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What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think about trade shows (besides $6 hot dogs and sore feet)? If you print graphics for a living, your answer might be the eye-catching booth graphics used by exhibitors — displays that could be a profitable part of your own product line.

Trade-show displays are much different than they were 10–or even five–years ago (Figure 1). With trade shows and convention halls growing in size, exhibitors are using more gimmicks and bells and whistles to lure attendees to their booths. As a result, booth graphics have become more complex and must satisfy a broader range of performance criteria than ever before. Choosing the right imaging method and material is critical for producing effective trade-show graphics.

This article will explore the nuances of booth-graphics printing and the opportunities your business may find in this growing market. You’ll learn not only about production methods, substrates, and finishing materials, but also about some emerging trends that could affect how you approach your next trade-show display job.


The production process you select for trade-show graphics is basically dictated by the volume of the job and the size of the items needed. In most cases, companies that buy trade-show displays are constantly releasing and updating products, so the booth graphics they order are produced in limited quantities and are often used for less than one year.

A dramatic drop in equipment price, as well as the ability to produce vibrant, short-run graphics, has increased the use of wide-format inkjets (both aqueous and solvent-based) in the trade-show graphics market. This move to inkjet printing has not gone unnoticed by screen printers. Many screen shops have added digital imaging to their capabilities in order to capitalize on booth displays and other applications. And in some cases, screen printing itself can be useful for trade-show graphics, such as for the production of general-purpose displays that can be customized by end users.

“In most cases, companies only need one or two copies of a graphic for their booth,” says Brian Walters, vice president of Communication Exhibits Inc. (CEI), Canal Fulton, OH. “However, that doesn’t mean screen printing does not have a role. While solvent-based [inkjet] printing is widely used for trade-show graphics, screen printing’s success in P-O-P and retail displays has made it an alternative for specific booth promotions, such as smaller, multiple graphics.”

Substrate selection

The media you select influences your production methods as much as the print dimensions and total run size. Your choices are almost limitless, and you have plenty of room to develop unique and creative substrate-usage ideas. However, the way in which you plan to display your finished graphic should play a big part in your decision to use a particular material.

Clear acrylic panels have been, and continue to be, very popular substrates because they can be used to create displays with a variety of aesthetically pleasing properties. For example, you can print images onto clear films and mount them to the acrylic panels using an optically clear adhesive film. Another popular technique involves printing the design onto adhesive vinyl and mounting the graphic to clear or frosted acrylic panels. From there, you can create a backlit graphic, perhaps by inserting the mounted image into a lightbox. Overlaminating materials with different finishes, including satin, luster, and matte, also can add to the visual appeal of a backlit graphic.

Although acrylic panels are ideal substrates, static can build up on the material during the graphic-mounting process and attract dust. To eliminate excess static, you should run your laminating equipment at lower speeds and mount your graphic with a film designed specifically for transparency mounting. Additionally, static-elimination devices can be employed at various points of the workflow to help overcome the problem.

Rigid foam PVC board is another substrate widely used with trade-show graphics. This lightweight material is quite durable and comes in various thicknesses (from 1-19 mil) and in a range of sheet sizes. It’s ideal for direct screen printing or for mounting with graphics that have been printed on flexible vinyl and other films. The material will withstand drilling, should holes be required for mounting the display. It also supports heat bending and lamination with other materials.

When mounting photographic prints and other graphic images to colored foam PVC board, use an opaque, double-coated film to prevent bleed-through of the panel’s color. A vinyl film that features a high-tack, smooth, pressure-sensitive acrylic adhesive designed for cold-roll lamination is a good mounting material to use with foam PVC stock.

Fabric is yet another media alternative. Fabric substrates can be decorated by screen printing or digital imaging, and according to Walters, the materials are frequently used to create extra-large, high-impact images. “The image is printed on a few pieces and then sewn together,” he says. “This method allows you to produce a large image that is very lightweight. You can then frame the fabric with wood or aluminum, although the latter is more commonly used.”

While your substrate choices certainly aren’t limited to the products discussed here, it’s important that you select an overlaminate that produces durable, clear, and scratch-free results, regardless of the base media you choose. Look for a film that resists scuffing during lamination, includes a permanent adhesive, and has a release liner that comes off easily during application.

Trade-show trends

In an ideal world, we’d all be producing the biggest, most elaborate, trade-show graphics we could think of. However, that’s not practical in a tough economy. Floor graphics are typically smaller than the average booth display, yet they can be just as effective. Floor graphics are found in retail stores and museums, and they’re quickly becoming a key part of trade-show-booth promotion (Figure 2). These graphics often are used to highlight a particular product or service the exhibitor is featuring at the event.

As you would with any floor graphic, be sure to select a substrate that is designed for the application and meets related standards. You can use screen printing or digital imaging to produce floor graphics, and you have several substrates from which to choose. Removable, non-topcoated vinyl that is suitable for screen printing with UV and solvent inks is one example. Substrates and textured, slip-resistant overlaminates are available for either light or heavy foot traffic.

