Why vector artwork matters for signs

The vector advantage

Figure 1: Vector node

Vector software produces artwork files that are mathematically defined by using geometric principles. This is a particularly well-suited formatting protocol for simple shapes, including those used for most sign letters.

The aforementioned channel letter production equipment can only read vector-based file data, but the main advantage of vector artwork over bitmap graphics is its scalability. Where a bitmap image may become pixelated and distorted when it is enlarged, a vector-based image can easily be adjusted to a range of different sizes without degrading its original shape.

This is an important distinction that simplifies both artwork processing and sign production—particularly when a client decides at the last minute to order 305-mm (12-in.) tall instead of 254-mm (10-in.) tall channel letters!

Vector artwork cannot be definitively identified by its filetype extension, so it is important to be careful, but the extension
can still be a helpful first clue. Some common options include the following, which are typically produced in vector editing software:

  • .eps
  • .ai
  • .sdg
  • .pdf


Follow your nodes

While it is possible, using some design software, to save a raster image into a vector format, this process does not necessarily result in a true vector image. In other words, even once a channel letter artwork file carries a suffix from the above list (i.e. .eps, .ai, .sdg or .pdf), it still may not be usable for production. This is a critically important point to keep in mind when accepting and processing clients’ files.

To discover whether or not a design is a true vector image, one simple method is to open the file in the editing software and check for what are known as vector editing nodes. These will show up as small dots and lines, spread out evenly along the perimeter of each image (see Figure 1).

When a single sign letter is opened within the overall file, for example, if nodes appear evenly all around the letter’s shape, then it is a usable vector file.

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In contrast, when a rasterized file has simply been resaved as a vector image, the nodes will appear too scattered and/or bunched up (see Figure 2). Such an image may be helpful from the standpoint of providing a visualization of what the client is seeking, but it will still need to be converted properly into a true vector-based file for production purposes.

Comprehensive specs

Figure 2: Raster converted to vector nodes

Once the client’s file has been verified as a true vector image, the next step toward a problem-free project is to make sure it contains comprehensive data.

For channel letter signage, all of the following specifications must be included with the artwork or there will be additional potential for delays:

  • Channel letter type (e.g. front lit or reverse lit).
  • Overall sign height.
  • Overall sign length.
  • Height of largest letter.
  • Height of smallest letter.
  • Face colour(s), if any.
  • Return colour.
  • Return depth.
  • Trim cap colour, if applicable.
  • Letter back material.
  • Mounting type (e.g. flush, raceway, wireway or backer panel).
  • Raceway length, if applicable.
  • Light-emitting diode (LED) illumination type and/or brand.

Keeping all of these points in mind, it may be beneficial not to supply any production and installation timeline to the customer until after the usable artwork—including all of the above specifications—has been provided to the sign shop. As the list suggests, there are many variables involved in channel letter design and fabrication, any of which can easily throw schedules off if a piece of information is missing.

So, beyond checking the filetype and addressing the ‘vector versus bitmap’ issue, there is plenty of other information that needs to be readily available with the submitted artwork before the project can proceed at pace.

John Baylis is former marketing director and continues to produce content for Direct Sign Wholesale (DSW). For more information, visit www.directsignwholesale.com.

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