All the Signs Are There

By | April 28, 2014

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?

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3 thoughts on “All the Signs Are There

  1. Carl Gerhardt

    Great observations Richard! Having spent a lot of time in recent years with both traditional print and signs (we acquired Signs Now back in 2005 and Signs By Tomorrow joined us in 2012) I can’t help but reflect on how insightful your comments are. The changes in the sign industry parallel what traditional print went through with the advent of digital print back in the 90’s. When we bought Signs Now in 2005 only about one third of the centers had “digital” ink jet wide format printers. Within about three years those percentages were reversed and now it’s 100%.

    At that time we told our franchise members that going forward, for the most part, print companies will remain print companies and sign companies would remain sign companies but the lines will be come more blurred as time goes on. It would appear that this observation is proving to be correct.

    I remember a phrase that appeared in a WTT article years ago that referred to “companies formerly known as printers”. Those were the companies that would be successful in diversifying their offering beyond traditional print. In like manner those that have been traditional sign companies should take heed that “companies formerly known as sign makers” going forward will most likely be the most successful.

    The lines between what is a print, sign, marketing agency, web services/social media company etc. are indeed becoming blurred. Sticking to the core business has always been a pretty good strategy for most firms. However, in these rapidly changing times if the core is shrinking and/or becoming increasing competitive becoming a firm “formerly known as only a printer or a sign company” does send a good message.

  2. Al Bagocius

    I was at the show on Friday…My first ISA show. I concur that the show had a lot of wide format printing vendors and suppliers. Yes- we should call the entire industry, integrated communications with technology of smart phones, our devices will be the new drivers for all these forms of communication..

  3. joel Salus

    Another excellent (and quite amusing) article/post by Richard Romano. Brief and very much to the point, Richard. And, Carl Gerhardt’s comments were “right on.” I did not attend this year’s ISA Expo, but I did attend last year’s ISA Expo (Vegas show), and, quite frankly, it gave me a headache – walking around looking ALL OF THE DIFFERENT things involved in making or displaying (and even installing) signs/signage. To offer truly integrated signage/display graphic, My background is the reprographics/digital printing business/industry. I think that, in order to be successful going forward, those who offer “soft signage” services (printing, I’m referring to) must consider “reaching out” to identify ways for them to get involved in offering electronic-digital-display signage; hardware and software. There are already companies offering that. It’s my understanding that one person, sitting at a computer connected to the Internet, can change ads on hundreds, if not thousands, of digital display graphics screens with just a few mouse clicks. The nearly brand-new McDonalds closest to my house is “all digital”, meaning that the sign-boards used to display menu items and prices requires no “no printing”. This McDonalds replaced an older one that use to have backlit prints. “No mas”.

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