When to Access Installation Services for Applied Graphics
For this article, the term “applied graphics” is being used to describe products printed on flexible films, then “put in place” using pressure sensitive adhesive. For many, the concept of pressure sensitive products speaks to decals, which are generally printed flexible vinyl or plastic that is “stuck” to a solid surface. If your idea of pressure sensitive products is limited to, say, bumper stickers, then your thinking needs to be expanded, both in scope and size, because the current array of applied graphics applications is quite broad.
Applied graphics comprise a broad category of applications including murals, vehicle graphics, fleet graphics, and other graphics purpose-made for application to floors, windows, textured surfaces, and more. The focus of this article, which is on the installation of applied graphics – literally the process of sticking it where it needs to be stuck, and doing so successfully – is not a step to be taken lightly. As a printer, you surely understand that mistakes in your finishing processes can ruin the whole job, and installation should be seen as a final, essential step in the finishing of certain projects.
Graphics Installation Explained
In the most basic sense, the installation of pressure sensitive materials is rarely easy. Sure, anybody can slap a bumper sticker on a car, but is it straight? Has the shape been deformed by stretching? Are there creases or bubbles? Does it really adhere to the complex, contoured shape of, say, a car bumper? Was the surface clean? While these questions, based on the lowly bumper sticker, may seem trivial, they absolutely are not. Applied graphics projects are usually larger and more complex, making seemingly small considerations very large concerns indeed.
For those who don’t know, graphics installers are a large group of professionals serving the needs of the graphics community. They are hired by many companies to use their formidable skills and knowledge to ensure the success of applied graphics projects that may be beyond the abilities of the graphics producers themselves. Case in point: While your company may be fully comfortable applying a 12x18-inch decal to the door of a plumber’s truck, it may not be remotely comfortable wrapping that same truck with a full, graphically complex wrap. And please note that there is no shame in calling a professional in to complete a complex job. It’s done all the time. I usually think of it like using a plumber: I can do the small stuff on my own, but I also know my limits. The goal is to get it right the first time, and when using a professional is your best bet, then you should “go there.”
Asked how he would explain the advantages of utilizing professional installers, John Carthey (Corporate Installations, Tomball, Texas) says, “I have spent thousands of hours learning and refining my installation skills. It only takes time, money, and a lot of practice to become a professional graphic installer. After they mess up a big print job and have to answer all the questions of why it looks so bad, and then have to remove it, reprint it, and reinstall it, they will have a whole new appreciation for professional installation skills. We are professionals and it’s a big responsibility to represent the printer and make the end user happy with installed graphics.” He adds, “Most of the time, the client does not see the printer. They only see the person installs their graphics.”
A quick visit to the website of any pressure-sensitive vinyl manufacturer, or to their booth at a trade show, will quickly illustrate how many choices there are among materials. Given this reality, it is important to understand that among those many choices are specific purposes – the materials are not “on size fits all.” On a basic level, there are a handful of key considerations/strategies to help you make the right choices:
For example, understanding the difference between cast and calendared films is essential, and is highly relevant based on the application. Cast films are quite stretchable, which allows them to be used on contoured surfaces like the complex shapes of a vehicle. Calendared films are generally not to be stretched, and are mostly intended for flat surface installations.
The adhesives applied to pressure sensitive films range from repositionable (think the adhesives used for Post It Notes), to permanent, used to affix graphics to commercial aircraft. For many graphics jobs, the adhesive level needed will fall somewhere in the middle. You want it to stick and stay put, but you also want to be able to remove it without damaging the surface to which it was affixed.
Not all adhesives work equally well on all surfaces. For instance, while some films will, over a short amount of time, be “rejected” by interior paints that contain silicone, other films will adhere far too well (e.g. permanently) to stainless steel. This is the type of knowledge that can help a company grow in applied graphics, and these are decisions that must take place before the print is made.
For most applied graphics jobs, a laminate film must be applied to the printed surface. In addition to protecting the print from scratches and abrasion, it can provide UV protection to keep it from fading. It can also provide dimensional stability to thin films, aiding in the installation process. So, a laminator is essential for the production of applied graphics.
How long will the applied graphic be in place? Is it a short-term window graphic advertising a week-long sale, or is it a full wrap on a delivery van that will be in place – in both full summer sun and the elements of winter – for an expected five years (without failing)? The materials will be different, and knowing which to use when will reduce the chance of failure.
While there is much to know and consider in this section, the good news is that the major adhesive film manufacturers all maintain robust technical assistance teams that can help you find the right film for the application. Further, an experienced professional installer has deep knowledge of materials, surfaces, and what it takes to do the job right. Ask your installer before you start sourcing a difficult or unfamiliar job. They will thank you.
