The Art of Printing Graphics and Signage for Cruise Ships
When a passenger steps onto a cruise ship, they’re stepping into an experience. Sometimes it’s magical like a Disney cruise and other times it’s luxurious and romantic. No matter the theme or type, guests want to be taken away and have an unforgettable vacation.
One thing the guests don’t realize is the number of hours that go into planning, designing, and installing the printed graphics, fabricated signage, and décor on the ship. Wide-format Impressions caught up with a few providers to the cruise market to chat about the opportunities in the cruise industry, how printing for this market differs from others, design considerations, and trends changing the game.
How Signage Shapes the Experience on Cruise Ships
A single cruise ship can house thousands of printed graphics and signs, from wall murals, floor graphics, and banners to wayfinding, A-frame, safety, and experiential signage. The number can get quite large — with some projects requiring 60,000 signs, says Carl Lesvoix, graphic and signage director and partner for Höganäs, Sweden-based firm Tillberg Design.
Printed graphics can keep guests safe, informed, and set the tone for the different spaces and environments on a ship. This could be an evacuation map printed on an acrylic panel, a mural in a restaurant or guest cabin, or something custom fabricated out of metal.
“There are wall graphics and basically super graphic treatments on the outside of the vessels, on the walls of the upper decks and outside decks as they’re called, and pretty much everything in between,” explains Tom Graboski, founder and owner of wayfinding and experiential graphics company TGA Design in Coral Gables, Florida. A combination of these offerings is often used in place of artwork and to set an overall tone or theme of the ship and its various spaces.
Because there are so many different departments within a cruise ship, from photo to food and beverage and excursions, there are many different needs, says Shannon Martin, director of business development, Color Reflections Las Vegas. For example, if Carnival Cruise Line wanted to launch a new excursion across its 34 ships, Color Reflections would print the necessary advertising materials and send them to each ship where the staff replaces them on their own. She says those are the easier projects, whereas a full rebrand or refresh involves site checks and installs, which can take anywhere from two to six months.
Navigating the Seas of Graphic Production
With the number of different opportunities in the cruise industry comes a plethora of products to choose from, but there are some mainstay materials and go-to technologies experts lean on for consistency and quality.
Color Reflections Las Vegas uses a lot of Belbien architectural vinyl film because of its ability to refresh a space. Plus, it can also be printed. “A lot of the ships are old and gaudy,” Martin says, “and so when you’re trying to reuse those spaces, the Belbien is a really good fit for recovering and resurfacing those areas.”
Repositionable vinyl, acrylic, and magnetic products are other materials Color Reflections often uses for cruise projects. Graphics or signs printed on magnetic products allow onboard staff to quickly change information or images out as needed, without needing an install team onsite, Martin explains. Other materials include painted, printed, and sealed MDF. The PSP’s go-to for jobs is an EFI VUTEk UV-LED printer. For tablecloths or other fabric needs, it uses a VUTEk dye-sublimation machine.
Tillberg Design employs various processes, including screen-printed signs, digitally printed recycled acrylic, latex printing, UV-LED, engraved metals, and several different types of vinyl, fiberglass, Maridur, and polycarbonate, among others. For Tillberg, it all starts with the design and storytelling step, which the client and the manufacturer are both involved in to ensure everything runs smoothly. Lesvoix encourages designers to “adapt to your client, know your audience, and design with inspiration for future generations.”
The sheer size of the graphics also becomes a consideration in the cruise industry. Graboski points out that some graphics on the exterior of a ship can be 20x60’. That’s where wide-format printers that can hold 16-20’ vinyl on them come in handy. “You have to print it on something that’s big enough for the size of the wall,” Graboski says, “but the good news of a ship, on most the interior stuff … in most cases, the ceiling height is less than 8’, so that’s easy. That’s pretty standard these days, but when you go outside, you’re doing billboard-size stuff, and so you’ve got to have a really big roll of vinyl on there to be able to print it.”
