measurements originally provided were off. Working until the early hours, Schellerer’s team reproduced several of the displays and flew them out to CA, where the designers met them at the plane.
To some, the frantic pace would entail a trip to the cardiologist. To Schellerer, "it’s extremely typical," and something he plans to continue doing.
Bringing innovative graphics to life involves educating your customers to the possibilities of new media and new technology. It means providing a solution, not just a print, that enhances the value of your client’s intended message.
It is by no means a simple process—trial and error is unavoidable. Yet at the end of the day, such innovation will deliver a demonstration effect—telling established and prospective clients that your firm possesses the creativity, expertise, and wherewithal to push the boundaries and deliver innovative output.