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City signage makes an impact

September 1st, 2010 / By: / Feature, Graphics

Impact your city—and your company’s bottom line—with artistic digital graphics applications.

What if you could enhance your city’s vitality while furthering your business? What if making a difference in the life of your community could also make a difference in your business’s bottom line?

It seems when thinking of city signage and beautification, the street pole banner is the first thing to come to mind—not as advertising but as city promotion. But, really, it’s all advertising, isn’t it? Those maroon banners flanking Main Street, printed with wildlife or nature images designed with the intention of convincing onlookers that Our Town is a quaint, welcoming place to live—or at least a place to visit and spend a little money. The sleek city banners that define segments of Chicago, New York or Sydney, printed with abstract urban landscapes and silhouettes of city dwellers, designed with the intention of convincing you that the city is well ordered, vibrant and inspiring—and yes, you should spend a little money here, too.

Although street banners are an important part of city signage and beautification, the opportunities for digitally printed fabric go well beyond the traditional for both exterior and interior applications.

Opportunities and options

Besides street pole banners, the city signage market can include stadium graphics, murals installed on the walls of otherwise bland municipal buildings, construction banners to beautify and advertise developments in progress, and interior common spaces of libraries, courthouses and skyways, to name a few. The list of opportunities is long, especially considering the increase in the use of fabric as opposed to hard signage.

“Fabric has typically been ‘hot’ in Europe and South America and is now becoming more so in North America too,” says Randy Anderson, product marketing manager at Mutoh America Inc., Phoenix, Ariz. “Historically, in the United States, PVC-coated banners have been the de facto textile for outdoor applications and many indoor ones as well, but with new coated textiles and dye sublimation, fabric options are growing.”

Among the fabric options, banner and mesh banner are the most common, according to Anderson. “There are also a great number of coated fabrics in a variety of weights and surface textures ranging from a heavy cloth to a very lightweight flag material, which are eco-solvent and solvent-printable and are used in both outdoor and indoor settings,” he says.

“Woven acrylics such as Sunbrella® have been used for years for street pole banners,” says Mike Von Wachenfeldt, digital fabrics product manager for Glen Raven Custom Fabrics, Glen Raven, N.C. “More recently, there are recycled polyester fabrics and thermal-activated films that can be digitally printed and then applied to various substrates. The thermal-activated films allow for smaller production runs.” Von Wachenfeldt points out that higher volume projects would still primarily be screened or direct-printed onto textiles. And while traditional vinyls are prone to cracking and peeling when they are flexed, the thermal-activated films offer more durability and can withstand weathering for outdoor applications. “Acrylics are generally for longer term outdoor use and polyester banners are more seasonal,” he says.

Outdoor stadiums

“We do a lot of work for stadiums, especially football stadiums,” says Bruce Dickinson, vice president of Rainier Industries, Tukwila, Wash. “Much of it is for colleges, targeted at alumni and recruiting.” Colleges, such as Indiana University and Georgia Tech, hired Rainier to create digital graphics that essentially tell a story. “College football facilities can be pretty drab, so we work with them to develop designs to bring their message to life,” he says. Rainier meets with representatives from the school to work out the vision for the project and then looks for ways to accomplish it.

“The printing is easy,” Dickinson says. “It’s maybe half the job. Designing a system that will withstand the elements and stay on the building for extended periods of time is the main challenge with outdoor stadium installations.” The system design is different for every facility. “The building dictates what we’re going to do,” he says. “With Indiana University, for example, we worked with concrete perimeters for attachment. That provided a different challenge for installation than the mechanical attachment with steel I-beams at Georgia Tech.” Ultimately, Rainier used the same material for the applications—a vinyl mesh—but from an installation and engineering standpoint, the two installations were completely different.

The projects aren’t complete at installation, however. Rainier provides ongoing maintenance for its clients. “Mainly our customers for these types of projects are looking for assurances,” he says. “They want to know they have someone to call if something goes wrong. This is a full service turnkey application. We become a partner to that client in many cases.”

Partnering with artists and communities

A partnership between municipalities, artists and fabricators is another opportunity for expansion into the realm of cityscapes. June Bisantz is a public artist who also teaches art and design at Eastern Connecticut State University. Her first encounter with using fabric for a public installation was in 2006 when she collaborated on an outdoor installation in New Haven, Conn., that was designed to enliven and energize downtown New Haven’s 9th Square.

Bisantz partnered with photographer Harrison Judd to create and install the vinyl mesh canopy that hung across the lot, projecting shadows of sign imagery onto the ground and creating a centerpiece for the space. Fabrication and installation design assistance was provided by Paige Howarth of Graphics Workshop. “I fell in love with using vinyl mesh fabrics at that point for these outdoor spaces because they have the qualities I need that make them special,” Bisantz says. “They’re fluid and can move in the wind and they’re tough and carry color brilliantly.

Since then she’s brought fabric into the curriculum for her students whenever she can. In 2007 she partnered with the juvenile court system to provide banners for the Willimantic Juvenile Court Project. Under her supervision, students from Eastern Connecticut State University and the Windham County Public Schools provided the artwork and design, and Enhance A Colour in Danbury, Conn., manufactured the colorful banners.

“The presiding judge of the juvenile court came to us and asked us to design something to enliven the walls and give the children something positive and engaging to look at while they wait for foster care issues to be resolved,” Bisantz says.

For several years, Rainier partnered with the Seattle Arts Commission on an ongoing project to enhance the wall of the city’s water treatment facility. Rainier built a 100-foot-long frame and printed a different image each year on vinyl mesh, the design for which was submitted by a different local artist selected by the Arts Commission.

Code considerations

Codes for public art installations vary by local jurisdiction. The first and most subjective consideration is whether the municipality considers the installation art or signage.

“Any kind of graphic image, especially larger images, are likely going to require a sign permit, a street use permit and probably a stamped engineered drawing,” Dickinson says. “And if you don’t have those kinds of capabilities in-house, you’re going to have to source that somehow.”

Dickinson advises checking with your local building department before you get too deep into a project. “Customers will want to do all kinds of things,” he says. “It’s really important to know what your restrictions are, including size limitations.”

Weather is a consideration for every outdoor project, one that affects durability as well as local codes.

“We did a project for an art museum in Baton Rouge, La.,” Dickinson says. “The project had to meet very stringent requirements for the Louisiana code. The museum structure was built with a new cable design system that was hurricane-proof.” The project was a 30-foot by 50-foot banner with a welded, aluminum truss frame construction. Rainier built the project in sections at its plant in Washington, and then transported it to Baton Rouge for installation. The installation survived Katrina but needed repair after Ivan.

City planners and sign fabricators have long understood the power of signage for municipalities. Although city budgets are shrinking, there are still inroads into the market. And as the economy bounces back, there is likely to be an increase in demand for fabric signage and art.

Fabricators excelling at digital printing and its many facets can tap into cities that understand the power of signage—as beautification, a morale boost or a fresh approach to advertising.

Sigrid Tornquist is a freelance writer and associate editor of InTents, a publication of the Industrial Fabrics Association International.

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