Printing graphics that large can be a task, and as with any job, PSPs need their graphics to be crisp. This can become an even bigger feat when dealing with super wide-format jobs. Graboski says oftentimes a printer receives collateral from a marketing department and images won’t enlarge properly, ending up pixelated. He notes that in some cases, the images need to be increased by 5000%. To ensure smooth sailing, “interpretive programs” such as Genuine Fractals’ Photoshop plug-in, can be helpful, taking photographic images and converting them into vector files, he explains.
Another important piece of the puzzle is the pre-and post-work needed. Because everything is custom and specs vary from ship to ship, there’s a lot of travel involved for site checks and installation. In Martin’s years working with Carnival, she’s done her fair share of traveling — site-checking 28 ships in eight months for one of its projects. And that’s on top of the actual printing, shipping, and installation of the graphics.
With large rebranding and resurfacing projects, installation teams are needed at various locations.
And whether it’s a small or big project, timing is everything. “When you’re making deliveries to cruise ships, there’s no mañana. The next day, it’s not there,” Graboski stresses. If a shipment doesn’t make it before the ship leaves, even if it’s 100 yards off the dock, the crates, and potentially installers, have to go to the ship’s next stop, likely thousands of miles away. Needless to say, the margin for error is small.
Environmental Demands and Stringent Regulations
In addition to shipping stresses, what makes this market different from others is the environment graphics are in and the regulations that go along with that. One major difference with the cruise industry is the need for graphics to stand up to the elements — the wetness, humidity, temperature changes, and wear and tear from guests.
Because of this, Graboski says PSPs need to account for shrinkage. “A cruise ship one season will be sailing around Alaska and next season it’ll be down in the Caribbean or farther down near the equator where outside temperature on the walls is probably cooking at 120°,” he explains.
Asking how to account for this, he says it’s simple: Don’t buy cheap vinyl. That and businesses need people who know how to install. In some cases, he says a primer is needed on a wall before the vinyl can go up. Those bits of knowledge can play a huge role in application and wear of the graphics.
Another crucial piece to consider when creating graphics and décor for this niche industry is regulations. “Everything that we do on board the ship has to be certified by the IMO, which is the International Maritime Association, to meet certain fire and flame spread and smoke content regulations,” he explains. “And right now, we find that UL-rated products on a cruise ship, if they’re Class A fire-rated UL stuff, [you] can’t put them on a ship. It’s not a good enough standard.”
These tough but necessary regulations make entry into the cruise industry tough for graphics and signage providers, but Graboski says they can’t be overlooked. If they do and the IMO finds out, they’ll ask for the work to be removed.
Trends Rocking the Boat
Looking at the cruise industry as a whole, there’s one thing that’s crystal clear: Guest experience is a top priority for cruise lines. With that in mind, both Martin and Graboski agree that many of the graphic installations for this market are moving more toward experiential. These types of installations creatively present information utilizing digital displays, distinct branding and themes, and take more of a dynamic, multi-faceted approach.
Martin also sees graphics materials and products advancing year after year. “The machines, the equipment, the materials, the warranties on them,” Martin says, have all seen innovation. “You can find anything you need out there right now for any application, and it’s really fantastic.”
Whether the printed elements and fabrications are being used in the cruise ship itself or landside at the docks, printed graphics and experiential signage can create an authentic space that enhances the guest experience, Graboski notes. “What we do is a strong part of that,” he says, noting that work for this industry goes beyond just a sign on a wall. “You’re part of a team creating this environment and the whole thing, the whole goal is to give the passengers a unique, memorable experience,” he affirms.
Beyond that, Lesvoix sees a market desire for more sustainable, durable materials, “manufacturing techniques that are more eco-friendly, companies that have a strong net zero vision, and initiatives that take our industry into the future.”
From weathering the elements to IMO regulations and the customized nature of the industry, there are a lot of nuances to consider. However, if PSPs are confident in their services and knowledge and understand
client needs, they can find success in the market.