Digitally printed soft signage provides lighter drayage and a soft feel appropriate for high-end promotions. In response to this, multiple markets look to textiles as a viable alternative to rigid substrates or films. Various trends and influences participate in the growth of soft signage—both indoors and out.
Jaime Sherman, marketing manager, Ultraflex Systems, Inc., believes the primary driver stems from advancements in digital print equipment and ink sets. “These advancements have opened the door for print service providers (PSPs) to print to a wider array of softer, uncoated substrates. More flexible inks allow for soft signage and digital printing to succeed and flourish,” she explains.
Soft signage is found in retail, transportation venues, and trade shows; with the possibilities expanding into the outdoors thanks to new coating formulations found on the fabrics. While many customers are persuaded to utilize fabric-based signage, some request textiles upfront—citing them as relatable, with a luxurious appearance.
Soft signage competes with vinyl-based media, rigid board, and dynamic signage. Development is influenced depending on the location, finishing components used, and potential buyers. Regarding indoor soft signage, the greatest growth is found in retail. End users—store managers—favor displays that are easily changed out by employees on a regular basis.
This is applicable to soft signage thanks in part to the finishing used. Hardware including roll-up banner stands, basic tabs or clips, and even frames consisting of various materials allow for easy installation. “Aluminum framing systems are becoming more popular because of the ease of merchandising. Retail chains want the same displays in every store to keep them consistent and favor these framing systems because they are clean looking and make it easy to switch out graphics,” explains Jeff Cheatham, director of sales, Fisher Textiles.
Framing systems paired with fabric make for stunning backlit displays—pushing the popularity and growth of the backlit light box market. “The light weight, vibrant image, and stretchable characteristics increase the display quality and reduce the cost of shipping and installation,” shares Larry Salomon, VP, wide format North America, Agfa Graphics.
Large, open public spaces are populated with soft signage, for example airports. “From my own personal experience, I’ve seen soft signage increasingly used in airports. As they are remodeled or expanded, the open concourse spaces are enlarged, which leads to larger walls and increased flat surfaces for advertising opportunities,” highlights Mike Richardson, director sales/marketing – print media, Aurora Specialty Textiles Group, Inc.
Trade show signage is another consideration. Blaise Humphries, business unit manager, Decoprint, DHJ International, notes that this market is just starting to catch up in popularity in the U.S. compared to Europe.
In particular, automobile shows are gaining acceptance in the world of soft signage. According to Tiffany Guard, senior product manager, inkjet media, Neschen Americas, major car manufacturers choose fabric fit over framing systems for booths instead of other materials.
Guard points to entertainment as another major industry relying on soft signage. Organizations based in movie, theater, and television work with fabric to create backdrops for special events. The reflected light creates hot spots, which are less likely to appear on a textile versus a vinyl-based substrate.
Out of Sight, Not Out of Mind
Outdoors, soft signage is used as a promotional tool to educate viewers about a current event or a future occasion, identify a store, or assist in direction. It might be found outside a retail store, around an arena at an outdoor concert, or to hide construction. To catch the eye of the passerby, media and graphics must be bright and legible from semi-faraway distances.
Manufacturers have perfected the formulation and application techniques of coatings to allow for the usage of fabric outdoors. “Textiles in the past had a slight disadvantage in outdoor applications because waterfastness and weathering resistance was not easily achieved with the coating technologies available,” explains E. Tyler Reich, director of product development, Qué Media, Inc.
Awnings and street pole banners both incorporate soft signage. Awnings are a new area of growth providing a great way to advertise and its original function—to shade a business. Cheatham notes that street pole banners traditionally utilized vinyl but this is transitioning to fabric. “It brings more profit to print companies and towns or cities prefer them for the environmental aspect,” he shares.
Fencing signage is another application that generally utilizes vinyl substrates, but as of recent has seen a steady increase of print providers working with fabric. “Designers embrace the advantages of a fence that can be completely printed with graphics and information. They also appreciate the reduced cost of shipping compared with traditional vinyl,” adds Jeff Sanders, digital sales manager, Pacific Coast Fabrics (PCF).
Quaker Chroma Imaging (QCI), located in Moorestown, NJ, services the exhibit, event, trade show, and retail industries with its soft signage applications. The full-service wide format company, which is the result of a merger in 2004 between Quaker Photo and Chroma Copy Philadelphia, employs 17 full-time and two part-time employees to service clients all over the U.S., but primarily in the Northeast.
Operating out of a 20,000 square foot space, when the merger occurred in 2004, the company added dye-sublimation (dye-sub) to differentiate itself from the competition. With a long tradition in photo lab printing, it sought to separate from other shops moving into flatbeds and inkjet. The PSP works with a 104-inch Roland DGA Corporation printer outfitted with Sawgrass Technologies, Inc. ink, in addition to a Mimaki USA, Inc. JV5-320S device. Both are transfer dye-sub units, so QCI also relies on a ten-foot Klieverik calendar heat press to transfer images for the final product.
Today 70 percent of its work involves dye-sub onto fabrics, much of which is sourced from Aurora Specialty Textiles’ Northern Lights Printable Textiles portfolio. “Once the company’s sales representatives heard we worked with dye-sub they came out to show us the fabric line. The thing we like most about it is the consistency. Every time we re-order material it comes in exactly like the previous rolls, which is really important when selling agency-level quality,” explains Craig Tinkelman, CEO, QCI.
