The Whole Nine Yards

Visually stunning, versatile and easily transported, fabric signage has it all.
OAI produced fabric signage for the Miami Marlins.

One word consistently appears in every conversation I have when it comes to soft signage: impact. A much-discussed industry trend over the past few years, digitally printed fabric persists in its ability to turn heads, make an impression on passersby and, when it’s all said and done, return neatly folded to its lightweight package. It’s high in demand across industries, from museums and retail to tradeshows and sporting events. I spoke with three companies who all approach soft signage a little differently, but each had that word “impact” at the forefront of their work. 

HOME OF THE MARLINS

Work orders: 115. Individual pieces: at a conservative estimate, 1600. Team members: 48. Turnaround time: five weeks. Taking part in the complete overhaul and rebrand of Marlins Park… priceless?

The numbers alone had a journalist like me sweating, but for OAI (Tampa, FL), the job wasn’t terribly far outside of the everyday. The company – which has grown over 30 years from hand-painting signs into a full-service design, fabrication and installation firm – is familiar with projects of unimaginable scales. Their recent resume includes an overhaul of the University of Miami’s indoor practice field, with a level of dedication that brought OAI’s finishing team onsite to perfect a 19 x 75-ft. graphic; an enormous ceiling logo for St. Thomas Aquinas High School, famed for its high turnout of NFL players; and regularly flipping Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium from Tampa Bay Buccaneers branding to University of South Florida Bulls branding – often overnight.

David Diehm, director of project management, said he thinks of OAI’s customers as more like partners than customers, and Marlins Park was no different. When a group of investors (including Derek Jeter) bought the Miami Marlins team, they sought to completely rebrand and revamp the stadium. 

The team has a historically low attendance, and Jay Bravo, OAI’s executive creative director, said, “They’re really trying to turn it around, to take this stadium and make a whole new experience that feels more like somewhere you would go to hang out.” That meant everything from a new logo and colors to partnering with local restaurants to furnish concessions. It also meant the OAI team was given free reign “to go in and make everything better and different with the new brand across the board,” Bravo said. It was exactly the kind of undertaking that OAI hired Bravo for two years ago as the company sought to evolve from, as he put it, simply taking orders to truly re-engaging spaces. 

OAI has been ramping up its presence in dye sublimated materials over the past five-to-six years, as well, and fabric was sure to make an appearance in a rebrand like this one. Fabric is great for signage in high-turnover areas, not to mention versatility, mobility and more, Bravo said. 

One standout fabric graphic in Marlins Park is a 37 x 11.2-ft. wall cover proclaiming “The Home of the Miami Marlins,” the tagline flanked by silhouettes of the team’s two World Series trophies. The graphic was printed on two panels of Fisher Textiles’ GF 8874 Tri Poplin fabric via a Mimaki JV5 series printer. A gorgeous welcoming piece on its own, the interior graphic also serves to cover up an old tile mosaic – something that would’ve been tough to do without the advantage of fabric printing and a framing system, Bravo said.

EVOLVING WITH THE MARKET

Custom Color recently completed a project for Nautica that had about 200 individual graphics.
Custom Color recently completed a project for Nautica that had about 200 individual graphics.

As Custom Color, a Lenexa, KS-based digital printer celebrates its 50th year in business, I asked Mike Lecus, COO, about their secret to success. “What separates a lot of companies is their ability to listen, understand, adapt and change with their clients,” he said. “That’s been the root of success of Custom Color: that customer focus and that ability to hear what they’re saying, take it and run with it.”

The company’s roots lie in photo processing, an industry that – thanks to a mix of serendipity and smart investments – eventually led them to becoming pioneers in textile and soft-signage manufacturing. “Our photography clientele was so heavily tied to the fashion and retail space, it allowed us to see that evolution right before our eyes as our customers were seeing and making the trends themselves,” Lecus said. One day Custom Color was installing a 60-in. solvent printer to do adhesive vinyl; the next they were learning to print directly to rigid media; the next they were exploring fabric imaging. “We were willing to invest in this new technology that was just available, learn on the job and evolve with the times on the fly,” he added.