Architectural signage, such as three-dimensional cut-out and vacuum-formed lettering and logos, is another product that’s seeing an increase in popularity and growing demand for trade-show displays. These products can be mounted to various exhibit substrates, such as the ones discussed earlier, and backlit or illuminated in many other ways for a dramatic effect.

Flexible graphics

Trade shows are on the rise, and, according to Walters, the increase in smaller, regional shows is fueling the industry’s growth. He says flexible graphics are emerging as the displays of choice for these types of shows. These products may consist of three components that provide a short-term, interchangeable system: printed substrate, overlaminate, and backing (often a second overlaminate). But more about production specifics in a moment.

Data from the Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR) suggest that the money available for creating trade-show graphics also is increasing. CEIR indicates that trade shows are the third largest business-to-business marketing expenditure after advertising and promotion. CEIR’s research states that in 1998, companies spent 17.3% ($12.6 billion) of their business-to-business marketing budgets on trade shows, up from 10.7% in 1995. Those figures are projected to grow to more than 2 million companies exhibiting at nearly 6000 shows that will be attended by 125 million people in 2008.

“[Companies] create their own venues and events for showcasing new products or services,” Walters explains. “These companies are willing to spend more money to get their messages across to potential customers or stockholders.” With that in mind, let’s talk about the details involved with creating and finishing flexible displays.John Antognoli

According to Walters, flexible graphics for use with portable, pop-up, and retractable banner displays can be designed as a few separate pieces. When these pieces are set up next to each other, they create a complete mural effect. “And when the show’s over, your customer will have no trouble with take down,” he says. “Shipping concerns also are alleviated as the graphics are stored in canisters, which makes for easy transport to the next show.”

When creating a flexible graphic display, you have many production options to start with, including inkjet printing with various ink systems, photographic prints, screen printing, and electrostatic transfer. But to produce a successful flexible graphic, it isn’t so much how you start–it’s how you finish.

The finishing stage–laminating/encapsulating and mounting/protecting images–may be the most crucial to your graphic’s durability (Figure 3). It’s important to use a product that provides a strong adhesive bond, withstands tunneling and delamination, and can survive repeated rolling and shipping. Here’s a look at specific components and production issues to consider when producing flexible trade-show displays.

Overlaminates Beyond adding depth and vibrancy, overlaminates lend rigidity to printed images or photos for use in flat or curved display configurations. In addition, overlaminates are ideal for protecting graphics against fading from exposure to high-intensity lights (e.g., metal halide, high-pressure sodium) that often are used in convention halls. Those same lights also can create quite a glare, so be sure to select an overlaminate with a luster or matte finish if you wish to reduce or eliminate the glare.

Flexible graphics are often laminated on both sides. The second laminate acts as a backer, increasing thickness, rigidity, and overall protection to further extend the life of the graphics. Backing products are designed for blocking out light, background colors, and structural frames in flexible displays and wall-mounted graphics applications. Here are a few helpful traits to look for when selecting laminating materials:

* high adhesion to eliminate tunneling and delamination

* Underwriters Laboratories (UL) flame-resistance classification for exhibit halls

* protection against UV light

* smooth, uniform, glare-free finish

* low activation temperature for thermally applied products

The last item on the list enables you to realize your laminator’s full operating speeds.

Thickness To hang correctly and avoid waviness, the total thickness of the finished flexible graphic should typically be between 23-28 mils. The thickness of the end caps should be 15-17 mils because of the display’s tight radius. A thicker laminate will not hold the display’s rigidity. Choose an overlaminate and backer in thicknesses that, in combination with the imaged media, equal the correct overall thickness.

Shipping You don’t want to package your finished graphics too soon. Allow a two- to four-hour wet-out period before you roll a flexible graphic and prepare it for shipment. This time allows the adhesive system to reach its highest adhesion level and resist tunneling. Always roll the finished graphics with the thicker laminate facing outward for shipping (Figure 4).

Hanging When hanging graphics to a frame (Figure 5), apply plastic stabilizers on the top and bottom and magnet fasteners (or strips of hook-and-loop fasteners) on the sides. Plastic stabilizing strips (or hangers) should be at least 2 in. wide. Anything less could cause the graphic to crease when rolled for transportation. Be sure to use care when applying any magnetic strips or hook-and-loop fasteners to the back of your graphic. Stretching the strips tightly along the edge will eventually result in a curled graphic that is difficult to hang correctly and may even pull off the frame.

Maintenance As discussed earlier, one of the main benefits of flexible graphics is their durability and longevity. The last thing you want to do is put your display in danger of not living up to these advantages by failing to store or ship properly. Without proper storage or shipping, your display could be compromised through improper packing or environmental damage. By controlling the storage area’s environment, you’ll be able to minimize stress factors that will eventually damage the graphic. Here are a few more tips that will help you avoid potential damage:

* Roll all double-laminated images to an inside roll diameter of 10-12 in. minimum. A larger inside diameter is better.

* Use protective packing material to avoid spoiling the finished product.

* When storing graphics long term, be sure they are flat or very loosely rolled and stored on edge in an environmentally controlled area.

* Always store graphics away from direct sunlight or in spaces where heat buildup can become an issue–inside vehicles, for example. Temperatures in a car may exceed 150


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