Last week, I was in Orlando for the International Sign Association’s Sign Expo 2014, which was only the second Sign Expo I had covered (last year in Las Vegas was the first). It’s an exciting show, with the printing and electronic technologies I normally cover being presented from a bit of a different angle. An interesting comment I got from a few people I spoke with was that the show was “losing its identity” as a show dedicated specifically to signage. Granted, I don’t have the years of experience in that space to necessarily agree or disagree, but I mulled this over as I made my last reconnaissance mission to the show floor Saturday morning. As I wandered around, I kept coming back to the thought that the show’s identity seemed to me perfectly intact, at least as far as what it aims to focus on; it just seems that the nature of signage itself has been changing.
Last year, one of the show’s organizers told me that a major growth area of the show was print. Now, that’s one of those statements that, had I been drinking something, would have done a spit-take, as I haven’t been accustomed to thinking of print as being a big growth area anywhere these days. And yet today’s crop of wide-format printers—the big flatbed UVs and the textile printers, to name but two of the biggest categories of print equipment in the signage market today—were easily edging out channel letters, traditional wooden signs, exotic 3D lettering, and all the things we usually think of as “signs.” In fact, there were even some comments from the “old school” sign folks along the lines of print (at least in the context of signage) being some “new fad that will end as soon as people come to their senses”—kind of like what many commercial printers thought (and a few still think) about the Internet. I love it: print as a disruptive, upstart technology! We haven’t seen that since the 15th century.
And then there’s Maude: the substantial growth of dynamic digital signage, which everyone is trying to figure out what to do with, if anything.
“Signs” are many things these days. They are, yes, old-fashioned channel letters. They are beautifully engraved wooden signs such as you’d see outside an antique store. They are chalk boards. They are adhesive vinyl graphics. The are lighted exit signs and other types of wayfinding. But they’re also printed banners and so-called “soft signage.” They are, in some ways, vehicle wraps. And, increasingly, they are digital displays. (When one is trapped in an airport, trying to get home from shows like the Sign Expo, one has little else to do but wander about looking at all the myriad signage on display, if only to try to determine the latest trends in what gate you are departing out of.)
The challenges faced by today’s signmakers involve not only keeping up with rapidly changing technology—especially, but not only, where digital signage is concerned—but also how to integrate new types of signs with older ones to best serve the practical and aesthetic needs of the customer. A fast food franchise, an antiquarian bookseller, a law office, and a high-end retail establishment will all have completely different signage needs and require different technologies. More importantly, signage graphics very often need to be integrated, or at the very least be consistent, with other graphic elements and components of a larger campaign, like marketing collateral materials, advertising, and online elements. If you are producing wayfinding signage (a massive, byzantine topic all on its own), there are reams of regulations (the Americans with Disabilities Act, building codes, etc.) that need to be digested before a single sign can be output. Then there is the perennial challenge of how to sell new technologies, like digital signage, without cannibalizing old business.
New technologies are taking signs in completely new directions, and new pitfalls abound. If shows like the Sign Expo seem like an eclectic, often chaotic mix of crafted, printed, and electronic media (and, in many ways, reminiscent of other shows like SGIA) it’s only because signage itself has evolved into an eclectic, often chaotic mix of crafted, printed, and electronic media. The question now is, how do we make it all work together?