Wide-format Graphics: Unleashing the opportunity of trade show graphics

February 12, 2015


Photo courtesy Taylor Group

By Ed McCarron
From technical conferences to retail exhibitions and beyond, there are trade shows to address just about every industry and topic. Within the hectic trade show environment, hundreds of organizations are clamouring for the spotlight. As such, sign shops that can build the most eye-catching, compelling and innovative graphics and displays will achieve the greatest success serving this market.

One of the keys is being aware of new and improved wide-format printing software, hardware, inks and substrates. The sheer range of choices can become overwhelming, however, and it is important not only to be open to trying out new products, but also to understand how to balance components with each other.

Approaching the market
Trade show graphics use a wide variety of media for everything from tabletop displays to banner stands to hanging signs to entire printed booths. As with other wide-format printing applications, there are several variables to consider before choosing the best material for the job, including the following four parameters:

Together, this information will help determine the most appropriate media choice and the right production approach.

Once the specifications for and requirements of the application have been pinpointed, it will be important to consider several factors, including the choice of the material’s finish, composition and printer compatibility.

Today’s paper substrates for wide-format printers are well-suited for in-booth mounted graphics, oversized posters and retail point-of-purchase (POP) displays. Photo and poster papers, especially, have become popular options for trade show graphics because they can achieve excellent, photorealistic image quality.


All industries have trade shows that need booths and displays. Photo courtesy Shop for Exhibits

When choosing among photo papers for the trade show market, those with a satin and gloss finish that are universally printable across solvent-based, eco-solvent, ultraviolet-curing (UV-curing) and durable aqueous ‘latex’ inkjet printers are recommended. Bringing in one stock keeping unit (SKU) that works across all printing platforms will help reduce in-house inventory storage and enhance flexibility in the production department.

In addition to storage efficiency and application versatility, signmakers should look for new, economical papers that are dry off the printer. These options will allow them to print directly to take-up reels, saving both time and money.

Sign shops that specialize in latex printing should source photo and poster papers with a vinyl topcoat. This allows the paper to sustain its glossy finish, whereas other types of paper will lose theirs during the reaction between the latex inks and microporous coatings.

There have also been significant advances in blockout papers, which can be printed easily on both sides, allowing signmakers to quickly produce double-sided hanging signs or posters for maximum visibility above or on busy trade show floors.

Blockout papers also enable window graphics without reflections. They can be applied to any clean, dry glass surface, including windows of trade show booths and convention centres. Some ‘eco-friendly’ papers are biodegradable.

Latex saturated papers have become a cost-effective option for sign shops, offering sufficient durability and versatility for the production of trade show graphics, wall murals, POP displays and out-of-home (OOH) ads. Some feature heavier coatings for improved production speed in eco-solvent inkjet printers. Some meet American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) standards for use as wallcoverings.

Signmakers should also look for latex saturated papers that are translucent enough to serve as backlit films.

Backlit films
Backlit graphics, already common in retail locations and transit facilities, are becoming increasingly popular at trade shows for their high-resolution, eye-catching images. By investing in backlit films, signmakers gain the ability to produce lightbox graphics for all of these markets, but the applications are particularly ideal for trade shows because of how their vibrant colours call attention to an exhibitor’s booth.

Backlit graphics are commonly printed on polyester or polycarbonate-based films. The polyester films are available with a textured finish on the viewable side. Polycarbonate films, too, are reverse-printed and then viewed from the non-printed side, with a matte or lustre finish.

Sign shops using dye-based printing systems should choose a polyester film base for a uniform, low-grain background. It is also important to consider how clear the graphics will appear under little or no ambient light. Some of today’s films offer optimized opacity for maximum colour vibrancy without ‘hot spots.’

Beyond the media choices for dye-based printing, there is a growing list of versatile backlit films for use across solvent, eco-solvent, UV-curing and latex—and other aqueous—inkjet printing systems. To ensure vivid colours and high resolution for printed images, it is important to choose films that maximize the transmission and reflection of ink density.

Once backlit graphics have been produced, they need to be properly finished. Regardless of the specific film chosen for the job, cold-pressure laminates are recommended at this stage.