Fast forward nearly 11 years, and Custom Color is taking on signage projects for clients the likes of Adidas, Sprint and more. Apparel retailer Nautica recently approached the company looking to bring some creativity to 76 of its storefronts across the country. The goal was to create a nautical look while keeping it cost-effective; Custom Color got creative with fabric, canvas, and rope accents to deliver. The project totaled roughly 200 individual graphics, but each of the 76 displays had its own design and layout. Custom Color used EFI’s Pace MIS to keep the logistics in check.

The graphics were printed on Dazian’s Celtic Black Back via an EFI VUTEk FabriVU 340 and Fisher Textiles’ GF 4394 canvas with an EFI VUTEk HS125 Pro. Each piece was finished with pole pockets at the top and bottom. The Custom Color team also fabricated much of the display before delivery to simplify installation for each retailer: The rope detailing was attached with eyelets to two-by-fours at the top and bottom; all the installers had to do was position the boards. 

What’s next for Custom Color, and what are they hearing from clients? “Finishing is absolutely the continual driver,” Lecus said. More and more customers are gravitating towards soft signage; run sizes are climbing while, somehow, turnaround times diminish. Printers are getting faster and faster, “but that doesn’t matter if you can’t finish it,” he added. Over the past few years and looking to late 2019, Custom Color has invested in six Matic Cronos automated sewing machines and a 126-in. Matic Helios Plus laser cutter. “All the moves we’re making now,” Lecus said, “are based on what the market is asking for.”

TIME AND SPACE

40 Visuals produced this display for the Chabot Space & Science Center.
40 Visuals produced this display for the Chabot Space & Science Center.

40 Visuals (Spring Lake, MI) began as The Duratran Co. 15 years ago when CEO Casey Ford saw a need for luxury brands to be able to provide signage to their retailers. Then-president of Jewelry Manufacturing Co., Ford had ready-made contacts in the jewelry and watch business, and the niche seemed ready for the taking. 

Over the years, the company has achieved a pattern of anticipating market needs and rising to the occasion. They recently launched a platform where brands can view and manage signage needs and insights for all of their retailers. The system was engineered by in-house developers, which seems like no small feat, but Business Development Manager Amy Harris made it sound simple: “It’s a need that our customers had, so we came up with an answer for it.” 

Harris said moving into fabric printing was just another of those occasions. “We saw the need; we went out and got the tools and made sure we could accommodate our customers.” Today, she said, it’s quickly becoming one of their top products due to its ease of shipping, assembly, graphics changes and more.

The pure presentation of fabric signage is a perfect fit for high-end spaces, as well. “It just looks luxurious; it looks expensive; it always looks polished,” Harris said. That’s not without effort on the production side, of course. 40 Visuals invested in staff and equipment for in-house finishing in addition to printing, and then there’s color management. With luxurious looks come high expectations for color precision and richness. The company partners with Yellow-case, a color-management specialist out of Dallas, for profiling and color testing.

A perfect example of challenging color was a 168 x 96-in. exhibit for the Chabot Space & Science Center. The exhibit, titled “Going the Distance: Our Reach into Space,” is furnished by NASA, Caltech and SpaceX, and features flight director simulations, an authentic Russian descent module, and more. The display, printed on Verseidag’s seemee 3P Value Premium Backlit fabric by a Printer-Evolution Eos100 DS printer, had to be profound to match the excitement in the museum. “It took up most of the room,” Harris said, “and that’s something that wouldn’t be possible in another medium.” 

The depth of the blacks in the imagery was critical, too. Harris attributes a lot of 40 Visuals’ success in color to the expertise of the company’s production team – a nice reminder that behind every grand display isn’t just great technology, but great people, too.

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