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Graphics Printing




Trade-show graphics are one of the most important applications in wide-format digital printing. These graphics take many forms, ranging from textiles (soft signage) to backlit films to paper- and film-based substrates. Today’s wide-format digital printers and the expanding variety of specialty media designed for them make the creative possibilities for trade-show graphics and displays seem endless.

Trade-show graphics are one of the most important applications in wide-format digital printing. These graphics take many forms, ranging from textiles (soft signage) to backlit films to paper- and film-based substrates. Today’s wide-format digital printers and the expanding variety of specialty media designed for them make the creative possibilities for trade-show graphics and displays seem endless.

Printers are using innovative media products for digital imaging to create portable trade-show displays, including pop-up stands, roll-ups, backlit graphics, and hanging signs, as well as directional signage and aisle markers. By simply investing in new imaging substrates, it is possible for screen printers to create high-quality, effective trade-show graphics with digital imaging. This article will examine the many considerations in selecting media for a variety of tradeshow signage and graphics applications.


Producing portable trade-show graphics

The adoption of wide-format inkjet printing for portable trade-show graphics, in particular, has resulted from the flexibility and affordability provided by digital imaging for short runs (Figure 1). Wide-format printers provide the ability to produce one-of-a-kind graphics and alter different portions/pieces of an exhibit based on various factors, including regional or trade-specific focuses.

As screen-printing professionals expand into the realm of producing one-off or short-run trade-show displays, they must keep in mind environmental factors, such as bright lighting and durability requirements, as well as the need to convey messages and attract exhibitors on the fast-paced show floor, where there are only a matter of seconds to make your mark. Add to that the plethora of new and improved combinations of inks, media, hardware, and software that have pushed the quality of wide-format, photorealistic graphics to a new level. Today, photorealistic images—those that contain continuous tone and color consistency, seamless gradients, and no visible dots—are getting bigger and better.

One of the major technological advancements in this arena is the availability of a range of media in assorted weights, textures, and finishes—all of which can affect how the final image looks and feels. Although it may seem like a daunting task, choosing the right media is critical to producing effective trade-show graphics that meet requirements for image quality and durability. While each substrate option has varying qualities, there are a few common characteristics to always consider when producing portable exhibition graphics:

Matte or lustre finishes are preferred in this environment, because trade-show graphics are exposed to bright lighting and therefore susceptible to glare. Matte and lustre finishes maximize the visibility of the message from all angles under bright lighting (Figure 2). An additional way to refract lighting is to use a textured laminate over the graphic.

Fire-resistant or fire-retardant materials are often required by law for graphics in many venues. Prior to producing graphics you should ensure that the materials you choose meet the trade show’s requirements.

Rigidity is an important component for choosing media for trade-show graphics, because printed media are typically mounted to the framework after applying stiffeners to both the top and bottom of each panel. Appropriate rigidity ensures that graphics display properly and can be rolled for easy transport.

Opacity is an important factor to consider when producing trade-show graphics, because these applications are exposed to bright lighting. Applying a suitable backer prevents light from shining through the panels.

Proper thickness is critical to ensuring that a panel construction is both heavy enough to stand firm in the stand framing and durable/protected enough to be rolled up, shipped, and reused for multiple trade shows. Final construction of flexible panels should target a composition of 20 mils thick.

In the case of portable trade-show graphics, there are several common applications listed below, along with advice on how you can most effectively produce high-quality graphics.


Portable trade-show booths/pop-up stands

The final construction of graphic panels for portable trade-show booths generally consists of an opaque backing layer, imaging layer, and textured laminate. As mentioned earlier, you should target a total material composition of 20 mils thick. Portable trade-show booths can be completed in one of three ways.

Inkjet-receptive paper or film encapsulated between an adhesive backer and textured laminate is the oldest method. Today, most graphics houses have switched to the other two methods described below, because fewer materials and steps are required. Paper, in particular, as an image layer is weak, because workers can easily crack an edge or corner during the packing process.

Reverse printing on inkjet-compatible polycarbonate and laminate with opaque backer is another option. It works best with dye-based inks. Dyes penetrate the image coating very well and rest against the film surface, thereby allowing for vivid colors when reverse printed and viewed through the film.

Direct printing onto image-receptive backer and laminating with textured polycarbonate film or textured vinyl is the best solution for pigmented inks or solvent inkjet production. Pigment particles are larger than dyes and tend to sit on the substrate’s surface.

The typical product constructions for pop-ups include direct printing onto a 10-mil, opaque backer with frosted polycarbonate laminate, or reverse printing on polycarbonate with an adhesive- backed laminate. This construction offers an 18- to 20-mil-thick imaged panel that can be finished with magnetic strips that adhere to the face frame of the popup stand.


Roll-up displays

Many different materials are used for roll-up-display systems. Regardless of the media used, it is critical that roll-up displays feature an opaque substrate (Figure 3).  Additionally, roll-up displays must be flexible, as they are often wound in a floor canister on a spool and unwound (like a window shade) to be displayed. Furthermore, due to the fact that vinyl, fabrics, and other soft substrates are prone to edge curl, you should use an opaque film that lies perfectly flat. Edge curl makes roll-up displays look unprofessional and can diminish the message conveyed by the signage. The quality of presentation on lay-flat materials is significantly more impressive than on products that curl. Typical product constructions for roll-ups include 8-mil block-out polyester film and polypropylene or vinyl banner materials.

