Why vector artwork matters for signs

24 August 2018

By John Baylis

[1]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:

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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.

[2]

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

 

The vector advantage

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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:

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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.

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

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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:

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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[5].

Endnotes:
  1. [Image]: https://www.signmedia.ca/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/KetchumBurrito_opener.jpg
  2. [Image]: https://www.signmedia.ca/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/DoubleQuick.jpg
  3. [Image]: https://www.signmedia.ca/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/VECTRO-NODE-5-9-1.jpg
  4. [Image]: https://www.signmedia.ca/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/RASTER-CONVERTED-TO-VECTRO_.jpg
  5. www.directsignwholesale.com: http://www.directsignwholesale.com

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