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All A Glow

Backlit Fabric Signage

By Melissa Donovan

Illuminated graphics offer high visibility. Backlit signs are unique; they offer an edge over other sign options. They also connect the customer to the promoted product. One might assume that backlit signage does not leave much room for variety; that is not the case today.

A basic lightbox acts as a framing device for easily interchangeable graphics. In this scenario, the light comes from within the box. There is also the alternative solution of propping a display panel up behind a graphic, with light generated from behind the display.

In the past, backlit signage required rigid media. This is no longer true as sign shops utilize a new type of frame allowing for fabric-based backlit signage. Fabric is lightweight, easy to transport, and environmentally friendly. Combining this media with the power of light equals success.

Quality and Timeliness
Graphics Gallery of Glen Allen, VA, began as a prepress house for offset printing. The business evolved with technological advancements—from manual imposition to proprietary type setting equipment and Mac-based desktop publishing systems.

In the last 21 years, Graphics Gallery’s customer base dramatically changed. Originally serving the graphic arts community with services such as design, film separations, slides, and transparencies, the company decided to focus on large format digital output, finishing, and installation to follow current trends in the market.

Serving the Richmond, VA, metropolitan area, Graphics Gallery produces output for outlets such as museums, exhibits, corporate environments, retail, and interior design.

"Our clients expect us to assume a certain professional level of responsibility for the quality and timeliness of our work. It is a challenge, but that is the type of work we prefer," explains Michael Elrod, principal, Graphics Gallery. Elrod and his business partner, Steve Samuel, built Graphics Gallery as a project-oriented, museum-quality, large format company. Today, the company bases its service on this same platform with the help of its staff of 24.

A range of hardware is housed in a 12,500 square foot shop. In the early years, the shop used inkjet devices from Encad and Hewlett-Packard; later adding a Durst Lambda, which is still used for a majority of production output.

The shop’s productivity and creativity increased with the purchase of a CNC router from Gerber Scientific Products, Inc. "Through a lot of experimentation we were able to solve many prior production problems like accurate cutting and templates for installations. We started using digital cutting to add more dimension to our clients’ projects," Elrod explains.

Another major milestone was the addition of a flatbed device, an EFI/VUTEk PressVu. "We were careful with flatbed printing and tried to understand that we needed to grow our client base and not simply switch our current clients to flatbed printing. Choosing to produce a job on a flatbed provides us with the flexibility to assist the client in choosing the right product for the right situation," shares Elrod. Graphics Gallery recently upgraded to a VUTEk QS2000 flatbed with white ink. For textile printing, the shop uses a DuPont Artistri textile printer.

Sparking Interest
To keep their current and prospective clients informed of purchases and new offerings at Graphics Gallery, Elrod and Samuel hold open houses. The most recent event introduced backlit fabric signage to potential customers. "We normally hold our open houses shortly after installing new technology that we think is worth our clients’ time to view in a public setting. In the case of this past Spring, the event occurred because of the addition of backlit fabric signage and DuPont Artistri fabric prints to our shop offerings," says Elrod.

He continues, "We’ve held three open houses—one every three years for the past nine years. Over 300 people attended the last one." Graphics Gallery plans on hosting more in the near future.

Potential customers are drawn to these open houses because it gives them a chance to view large format output first hand. "We sell big prints so it is often hard to convey what sort of impact certain graphics can achieve unless you can get the client to see them at full size in a variety of useful and creative applications," Elrod explains.

Business is booming as a result. The open house helped educate Graphics Gallery’s clients about products and applications and illustrated how they can interweave these items into current marketing strategies. Elrod often receives requests from clients who attended the open house and even from those who did not attend. In this instance, the caller generally requests a personal demonstration of the product to help decide if they want to implement it themselves.

Fabric Illuminated
Currently, 15 to 20 percent of Graphics Gallery’s business is backlit signage. This is a relatively low number, but Elrod explains, "Backlit graphics have a higher perceived value and therefore are a higher margin product. In other words, they are more profitable."

Elrod, a member of Global Imaging and Graphics Association (GIGA), learned about backlit fabric through the organization. Many European GIGA members produced backlit fabric walls and other retail signage, spurring Elrod to do some research of his own. He found Matrix Frame BV, based out of the Netherlands, manufacturer of the Matrix Frame lightbox. Graphics Gallery is one of the only U.S. dealers of this product.

The Matrix Frame system is unique because it uses LED lighting, which has low power consumption and heat generation. The light source is attached to a grid-lined acrylic panel. This panel helps balance the lighting throughout the graphic while providing a brightness that is not usually achieved with fluorescent lighting. The largest Matrix Frame system uses 12 volt power supplies.

"There is virtually no heat generated within the box and consequently, no heat generated in the room," says Elrod. "This means the air conditioning system does not have to compensate for excessive heat generation." Despite being more expensive than traditional backlit signage, the cost difference offsets itself in less than two years thanks to the energy savings.

Other attractive benefits of the Matrix Frame system include its slim width of 1.75 inches. Additionally, the skinny frame makes the product very light—resolving heavy freight issues. "We are amazed at how versatile the product is," says Elrod.

At the Spring open house, Graphics Gallery showcased freestanding, double-sided 18- to 30-foot long seamless versions of the Matrix Frames. Elrod and Samuel also constructed and displayed a six- by ten-foot door using fabric and the Matirx Frame.

The shop creates the graphics for the frames on Neschen fabrics printed on a DuPont Artistri. Graphics Gallery is also experimenting with other manufacturers’ products. Finding a white color base is one challenge preventing Graphics Gallery from using other manufacturers’ products.

Making Waves
A recent client of Graphics Gallery is O’Neill, a retail store specializing in mens and women apparel—in particular, wet suits and other outdoor wear. According to Elrod, "O’Neill loved the idea of a completely in-store glare-free image that utilized a low-voltage energy source."

Matrix Frame lightboxes were custom sized to fit the display space properly, Graphics Gallery crafted boxes for both a window display and a wall inside of the store.

To achieve proper sizing, the shop used an automatic vertical chop saw with a computer-controlled frame feed. The device is capable of feeding and cutting aluminum up to 200 inches long.

Installation of several lightboxes on the interior wall included screwing Matrix Frames into the wall and then adding graphics with silicone edging stitched into the sides of the fabric. The entire installation process, including the window display and wall, was completed in one evening. Future O’Neill customers will be greeted by a brightly lit display.

Elrod points out that if standard fluorescent tubes were used instead of LED lighting, the heat would have been tremendous. In such a small space, LED lighting is what made backlit advertising for O’Neill’s retail store possible.

Moving Toward the Light
Printing on fabric is generally more environmentally friendly than traditional media even after it is disposed of. Between the use of fabric, low energy, and minimal heat, the Matrix Frame system is truly a "green" solution. "We see the Matrix Frame system as an environmentally friendly display that looks absolutely beautiful," says Elrod.

High-end retailers such as O’Neill are pleased with backlit signage. In addition to standing out from the crowd, the environmental factor is an added bonus. Additionally, backlit fabric signage is easy to assemble and ship due to its light weight.

Graphics Gallery is experiencing a surge in sales since introducing the Matrix Frame system at its open house. Many of their clients are quickly gravitating toward the product. High-impact settings and increased visibility are the two main reasons for this, says Elrod. 

Oct2008, Digital Output

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