For backlit graphics that may be displayed outdoors, lamination with encapsulation is the best way to ensure they are waterfast. With semi-opaque films, a diffuser layer is typically used with the lightbox to increase the overall density of the image. Clear films also require a diffuser layer to help prevent hot spots.


Fabrics are becoming popular for trade shows because they can easily be transported from event to event. Photo by Peter Saunders

There is a plethora of printable media options available for the production of banners, whether they will be mounted on display stands or hung indoors or outdoors. So-called ‘universal’ banner substrates offer high durability, but it is also important to consider recyclable media in today’s eco-conscious market.

As with the other media choices previously discussed, cross-platform compatibility helps deliver maximum cost-effectiveness. In addition to mainstream polyester banner films, the sign industry has seen an increasing range of pressure-sensitive adhesives (PSAs). These allow signmakers to simply print, peel and stick the material to a foam core or dimensional substrate, eliminating the need for a spray-on adhesive and thus cutting down on production time, as well as reducing the likelihood of errors.

For trade show graphics that require durability as they are transported from one event to another on the circuit, there are banner materials available today that incorporate flashspun high-density polyethylene (HDPE) fibres and polyolefin for additional resistance against tearing, water damage and UV fading. Materials constructed with a premium scrim are ideal for hanging signs, as they drape well.

Blockout films
Similar to blockout papers but specifically designed for use in retractable banner stands, blockout films are another strong choice of signage substrate. An anti-curl layer will provide additional stability and durability for busy trade show floors, allowing the graphics to be used multiple times. And films with bright white printable surfaces will enhance the graphics’ colour ‘pop.’

There are a wide variety of blockout films available today. Those with a polypropylene (PP) printable surface and a metallized film layer in between are ideal. That said, PP blockout films without the metallized layer can prove effective for solvent and eco-solvent inkjet printing, providing cost savings—by not having to meet water-based coating conditions for aqueous printing—while achieving the same lay-flat properties.

Similarly, sign shops using UV-curing inkjet printers can find cost savings by sourcing specialized UV blockout films that do not need to be compatible with water-based printing.

Many manufacturers have also begun to offer blockout films for the growing latex printing market. Unlike films constructed with PP, these are 100 per cent polyester blockout films, which are not heat-sensitive. As a result, they will not buckle, curl or warp in latex printers.

Finally, some manufacturers have designed two-step constructions for the trade show display market, whereby a 0.4-mm (16.5-mil) blockout film is paired with a 0.13-mm (5-mil) laminate to create a 0.53-mm (21-mil) thick display.


Trade show displays also allow sign companies to promote their own services by example. Photo courtesy Signs By Tomorrow

Repositionable adhesive-backed films
Repositionable films with low-tack adhesion are already popular for residential graphics and retail displays, but are now also being used for trade shows and other event signage. They allow exhibitors to skip the mounting step for in-booth graphics and simply apply graphics directly to most surfaces.

Repositionable films constructed of PP are particularly ideal for short-term trade show use. The durable PP construction will be sufficient to support multiple uses and, unlike vinyl, will not shrink with heat or suffer any edge curling. Additionally, with PP, the substrate can be printed at full bleed and then recycled after end of use.

Once trade show graphics have been printed, it is in most cases essential to finish them through lamination to meet the demands of the trade show floor. Many manufacturers of paper- or film-based media also offer matched components for laminating their products.

Regardless of the printed substrate, signmakers should choose laminates that can protect trade show graphics against dirt and scuffing, so as to extend image integrity. Other beneficial attributes will include anti-glare properties and ease of use; PSA laminates, especially, will simplify the production process.

Keeping steady
The trade show graphics and displays market has become—and will continue to represent—a steady source of income for sign shops everywhere. By becoming aware of new and improved materials as they become available, signmakers can remain competitive, help exhibitors stand out from the crowd, enhance production
flexibility and deliver maximum cost-effectiveness.

Ed McCarron is vice-president of digital imaging for Coveris Advanced Coatings, formerly Exopack Advanced Coatings. This article is based on a seminar the company presented in October 2014 at the Specialty Graphic Imaging Association (SGIA) Expo in Las Vegas, Nev. For more information, visit www.magicinkjet.com and www.sgia.org.

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