Creating Expert Exterior Wayfinding Signage

Today’s exterior wayfinding signage has become more important than ever since many businesses and medical facilities have merged or are located in business parks that can confuse even the most well trained Boy Scout. As confusing as it may be, this fact offers an unprecedented opportunity for PSPs to step forth into creating effective and long lasting exterior wayfinding signage. Our experts weigh in on the topic.

Changing Focus

Many PSPs are eager to delve into the niche of creating exterior wayfinding signage but may think that a total revamp of their shops is necessary. Brandon Hensley, Chief Operating Officer at International Sign Association, explains how digital shops may utilize their existing equipment and vendor relationships.

“Traditionally digital printing for exterior graphics was done through silk screening combined with cut vinyl and many fabricators still swear by the level of quality of this approach. Digital surface printing though is coming on strong both directly printed on vinyl and cut or dye sublimation where ink is permeated into a polyester or plastic material. Recently with the advent of flatbed printers, ink can be digitally transferred to an array of materials, but there are still open issues of longevity with these processes. For extremely durable sign approaches like porcelain or phenolic, shops usually need to outsource to a specialist. Some of the specialty films on the market allow for digitally printed graphics being applied to concrete, brick, and cement block walls, which is very applicable to wayfinding systems.”

UV technology can also be very beneficial when it comes to creating wayfinding signage, according to Paul Granaroli, Vice President of Operations at Signarama. “With the growing popularity of flatbed UV printers, graphics can be printed on a variety of substrates for use with wayfinding signage. Sign shops are no longer limited to materials that need to be painted with custom, expensive paints or have vinyl graphics applied to them. This allows the creative sign maker to be as creative as they want to be, and gives them the ability to offer an original end product to the customer.”

Client requirements--especially when it comes to sign longevity--is a very important part of the equation. “We first look at client expectation, how long they expect their sign to last,” says Leslie Louisell, President at Signs Now – Holland. “We also analyze how often in the past they have changed their image/branding. This provides us with a benchmark for selecting appropriate media for their project and any limitations presented by their design and expectations. We have a large client who has changed their logo three times in fifteen years. They have moved from cut vinyl to digital print as their logo changed and media consistency has lengthened. In this particular client’s case every five years. There are niche markets that the expectation is seven to nine years.”

Tips and Tricks

Experienced PSPs always seem to have their own ways of ensuring quality products while knowing the tips and tricks it takes to produce long lasting, eye-catching work without suffering through outdated processes. In the past, longevity and durability have been issues for many exterior signs but advanced technology helps to solve those problems as Hensley points out.

“With exterior wayfinding signage, it’s all about longevity. If the graphics on the sign need to survive a long time it is imperative that a clear coat be added to the printed graphics. In addition there are UV curable inks where sun protection is built into the ink itself. While these are all helpful systems probably the most durable inks are full solvent inks though these inks require additional safety and pollution controls. In the end companies make tradeoffs depending on the longevity of their signs. Design integration is also highly valued in exterior wayfinding – understanding the whole system (streetscape, commercial buildings, parking facilities) and ensuring the continuity of brand throughout the exterior signage can provide a key differentiator.”

Granaroli says, “In the past, most wayfinding signs were more functional than decorative. They were typically one color panel with one color lettering, sometimes with some vector vinyl-cut artwork. Now, most wayfinding signs are made to stand out and grab attention. They often match the form and color of the surrounding architecture of the buildings they are installed in and around.”

Hensley adds: “Like paint, digital printing has improved greatly in durability. Where at one time it was thought that only baked printing processes like porcelain could withstand environmental rigors, now a variety of printing approaches from printing on high pressure laminate to vinyl, combined with weather resistant coating allow signage to stay durable over long periods of time. Sign companies must continually balance longevity with value, because longevity is more expensive. In addition to clear coats and UV protections the best approach is to combine print graphics that can be replaced with a more permanent painted sign using solvent based inks. In addition, it is important to consider protecting graphics from sunlight through positioning or screening as the exterior environment can wreak havoc on graphics.”

Louisell shares her company’s process: “We do this by not cutting corners on costs but providing the quality media that will meet the client’s expectations and by matching media to the environment where signage is placed. We also stand behind the product.”

Market Trends

There are many under-served areas in the wayfinding signage arena, markets that will continue to grow as trends explode across the marketplace.

Louisell sees market trends targeting the following: “Exterior color digital displays such as LED sign boards. More complicated logos requiring wrap based applications as opposed to layers of die-cut vinyl. We expect continued advancement in film technology expanding the variety of applications offered and of course the expanding color digital technology.”

Hensley looks at another approach: “While eco-solvents have been a bit of a bust for outdoor signage there have been a number of interesting approaches being developed using dye-sublimation on different materials or combining printing with powder coating. The trend is to find the technology that permeates graphics completely into a material or add a surface level adhesive that provides greater longevity. Since wayfinding signage has such large exposure to the public, clients are always looking for ways to enable interactivity with the consumer. This has been done with VR/augmented reality apps and QR codes, but could move into RFID embedded tags or other technologies. Many forward-thinking digital print sign shops have also begun to explore dynamic digital signage as an outgrowth of their core business. With their customer relationships, content & brand understanding, print companies are uniquely poised to easily offer digital wayfinding systems as a complement to print.”

Granaoli focuses on trends: “As the equipment and software in the sign industry continues to advance, so will the capabilities of all sign shops that create these types of signage. With the advent of different types of materials and printer combinations, we will continue to see newer and better ways to convey information and direction with wayfinding signs.”

Hensley adds his perspective on new markets: “While sign companies have taken most commercial markets there is still a lot of opportunity to providing very high quality, but value driven solutions for institutions and business. Right now companies like Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts are upgrading their stores and signs with better quality materials and printing. Companies that can provide these quality services at value prices will thrive. Also, many large scale wayfinding projects are managed by downtown BIDs, architecture firms, design firms, and governmental agencies (such as Parks & Recreation). Becoming a valued advisor to these organizations through involvement with community boards, lunch and learns, and Chamber of Commerce events will give sign companies access to new markets and opportunities.”

Granaoli offers a tip: “Some of our franchisees work very closely with Home Owners Associations to help them improve the look and feel of their housing developments by using more decorative street blades and directional signage. They also work with home builders and architects to put these more decorative wayfinding signs in at the ground floor of a neighborhood or development. This is an area that has been slightly untapped, but is continuing to grow.”