Why vector artwork matters for signs

By John Baylis

In an all-too-common scenario for the sign industry, a client who has been asked repeatedly to submit artwork for a given channel letter project is several days late in providing it, yet requires the original installation deadline to be met without change.

While this problem is not necessarily insurmountable, one factor that can torpedo the project schedule arises if the client provides the production file in an unacceptable format, as then it will take time to alter and/or revise the artwork before even starting the fabrication of the sign.

Design files can entail many potential issues, but the primary formatting problem for channel letter artwork, typically, is when the client submits a rasterized or bitmap file and assumes it will be acceptable for the production department. While such a file might help the signmaker visualize the client’s concept, it will not be usable for fabrication purposes.

For this reason, it is essential to check the artwork is formatted as a vector-based file, instead, upon receipt. Indeed, this step is key in ensuring an accurate job quote for the client, keeping all channel letter projects on schedule, maintaining efficient cash flow and improving business relationships all around.

A pixelation problem

Rasterized artwork, also known as a bitmap file, is constructed with horizontal and vertical rows of pixels. As such, it can basically be considered a grid of pixels unto itself, where each pixel represents a single component of the overall shape.

Unfortunately, when a bitmap file is enlarged, it can result in a jagged and unclear—i.e. ‘pixelated’—appearance for the image. This problem arises once the file has been enlarged past what is often referred to as the ‘pixelation point.’

Some of the most common filetype extensions to keep an eye out for, so as to help identify bitmap files and rasterized artwork as soon
as possible, include the following:

  • .bmp
  • .psd
  • .tif
  • .gif
  • .jpg
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The overall appearance of a bitmap file depends on the image resolution, which is defined as the number of pixels per inch (ppi) or dots per inch (dpi). Pixels are variable in size and may be laid out in a file at 72 ppi, 300 ppi and so forth, indicating pixel density. A higher pixel density typically maintains a higher-quality image. Scanned images are typically in bitmap format, as are line art and full-colour photos.

Raster graphics are perfectly appropriate for certain sign industry applications, including screenprinting and billboards. When a client submits a channel letter design in such a file format, however, production will not be possible, since the equipment involved—such as a computer numerical control (CNC) router or a dedicated channel letter bender—typically cannot read it.

Instead, the file will need to be reconfigured in a vector-based format. This may be up to the signmaker or an outside production vendor, depending on the circumstances.

Vector software is particularly well-suited for simple shapes, including those used for most sign letters.


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