It’s this repeatable, dependable quality that pushes many of the PSP’s clients to request fabric, valuing its high-quality appearance. Tinkelman says that for those customers still requesting vinyl, his sales staff is quick to point out the advantages of fabric. Because of their due diligence, the company was awarded several retail rollouts based on the savings of shipping fabric folded in a small box versus vinyl that may need to be rolled. In return, clients witness the large reductions in shipping and packing costs—which justify the additional expense of using fabric.
One of QCI’s most recent jobs included working with partner Le Frame Inc. Anthony Cozzolino, owner, Le Frame, was contracted by Tesla Motors’ store development team, which is headed by George Blankenship, VP, worldwide sales and ownership experience, Tesla Motors, to innovate an easy fabric replacement system in its U.S. showrooms. Le Frame designed the frames and invented a replaceable system for the monitors, motors, and electrical to pass through the fabric graphics, which were produced by QCI on the Mimaki JV5-320S and then transferred onto Aurora Specialty Textiles’ fabric.
Each showroom includes six to ten large fabric graphics ranging in size from 6x8 to 8x24 feet. The walls are lined with frames and graphics butted up one after the next. The end result is dynamic, powerful messaging.
While some argue that fabric-based signage is an underwhelming component compared to more elaborate displays that incorporate traditional foamboard, vinyl placed on the floor, or film adhered to the window; as QCI experienced, many marketers and brand agencies are experiencing an overwhelming push from clients to commission jobs involving textiles.
“Retail, trade show, exhibit, corporate event, and architectural markets now demand soft signage because it allows the customer to be unique, bring in the wow factor, and show their creativity in design and shape,” explains Steve Weiss, director sales/national strategic accounts, print and print substrates, Dazian, LLC.
Soft signage is considered over other substrates for a variety of reasons. For one it gives a richer, more elaborate, expensive appearance—heightening the value of the establishment in question. “Fabrics offer more versatility to designers and printers and allow them to stretch the gamut of visual advertising and booth design,” shares Eric Tischer, president, Verseidag seemee US, Inc.
Depending on the type of fabric, the feeling of quality is enhanced, and directly coincides with a brand’s aesthetic. Sanders points to textured fabrics as providing a dimensionality that is both striking and unique. Fabrics with print-through capabilities allow for an image viewable on both sides. Satins and sparkle pick up natural light to enhance a message.
Sherman provides the example of a high-end automobile manufacturer choosing a strong, yet sleek fabric to advertise a new car; whereas a vendor looking to promote “green” practices would choose eco-friendly material.
Soft signage is appealing to the natural eye and when something is more appealing, it is examined repeatedly. “Statistics show that on average, a person needs to see a new item six times before making the purchase. Getting noticed is the goal of any marketing group, so there is no mystery as to why so many sectors embrace soft signage,” explains Reich.
Fabric is relatable. The clothes we wear, the blankets we sleep in, the towels we clean with are all made from fabric. “On the subconscious level the consumer has a strong connection to fabrics versus other mediums. The reason is that we touch fabrics all the time, practically all day long. It’s an easy transition in our minds to accept a marketing message printed on fabric,” recommends Richardson.
Shipping is also a consideration, with a lighter substrate costing less. In addition, fabric is easy to roll up and minimizes worry about any damages occurring prior to the final destination. “Fabric arrives undamaged, unlike some rigid board, which can easily crack or break in shipping,” says Cheatham.
Away from the Comfort Zone
Many retailers and their marketing representatives are quick to understand the shipping and installation benefits of soft signage; however they become skeptical when comparing the finished output with traditional rigid board. Showing a perspective buyer samples and various past projects is enough to convince them to move out of their comfort zone.
“The last several years the quality of soft signage has improved to the point where customers are amazed at the color and sharpness of our fabric samples,” explains Lee Skandalaris, president, Quantum Digital Ventures (QDV). The QDV group of companies is made up of four separate brands. Meteor is its commercial printing division, which began almost 80 years ago out of Detroit, MI.
Today it includes manufacturing facilities in Rochester, MI, Atlanta, GA, and Winston-Salem, NC. A complete national graphics supplier, Meteor produces graphics for shows/events, retail and office environments, museums, building banners, and fleet vehicles. It specializes in inkjet and dye-sub printing as well as tension fabric display structures.
While the PSP created textile-based signage for some years using a variety of techniques, 2008 presented the opportunity to purchase its first dye-sub machine. “Printed textiles became one of the fastest growing areas of our business. We bought the equipment based on the needs of our customers and in response to increased demand in the industry,” admits Skandalaris.
Compared to alternatives, Meteor finds the method of dye-sub to be superior in the creation of soft signage. To reach these levels of perfection, it works with inks supplied by Sawgrass. When switching to the ink around a year ago, the PSP found that it improved the company’s existing color gamut and allowed for the matching of colors that were difficult in the past.
Meteor works with Fisher Textiles’ fabric portfolio regularly, with Skandalaris citing the vendor’s customer service and reliability as top notch. “We use their fabrics because of the superior white point, consistency of stretch, low frequency of flaws, and the quality of the packaging,” he adds.
Out of all of its clients, perhaps the biggest advocates of soft signage are the PSP’s display/exhibit customers. These buyers understand the benefits in terms of material handling costs, shipping expenses, and ease of installation. Because of this they are more apt to request the usage of textiles for signage over rigid board.