The best and most visible example of applied graphics onto complex shapes is the full vehicle wrap, where the goal is essentially to cover a three-dimensional object with a two-dimensional print, and to do so in a way that doesn’t distort the image, result in creases or bubbles, and lines up as planned with the unmovable elements of the vehicle (e.g. door handles, seems between doors, windows). In the day-to-day sense, vehicle wrapping is the pinnacle of the graphics installation trade. Perfectly-installed wraps are truly a thing of beauty. That said, due to the difficulty of the installation, badly designed and executed wraps can be seen on roads everywhere, which speaks to the need to experienced, certified installers.
“When you’re not sure if you should hire a professional graphics installer,” says Krystal Miszewski of Candy Wraps Orlando (Orlando, Fla.), “then you should hire a professional graphics installer. Not only do mobile installers bring a wealth of knowledge to your shop, they provide a sense of security and value to your end product. As an installer, I’ve worked with many variables including environment, weather, materials, wind, dirt, complex curves… the list goes on. Installers come with certifications, insurance, tools, and experience you’ll want and need on your jobsites. You can call your installer and ask them for a material that will perform well on a specific application such as textured walls or boats. Utilize your installer’s knowledge when providing warranties for your wraps so you’re not over-promising and under-delivering, including failure points on the difficult areas. While the installer is working at your shop, you will also benefit from learning techniques to help you when it’s time for you to install your own wraps.”
To continue with the plumbing analogy used earlier, it is important to use the services of graphics installers certified to be proficient in the type of installation you need. Just as having a pipe wrench and a truck does not make one a plumber; having a ladder, a squeegee, and some razor blades does not make one an installer. The Professional Decal Application Alliance (PDAA), which operates under the umbrella of SGIA, holds regular certification tests and maintains a nationwide roster of installers who have proven their proficiency in the areas of commercial graphics, architectural graphics, and/or vehicle wrapping/color change.
Simply put, hiring a certified graphics installer (when needed) is all about managing risk. Screw-ups, do-overs, and installation fails not only hurt your bottom line – they also damage your reputation with the customer. Get it done right!
“Utilizing the services of a professional installation team is invaluable,” says Ken Burns, president and CEO of Axis Graphic Installations Inc. “The amount of time, energy, and money put into the sale, design, and production of a project are nullified if the installation is anything less than perfect. With so many steps from concept to production, there is a lot of room for human error. A professional installer will have the knowledge and skill set to troubleshoot most problems in the field.”
“For example, our team was contracted for a project that consisted of approximately 20,000 square feet of wall murals throughout an office building. Unfortunately, the producer made the mistake of not setting up overlaps in the print files. Many installers would not have had the skills to perfectly butt-seam each panel, which would have led to a reprint of the entire project, ultimately causing the project to be a loss for the producer. Fortunately, these are the types of situations professional installers are capable of managing. Our team was able to install what they were given, successfully, with an end product that the client was completely satisfied with.”
Signage and Beyond
Increasingly, graphics installers are being accessed to do installation work that goes beyond pressure-sensitive materials. For instance, many of the installers who focus on indoor applications for retail, corporate, and hospitality settings are asked to install digitally-printed wallpaper, or to install silicone-edged textile graphics into existing frame structures. By viewing qualified graphics installers as reliable service providers for your business, you can also expand the product mix you offer to your customers.
Pete Kouchis (VisuCom Signs & Graphics, Mokena, Ill.), whose company installs high-visibility corporate and retail graphics in the Chicago area, explains how his company has gone beyond pressure-sensitive graphics and into other areas. “Aside from the typical installations that we do, we are often asked to handle a variety of other types of installations. They would include pasted wallcoverings, SEG frames and fabrics (requiring frame assembly and installation), dimensional signage (corporate branding, pin or flush mounted), fixture assembly and decoration for retail, framed art, (especially in multiples), and architectural resurfacing films (i.e. DI-NOC and others). In a large part,” he continues, “the end-user is trying to consolidate vendors to do a wider variety of installations. Accommodating these requests makes us more valuable and sets us apart from other, more one-dimensional installers.”
Doing It Yourself
In the past, I’ve described graphics installation as being like playing the drums: Most anyone can do it, but doing it well takes a great deal of practice. If you have a person on your staff who currently does small, applied graphics applications, and who you expect to stay with the company for a while, then training and practice is paramount. As this person becomes more adept with larger and more difficult installations, then more of that work (and job cost) stays in-house. It’s your call.
While much of the focus in the printing industry is (logically) on the print, it is important to remember that the completion of any applied graphics project requires finishing steps, and this can include lamination, trimming, and installation. Sure, your customer wants a great print, but what they really want is a successful, fully completed project.