LEDs: A need for illumination standards

by | 6 July 2018 11:51 am

Photos courtesy Craig M. Berger[1]

Photos courtesy Craig M. Berger

By Craig M. Berger

In recent years, many incredible innovations have reshaped the sign industry, but some of these changes have produced new challenges that need to be addressed. Lighting, in particular, is among the key areas where technological developments have caused their own difficulties.

Lighting is the foundation of the modern sign industry. When the first major trade organization, the National Electric Sign Association (NESA), was established in 1944, it was built around a relatively small group of lighting suppliers that kept tight control over manufacturing standards.

Over time, as NESA expanded in scope and became the International Sign Association (ISA), there was a concurrent expansion in signmaking materials and technologies, which made it more difficult to maintain consistency. The replacement of neon lighting with LEDs posed the greatest challenge of all.

Freedom of choice, but not quality
With today’s availability of hundreds of different lighting products have come constant complaints from the signmaking community about inconsistency in terms of standards of quality. Bill Kovacevic, for instance, has witnessed a degradation of quality from up close over his 50 years working as a sign designer and consultant.

“I started as a designer during a golden age of signs, in 1964,” says Kovacevic, currently a consultant for Pattison Sign Group in Dorval, Que. “Designers had to know every technological aspect of a sign, including then-new developments in thermoplastics. The branding firms I worked with in those days, like  Lippincott and Margulies on the General Motors (GM) sign program and Gottschalk and Ash (G+A) for the Royal Bank of Canada’s (RBC’s) illuminated logos, understood how every sign went together and followed standards that were tight and consistent.”

Today, he suggests, the optimal use of advanced LEDs with new materials like direct-to-print acrylic is not widely understood by designers. With this lack of knowledge, specifications have become looser, leading to many lower-quality signs.

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The importance of consistency

Colour matching in sign illumination was more widely understood in the days of neon.[2]

Colour matching in sign illumination was more widely understood in the days of neon.

By contrast, standards are a strong force within the commercial architectural lighting industry. The Illuminating Engineering Society of North America (IES) publishes standards for everything from colour temperature to light output to longevity for dozens of different applications. This allows a residential customer to buy consistent landscaping lights at Home Depot and, at the same time, a laboratory technician to specify the perfect lighting for testing chemicals.

Unfortunately, such standards do not exist to the same degree in the sign industry.

“The lack of clear standards has created a situation where signmakers have a difficult time specifying lighting without extensive prototyping,” says Fritz Meyne, Jr., vice-president (VP) of sales for the Bitro Group, which supplies LED modules for channel letters, sign cabinets and lightboxes.

This scenario poses tough challenges for both sign fabrication shops and original equipment manufacturers (OEMs).

“Without industry-wide standards, high-level lighting manufacturers have a hard time justifying investments in further research and development (R&D), which could yield greater longevity and more consistent output,” says Meyne. “Signmakers think they can get the same quality ordering overseas products online.”

So far, most of the heavy R&D spending has been applied to specific projects, like major brand rollouts, where the importance of lighting consistency is crucial across hundreds of signs. This only helps those sign programs, not smaller projects.

Lighting and materials

In the exhibition industry, customized modular systems integrate illumination and digitally printed graphics.[3]

In the exhibition industry, customized modular systems integrate illumination and digitally printed graphics.

Another big change in terms of lighting innovations has been the advent of true colour specificity.

Until recently, matching colours in sign illumination was very difficult. Neon was available in a specific and well-understood range of hues. And when LEDs came along, they were available only in a very narrow colour band.

That remained the case for years, but has recently changed dramatically with the development of programmable LEDs, different ranges of warm and cool light and colour-screened LEDs. There has also been a major expansion in the range of colour films and acrylics.

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Yet, this availability of complementary materials has posed its own problems, even while providing extensive opportunities.

“Many sign fabricators like to keep their shops efficient by sourcing and storing only a narrow range of LED products, with similar colour temperatures,” explains Kevin Rourke, specification sales representative for Davis Marketing Associates (DMA), which consults on sign projects, and a member of the Sign Research Foundation’s (SRF’s) program committee, which recommends directions
for educational opportunities, conferences and events. “These products do not always produce the correct colour match for a given project, however, even with a matching film or digitally printed acrylic sheet.”

Rourke sees a need for greater education from major manufacturers about how lighting and materials work together, particularly
as many large-format print service providers (PSPs) are now producing graphics for illuminated signs.

“Illuminated full-colour graphics are everywhere, from automated teller machines (ATMs) to retail store walls,” he says, “but at the same time, it has become much more difficult to understand how illuminated colour works, because the number of applications has grown. The best thing a sign shop can do is implement procedures for rapid testing of different lighting systems and materials, which can be continuously updated with guidance from manufacturers.”

Reason for optimism
Some of these experts’ views may sound pessimistic, but there is also a silver lining, since the merging of technologies is changing the nature of how sign companies develop expertise.

To make their products more immediately practical to these companies, LED manufacturers have gotten into several ‘side businesses,’ such as creating custom fixtures and providing consulting services. At the same time, some shops have benefited from established standards by specializing in both architectural and
sign illumination.

These trends may result in a ‘break’ from the traditional sign industry as people know it. Through the integration of architecture, digital printing, exhibitry and signmaking, industry standards and best practices are more likely to be shared across these fields, which will certainly bring significant progress.

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Craig M. Berger is chair of the visual presentation and exhibition design department of the Fashion Institute of Technology’s (FIT’s) School of Art and Design and runs his own firm, Craig Berger Management Consulting, which assists fabricators, manufacturers and institutions with design-based marketing and education strategies. For information, contact him via e-mail at craig_berger@fitnyc.edu[4].

  1. [Image]: https://www.signmedia.ca/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/1x-1.jpg
  2. [Image]: https://www.signmedia.ca/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/CHUM_radio_neon_signs_Toronto.jpg
  3. [Image]: https://www.signmedia.ca/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/IMG_20180227_150715.jpg
  4. craig_berger@fitnyc.edu: mailto:craig_berger@fitnyc.edu

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