Ask average consumers what springs to mind when they hear the words “signs and banners,” and they’ll likely describe wayfinding placards and lengths of logo-imprinted fabric hanging from street poles. And although placards and pennants have their place in the sign and banner arena, this is a market segment with innovative and expanding applications in corporate, retail, entertainment and sports arenas.
“Retail and exhibit and event markets are the most mature,” says Paul Lilienthal, owner and president of Minneapolis, Minn.-based Pictura Graphics. “Corporate interior and architectural markets are likely to possess new opportunities for growth.”
Change is good
Perhaps the hottest structures in the banner and sign industry are the silicone edge graphic (SEG) fabric banners—lightweight dye-sublimation fabric graphics stretched on aluminum extrusion frames. What makes SEG banners such desirable vehicles for communication and aesthetics is that the graphics are easily changeable and the frames are essentially invisible to the eye, allowing the graphics to take center stage.
“There are so many applications for SEG products,” says Sean Sadhoo, general manager of Imaged Advertising Creations (IAC), Toronto, Ontario, Canada. “That’s really one thing that’s driving the fabric signage market regarding that frame in particular—it is something you can mount on the wall and the frame is not visible, or you can make it freestanding for something like a trade show exhibit.”
IAC’s boardroom features SEG graphics—its entire wall is a SEG frame. “At first glance, no one would be able to tell that it’s a SEG frame,” Sadhoo says. “It just looks like a painted wall or a big picture. What’s great about it is that whenever we get bored with the image, we just pull it out and put up a new one.”
Sadhoo incorporated a commercial television with the graphic, using digital images to blend with the background when the screen wasn’t needed for meeting purposes. “At one time, the SEG graphic was of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and the image on the television was a continuation of the bridge,” he says. “But during meetings we could connect our laptops to the screen and project that information to it.”
When working with corporate and architectural clients, not only are SEG products popular but a host of other companion fabric installations are often called for as well. “There is a noticeable increase in fabric applications in the architectural and corporate interiors environments,” Lilienthal says. “These range from SEG-based systems, both frontlit and backlit, to acoustical systems and even window blinds.”
Pictura completed an acoustical fabric project with Sonus Interiors in Golden Valley, Minn., for the Minnesota Senate renovation in 2017. “The project was very unique in that we had to match colors and material from over five years ago and had to complete numerous rounds of color testing to match the existing areas that were not being renovated,” Lilienthal says. “The end result was renovated acoustical fabrics that the client was very pleased with.”
Geoff Kilmer, founder and CEO of Charlottesville, Va.-based PhotoWorksGroup, says graphics companies are also often hired to install graphic murals, glass graphics, dimensional letters—and at times special exhibits that are not fabric-based—for corporate clients.
PhotoWorksGroup recently did a job for The Washington Post in Washington, D.C. The installation included clear polyester graphics on glass, graphic murals and special exhibits. The bulk of that job consisted of approximately 6,000 square feet of clear polyester film murals on glass, featuring graphics of period newspaper articles, but it was a wall exhibit featuring linotype that provided the biggest challenge—and satisfaction—for Kilmer and his crew. “The paper had 100 of these brass letter sets from 100 years ago or so, and they needed 400 for a wall exhibit where they wanted to spell out The Post’s seven principles of journalism—and they wanted us to take care of that,” Kilmer says. “Initially we said it wasn’t in our bailiwick, but in order to compete for the graphics package, we needed to take care of that as well.”
So Kilmer and his team took on the challenge. They researched how to make the letter sets, purchased a milling machine, milled shapes out of brass bars, assembled the sets and added patina to match them to the originals. “It took about six weeks to produce, which was within the timeframe of the project,” he says. “And we ended up having a lot of fun doing it.”
Of trade and transportation
Mike Dudek, senior designer for Britten Inc. in Traverse City, Mich., says that “fabric has been the direction that all our markets seem to be going.” The company prints custom fabric banners and signs for interior and exterior applications including corporate environments, sports and entertainment stadiums, retail displays, transportation and trade shows. And once again, SEG systems are trending for retail and transportation, Dudek says.
“We have a 6-foot by 3-foot vertical standee that has been very popular with our shopping center partners,” he says. “We use that for out-of-home advertising for a lot of retailers, and other advertisers for movie theaters, airports, rail stations and bus terminals. And in major metropolitan areas we use SEG systems for wallscapes. It’s got such a high-end look to it that it’s very desirable.”
Backlit and edgelit frames for retail and trade shows have been around for a while but have recently been gaining momentum. “I wouldn’t say it’s a new item but it’s become a very popular one,” Sadhoo says. “Two or three years ago, we were doing maybe one or two of them once in a while. Now it seems like everyone is asking for it because it makes the messaging ‘pop.’”
In addition to SEG standees, hanging tubular frame structures, covered with stretch fabric, are helping trade show exhibitors define their spaces—and Sadhoo says IAC makes them on almost a daily basis. “Other than SEG frames, the other popular item in our industry would be tubular frames. You can take aluminum tubing and bend it into just about any shape you want,” he says. “So if you go to trade show exhibits and look up, you may see your typical circles and squares, but you always see custom ones as well in S-shapes and custom curves.
“We make a lot of unique things out of stretch fabric,” he continues. “A couple of months ago our team made a massive McDonald’s® Happy Meal® box frame and wrapped it with fabric.”
Live! at the stadium
Fabric signage is playing a big part at outdoor stadiums for sports and live entertainment events. Now that college and professional football stadiums are more often than not being used for concerts in the off season, stadium managers are hiring fabric graphics companies to transform the look of the venue to complement the event. “We’re seeing a lot of mesh used in the sidelines,” Dudek says. “More customers are choosing fabric because of the appeal both in terms of the [on site] audience but also the television viewers. There’s less glare with mesh; it’s lightweight and more environmentally friendly. We don’t use solvents that were traditionally used with heavy-weight vinyl banners.”
Beyond the sideline messaging, there are opportunities for more dramatic signage as well. Britten recently manufactured a 25-foot-high by 48-foot-wide skull and crossbones pirate ship flag for Kenny Chesney’s 2018 “Trip Around the Sun” tour that kicked off at Florida’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Raymond James Stadium. “It was great for us,” Dudek says. “Chesney posted a music video on social media and you can see him pointing to the flag in the distance.”
For college sports departments, the trend is to install big graphics of former and current players. “They didn’t used to budget for it, but now they dress up their facilities because it’s so competitive for recruitment,” Kilmer says. “It’s another vibrant industry for us to service.”
The fabric graphics banner and sign industry is so hot that IAC’s Sadhoo says being down is never really an option for them. “We have two of everything in terms of equipment,” he says. “We bought two of everything because we wanted backups if one of our machines went down, but the equipment is no longer used as a backup. They’re all running, all the time.”
Sigrid Tornquist, a writer and editor based in Minneapolis, Minn., is a frequent contributor to IFAI publications.