One of the most exciting aspects of the wide-format graphics business is how every day is different. Every customer has different needs. Every project has different specifications. And, to some extent, every surface has different properties that will affect how a graphic film can adhere to it.
The issue of surface compatibility is all too often forgotten, but if the right questions are asked from the outset, it will be much, much easier to bring a project successfully to life, achieve the client’s objectives, avoid damaging property and prevent costly failures, by choosing the right product for the application.
Getting the details
Many sign shops get vague inquiries from customers, like “What have you got for stairs?” The answer, of course, depends on additional factors with respect to the scope of the client’s project. Stair graphics may be part of a long-term branding effort or simply a short-term promotional application for a single event. They may involve applying films to the horizontal tread surface and/or the vertical riser of each stair. They could be indoors or outdoors, applied to surfaces of stainless steel, glass, concrete, powdercoated metal or brick, among other material options. They might need to be applied over existing graphics—and the customer may need them to be easily removable later on.
In this way, one initial question from the customer leads to many others from the signmaker. The same is true for other applications. When a customer asks for a door graphic, for instance, the signmaker will need to know whether the project is meant to blend into a wall mural or stand out for wayfinding purposes.
Indeed, appearance is a particularly important aspect of a project, even at the earliest stages. By understanding what the client feels would be an ideal outcome, signmakers can offer suggestions of product combinations he/she may not even know exist, such as metallic colours, ‘day/night’ reflective films for around-the-clock visibility or specialty cast films that can conform to extremely complex curves and textured brick surfaces. Films with ‘micro’ technology, for example, use the latest scientific advances in ‘comply’ adhesives to make wide-format graphic installation faster and easier, resulting in a smoother, bubble-free appearance.
As mentioned, one critically important part of understanding what the customer wants to achieve is knowing how long the graphics will need to be in place. Indeed, the duration of a project is just as important to product selection as appearance is.
The length of time for which a graphic film will stay up effectively will depend exclusively on the type of film and its adhesive. The spectrum of options available range from permanent at one extreme to ultra-removable, changeable at the other, each with its own benefits and risks.
Films with permanent adhesives are, of course, meant to remain in place for the life of the items to which they are attached. Typical applications include warning and safety labels on equipment.
Removable adhesives have traditionally been the most popular options because they can hold graphics in place until they are removed with heat and/or chemicals, without damaging a sound surface. Vehicle wraps, for example, are typically printed on graphic films with removable adhesives.
With today’s trend of short-term branding for special events, pop-up stores and other promotional activities, films with ultra-removable adhesives are gaining popularity. They adhere well, but are meant to do so only temporarily.
There are also two main categories of specialty adhesives for installation on less traditional materials. The first are for low-surface-energy (LSE) surfaces, which can range from the plastic sections of all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) to powdercoated metal shelving and racks.
While a graphic printed on a typical white vinyl film may initially appear to stick well to a certain plastic surface, over time it could become apparent the film’s adhesive simply wasn’t designed for such an application. It might not stand up to normal use and the application could fail.
Such failures are caused by the plastic itself—specifically, by plasticizers inside it that help it look fresh and maintain its colour. These plasticizers can migrate out of the surface, creating an oily surface that in turn causes the graphic to fail.
A film with an LSE adhesive is specially formulated to bond to these difficult, non-standard surfaces, so choosing the right product will allow the signmaker to stand behind the project with confidence.
The second specialty category is for adhesives that can be applied successfully to stainless steel. For interior application surfaces, such as elevator doors, it is not typically necessary to stray from typical product lines; an ultra-removable adhesive is usually the right choice, as the graphics are most likely for short-term promotional purposes. With exterior applications, on the other hand, projects installed on stainless steel—e.g. tanker truck graphics—can easily fail unless they use specialty films and adhesives.
A tanker truck, after all, is exposed to salt spray and moisture on highways, which react with its stainless steel cause the graphics to fail. A specialty adhesive for this purpose, however, will withstand the elements yet also be removable when desired, with heat and/or chemicals.
Cast vs. Calendered
Cast films are designed for long-term projects, whereas calendered films should only be used for shorter-term graphic applications.
Films that look alike may have very different properties. It is important not to send a less expensive calendered film to do a more expensive cast film’s job. Even if a calendered film has the right adhesive in place, if it is applied to a surface with deep grooves, it will fail.
In addition to polyvinyl chloride (PVC) cast films, recent advances have led to the development of highly flexible and conformable reflective films, as well as non-PVC cast films, to meet a wide array of client objectives. They work well on vehicle wraps and highly textured surfaces, preventing the types of failures that can cost sign shops extra money or, even worse, their reputation in the marketplace.
Enhancing protection and appearance
Moving beyond the customer’s objectives in terms of appearance and duration of use, it is also important to discuss how to protect the graphics from dirt, fading and vandalism with an overlaminate.
Determining the best method for protecting graphics will depend on location and desired appearance. Many clients will want a matte finish for their indoor graphics, for instance, where a gloss finish would reflect too much light and make it hard to see the images. For printed vehicle wraps, on the other hand, gloss is the most-requested finish. And with graphics that are to be applied to outdoor surfaces prone to vandalism, a graffiti-resistant overlaminate is the best choice.
In addition to standard overlaminate options like gloss, lustre and matte, there are also ‘ultra-matte’ and textured options like linen and wood grain, along with sparkle effects. So, in addition to protecting graphics, there are growing numbers of ways to help clients achieve the specific look they want.
Installing and removing graphics
Installation is key. A sign shop can do all of the proper groundwork in terms of specifying the right products for the project, only to have a poor installation compromise the integrity of the entire undertaking. Even the best-looking printed graphics will look awful if they are installed wrong. It is important to make sure the installer has the right training and experience for the application in question.
The eventual need to remove the graphics is often overlooked at the outset of a project, but this is an extremely important factor to consider when selecting products. All too often, when sign shops quote a job, they do not factor in removal time.
The average lifespan of wide-format graphics is becoming shorter, particularly with a growing trend toward ‘experiential’ marketing and branding. At the 2016 National Basketball Association (NBA) All-Star Game in Toronto, for example, one of the event’s sponsors was a competitor to the venue sponsor. As such, changeable films were used to cover existing branding with short-term graphics for the duration of the internationally televised game. Afterwards, the graphics were removed cleanly without needing additional heat, simply by pulling them away like Post-it Notes.
Many sign shops unfortunately choose the cheapest film they can find—and the cheapest adhesive is a permanent one. In the end, they can wind up spending more on time and labour to remove the graphic than they did on preparing and installing it, particularly when it comes to surfaces like glass. Choosing the right film with the right adhesive can save a lot of time and, therefore, money.
Product categorizations are also relative, depending on the application. A full vehicle wrap for a weeklong promotion using a typical ‘removable’ adhesive, for instance, will still be costly to remove in terms of time and labour, requiring a skilled worker and the use of heat and/or chemicals. There are now ‘ultra-removable’ changeable films, which even a non-skilled employee can easily remove from a vehicle’s body and windows in 20 minutes, providing substantial cost savings. These films also adhere well in cold Canadian temperatures, providing a competitive advantage in a market where other shops are spending more time and effort to do the same types of work with the wrong products.
Guided in the right direction
By taking the time upfront to fully understand various products before finding the right options to complete an application, sign shops can protect their brand image and avoid the cost and time involved in having to redo a job following a failure. And when in doubt, signmakers should reach out to vendors and manufacturers that can help guide them in the right direction.