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Software’s Creative Hands

End-users Put Design Software to Work

By Thomas Franklin

Despite its increasingly limitless capabilities, software is ultimately just a tool. We may marvel at the paint brush and ladder that assisted Michelangelo but it’s the man behing the brush that interests us. Digital Output spoke to three large format designers, the artists behind the digital brush.

Gary Wiant Gets the Edge
CADlink Puts the Unlimited in Vinyl Graphics Unlimited

Gary Wiant, owner, Vinyl Graphics Unlimited, concisely summarizes why he uses CADLink’s Signlab. "It makes making nice signs easier."

Wiant, whose apprenticeship with a sign maker led him to found his own shop eleven years ago, jumped to CADlink’s Signlab from a competitive product and, "hasn’t looked back since."

"It has a very efficient workflow. You can spend the same amount of time [on Signlab] as you would with other programs, but the end result is a better sign."

The ability to use Photoshop plug-ins without actually opening Photoshop is a plus, Wiant says. "You’re sure your profiles will stay consistent during output."

Vinyl Graphics Unlimited is based in Western PA, a hotbed of auto racing, so a good deal of the company’s work consists of vehicle graphics. The graphic of choice is often a trailing flame, which, "requires a lot of massaging to get the fade right," Wiant says. He’s aided by the multi-tone bitmap in Signlab. "It works great with inkjet printers to set gradient colors."

Wiant now beta tests CADlink software and says that the company has been responsive to end-user requests. "They’ll work with you and talk to you. If they can do something, they will, if they can’t, they’ll tell you why."

Wiant uses Gerber Edge and the Gerber Jetster wide format inkjet printer for his work alongside two PCs. He invested in the wide format digital printer three years ago and says that the integration of Signlab and the printer improved his output. Wiant runs an online forum devoted to Gerber Edge and Jetster users and has heard Signlab’s praises sung there as well. "People will say the best prints they got from their Jetster they produced with Signlab."

There are two specific challenges with large format printing, Wiant adds. "Resolution is always something to keep in mind, as are good spot colors, because people will see them."

The proliferation of better graphics software has also impacted customer expectations.

"Desktop publishing made everyone an artist in their own mind," Wiant concludes, so it’s often difficult explaining to clients the real-world limitations of moving digital images to paper. "It’s usually a colors thing. I tell them that red letters with black shadows doesn’t look good on a sign."

A Sign of Excellence
David Harding Leverages Flexi to Create Award-Winning Signs

David Harding, owner of Carrollton, TX-based A Sign of Excellence, discovered his software of choice the way many in the industry typically do. "A friend at another shop had tried several different packages for his Mac and settled on Flexi as being the most functional and intuitive," Harding states.

Harding had used another product, but it, "did not have the interface to output files designed on the PC to my Gerber Signmaker IV plotter," he says. "I had 22 type fonts for the Signmaker—around $300 each at the time—and I started using the equivalent fonts in that software to design so I could show renditions to my customers and then recreating the text using the Signmaker keyboard."

It was not until he accepted a package deal from GBC SignWarehouse that bundled a UMAX scanner, FlexiSign Pro, and the UniLink card for the Gerber, that he added SA International’s Flexi to his workflow. "Once I set that up, my drawing table got retired."

Harding adds that he does not use any one program exclusively. "I use both Flexi and Corel [Draw]; nothing is created or produced totally in one package. I use the strengths of each."

For approximately fourteen years, Flexi has been used in some way in just about everything A Sign of Excellence has created, Harding observes. "We have won a number of national design awards with jobs produced utilizing Flexi."

The company’s bread and butter is sand-blasted signage for the apartment industry, but Harding says the company is moving steadily into large format.

Harding continues, "It’s a relatively new field for us. Because of that, I need simplicity—simplicity and intuitiveness in file importing, scanning, color management and editing, and output. Consistency of output is also important."

Harding’s firm is currently subcontracting the printing of large format output to several different sources. "I do the design work and prepare the files and then send them by email, ftp, or snail mail. When I get to the point that I’m paying as much in subcontract work as the payments on my own machine would be, I’ll get a loan and buy one," he says.

When asked about the challenges, Harding fingers file size. "Especially if you are sending the job out, it can be an issue. One of my sources uses a Flexi-based RIP and output software. When I’m designing a complicated graphic, I will sometimes do RIP and file prep here so I can see how shadows, etc. get rendered. Of course, then I might be dealing with a 400MB file on a large graphic."

Another issue is the availability—or lack thereof—of color profiles for certain media. "In those cases, it’s often guesswork to decide which to use."

Harding has beta-tested Flexi for over a decade. He says the eighth version is the best one yet but he still has his wish list. "I would also like to see more user selectable features on the interface."

Like Magic
Steve Greer Paints Pitas and More with CorelDRAW

Every artist needs a patron. If the landed barons and aristocrats have subsided, the modern-day corporation is a sufficient stand-in. Steve Greer got his start 12 years ago as a mural painter and traveling artist for the Pita Pit restaurant franchise. Hand painting characters and signage for the chain thrust Greer into the road warrior lifestyle which he eventually tired of.

"I was always on the road, I needed my own shop," Greer says. Thus, Abracadabra Signs & Murals was born. With the Pita Pit as his principle client, Greer’s Ontario-based business grew to include a number of retail and restaurant clients, including Boston Pizza, Crabby Joe’s, and Philthy McNasty’s—a Canadian bar and grill. He says that original cartoon art is often something traditional shops won’t (or can’t) touch, which gives him a leg up. Greer’s colorful cartoon creations appear on vinyl banners, window splashes, vehicles, side walk signs, even large sculptures.

Greer picked up CorelDRAW Graphics Suite X3 in January 2006. "I was a little hesitant," he admits. "Now we use it everyday. It’s very user-friendly." Ease of use was important because aside from leaving the world of hand painting, Greer was also investing in a digital printer/cutter from Roland. "We needed an easy transition to digital," Greer says.

So how’d it go? "I don’t miss hand painting," he states. "Six months ago I said I would never go digital. Six months later, I say I’ll never go back to hand painting."

In fact, the digital work is so efficient, "I’m panicking, we’re getting so much done, we’re no longer three to four months behind!"

The software’s ability to handle gradients—which would typically be airbrushed—is one of the big time savers, Greer says.

The nature of Greer’s work allows him to skirt some of the challenges inherent in large format design, such as scaling bit-map images or dealing with custom colors. "Unless a customer specifies, we don’t take their artwork." In fact, about 95 percent of the work Abracadabra does is self-generated. Greer and his staff of five create original works in CorelDRAW Graphics Suite X3 and Painter 9 using a Wacom tablet. If a customer needs a color match, they would supply the Pantone colors, "but we haven’t had too many issues with that," Greer observes. For larger format creations, Greer simply ups the resolution he’s working in and chooses a thicker pen tip.

Aug2006, Digital Output

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