As for lamination of roll-up displays, the thinnest laminates are a good choice, because the canister has limited room. Lamination of roll-up graphics changes the image’s gloss level and adds durability in this application, where the panel will continuously be rolled in and out of the holding canister. You should use liquid coatings, very thin pressure-sensitive adhesives, or hot-melt laminates.


Backlit displays

Backlit displays are, quite simply, graphics that are illuminated from behind. Backlit displays have been around for many years, but recent technological advancements in digital printing and media have eliminated some of the production problems of the past, making it easier to produce high-quality, costeffective backlit graphics. That, coupled with the boom in demand for promotional graphics, has resulted in a sharp increase in illuminated signage.

Backlit displays are effective eye catchers and an ideal component of trade-show exhibits. As with the opaque displays, matte to textured, lustre finishes are preferred. Backlits are commonly imaged on polyester or polycarbonatebased films. Polycarbonates are reverse printed and then viewed through the film or from the non-print side. Polycarbonate films are available with a textured finish on the viewing side of the film.

Backlit films—especially polyester—are increasingly popular among users of solvent inkjet printers. There are four parameters to take into consideration when producing graphics for light projection displays: calculation (amount), location (where), application (how), and duration (longevity). This information determines the best methodology for producing the graphic.

Semi-opaque materials are the ideal form of media when it comes to trade shows. By using more opaque materials, you can ensure that the the graphic will look great under the reflective lighting of the show floor, as well as when it’s backlit. The best choices for backlit tradeshow displays are white films or polypropylene media that offer 90% opacity. Papers in the same opacity range are also a fine option in this environment.

If the backlit graphic’s light will be turned off during the day, then you must take into consideration color accuracy when viewing it both as a reflective and projected image. It’s not possible to have the exact same graphic calibrated and profiled for both worlds, so you should look for a substrate that allows for a small color shift between reflective and projected viewing condi tions. Reverse-printed backlit materials do not display well when the lightbox is off, rendering them unusable.


Hanging signs

These applications are commonly static or rotate over an exhibit booth, showcasing the exhibitor’s name or brand across the show floor. Lightweight, fireretardant materials are the best choice for hanging signs, because they tend to be placed in close proximity to lighting. Sublimation fabrics are another appropriate choice for hanging signs, because sublimation inks penetrate deep into the textile and therefore tend to be more durable and longer lasting than directprint fabrics.


Directional signs

Trade-show venues have a need for a large quantity of directional signage to point people to exhibit halls, seminars, events, dining areas, etc. These signs are only used for the duration of the show, so they’re typically made of simple, inexpensive materials. To produce directional signs, you should consider laminated matte papers or photobase papers that can be mounted to sign board or foam-cored products. Another option is to directly print onto sign-board materials with a flatbed printer.


Aisle markers

These are usually large banners that hang in each aisle. Like directional signs, aisle markers are typically used for a very short time. As a result, light, inexpensive materials, such as reinforced papers, are the best choice. Adding weight to the bottom seam helps an aisle marker to hang flat.


Suggestions for media selection

The opportunities to produce a wide variety of trade-show graphics are growing right along with the improvements to digital printers and inks. Matching the media options with the right technology and intended application can be a challenge. The cost, output, and finishing requirements of each job are key factors to consider when choosing media.

The type of inks used in the different printers play an important role in deciding which type of media to use. Dye-based inks have a wide color gamut and excellent transmission characteristics, but a limited lifespan due to light or oxidation fade. Dye-based inks absorb into the coating of the substrate; therefore, when the graphic is illuminated, the light diffuses into the coating and the base material, which is now saturated or dyed with ink. Because diffusion of light is desirable with backlit graphics, you should use a backprint or reverseprintable substrate. Backprint materials require a mirror print on the back of the substrate and are displayed film side out, leaving a barrier between the viewing side and the inked side.

Pigmented inks do not manage transmitted light in the same manner as do dye-based formulation. Pigment particles sit on top of the coated substrate, creating their own diffusion of light. Therefore, front-print substrates are a good choice when using pigmented inks. They position the ink closer to the viewer, allowing less interference between the ink and the eye.

Media texture is also an important consideration. For example, trade-showbooth panels often use light boxes of different sizes to protect the backlit design. A textured polycarbonate is ideal for creating backlit trade-show displays, because the surface does not produce any glare when viewed from short distances. In contrast, glare increases dramatically when using a matte polyfilm.


Optimizing the graphics

Color management is also a critical factor for you to consider when producing portable trade-show graphics. Color-management tools, such as ICC profiles, automate the process of translating the different color languages that each printing device uses. Without such a translation mechanism, there is no way to ensure the consistency of colors from input to final output without significant manual tweaking and trial and error. By using high-quality, coated inkjet media and incorporating ICC profiles into your workflow, you can be assured that you’ll consistently produce the colors you expect.


Unroll a new revenue resource

The market for trade-show graphics is on the rise. According InfoTrends’ Wide Format Printing Consulting Service, the retail value of trade-show graphics was more than $3.71 billion in 2006, and is expected to grow out to more than $4.01 billion in 2011. Traditional screen-printing applications will continue to provide a steady stream of income for graphics shops, but investing in new imaging technologies and substrates will allow screen printers to expand their product offerings and lay a new financial foundation for their businesses.



As director of marketing, digital imaging, for InteliCoat Technologies, Ed McCarron oversees the company’s development and marketing of coated products, as well as services for technically demanding applications. McCarron has visited 14 countries to train digital printers in the latest imaging and finishing techniques, and he’s a frequent speaker at industry conferences, trade shows, and conventions. He also is a member of several Industry associations.










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