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The Last Decade In The Sign Industry

David Catanach director of the British Sign & Graphics Association (BSGA) takes a look back through the last decade in the sign industry, and what has changed in the sector

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Advancements create fresh opportunities for sign-makers

It is what it is or is it?

Let us look back over the past ten years but not too nostalgic!

Virtually every aspect of the sign industry – illuminated, wayfinding and architectural signs included – has been transformed by digital printing. Improvements in other technologies have increased the number of substrates available in addition to the possibilities.

Large format printing advances have revolutionised sign illumination as well leading to a variety of new opportunities. Glass curtain walls have proven popular in urban architecture. Curved and tempered glass has allowed entire buildings to serve as illuminated signs with translucent and reverse graphics. Light boxes have been transformed by LED technologies and advances in vinyl have made adhering to rough surfaces possible.

Today’s inks were considered the stuff of science fiction ten years ago, and have led to improved durability and the printing to dimensional surfaces has been transformative. New machines continue to improve printing and cutting tasks.

These changes, though full of opportunity, can present challenges for today’s sign and graphics companies. There is much to know when it comes to innovative technologies, methodologies and materials. Depending on your point of view, this may create on the one hand, concern and on the other, delight.

Trap one has printers becoming fabricators as opportunities in interior and placemaking signage have drawn large print companies into the sign and graphics industry. Printers can use their expertise in interior placemaking to dominate all aspects of interior decoration and construction.

Trap two has fabricators becoming printers using their exterior installation expertise to add to existing businesses, increasing both custom interior and more complex exterior work.

Trap three has crossover companies that are expanding into sign and graphics, where advances have bought in fresh players including packaging companies in the ‘fixture’ market, display companies into interior sign expertise and exhibition companies into exterior placemaking.

Each of the advances in the field creates fresh opportunities for sign and graphics companies to play to their strengths, offer a competitive advantage as others enter the market. Graphics on buildings and other architecture offer potential for sign-makers due to the higher level of preparation and installation skills needed. However, building owners remain concerned about product failure which makes durability a key to success. Digital printing in wayfinding requires a high degree of fabrication skill. Even temporary and more permanent solutions should highlight a sign company’s skill in understanding durability issues including the ability to mix solutions based on specific needs.

Each of the advances in the field creates fresh opportunities for sign and graphics companies to play to their strengths and offer a competitive advantage as others enter the market

New materials are finding new homes in different environments thanks to a fair amount of experimentation. The ability to print directly on substrates has allowed for experimentation in printing approaches on natural woods and metals. Combine this with engraving, cutting and moulding which are creating different effects including layered and dimensional graphics. Even topcoats, embossing and clear layers have extended the life of graphics allowing for existing products to be used in new ways.

Wow, what an industry! All that skill and all those opportunities.

And here comes the ‘but’.

All the above requires some sort of concerted effort when trying to win that order from the client. For a start, clients who arrive at the door expecting the sign company who will have first-hand knowledge of exactly what it is that they want. This is not like specifying the build of a brand-new car where there is some semblance of knowing what the final product will look like – unless of course the client presents you with, what can be, a crayon drawing of an idea they had. And do you really know everything about the sign industry in terms of materials, designs, standards, regulations, techniques and products? Even more important, does your client?

I asked a long-time member of the association if they ever feel they have exhausted all possibilities. Their response was simply ‘no and I doubt if I ever will’. They went on to say ‘but I need the support of those people who want to sell me the materials and components or the equipment manufacturers to show me if there are any limitations with their product, before I try to sell the concept and innovative ideas to my customer or even suggest it as a potential solution to their requirements’.

I asked a long-time member of the association if they ever feel they have exhausted all possibilities. Their response was simply ‘no and I doubt if I ever will’

To paraphrase him further he said that he is happy to set aside time for training or product learning and, happily enough, a fair number of suppliers have caught on to this aspect and are not just treating sign companies as an account number but there is a frustration that there is more out ‘there’ and it is not getting ‘here’. The sign-maker says: “Apart from a couple of exhibitions every year that try as we might, we cannot always get to, we need the supplier part of the industry to be more proactive demonstrating their products for us to be able to offer more to our customers.”

Catanach says that today’s inks are the stuff of science fiction compared to ten years ago

I am sure there may be some suppliers frothing at the mouth when they read this comment, as they spend 99 percent of their marketing budget telling sign companies what they have on offer but equally, I know that not everyone is as dedicated and there are many opportunities going missing to sign companies and suppliers alike.

Those in trap three seem to be able to cope with this phenomenon as all part of a day’s work, and they are relatively new to the industry being open to latest ideas but those in traps one and two could do, it seems, with a bit more TLC.

Public Notice:

  • Virtually all aspects of the sign industry have been transformed by digital printing
  • New materials are found thanks to experimentation
  • Graphics on buildings and other architecture offer potential for sign-makers

The British Sign & Graphics Association (BSGA) history dates back more than 70 years when a group of leading sign-makers formed the Master Sign Makers Association (MSMA) with the aim of promoting the sign industry and defending its interests.

For more information on the issues discussed in this article visit www.bsga.co.uk or Tel: 0845 338 3016

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