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3 Tips for Solving Channel Letter Lighting Issues

How to eliminate hot spots, shadows and more.

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SO YOU DESIGNED and fabricated a set of beautiful reverse channel letters. You test each letter on a clean work table and the lighting looks flawless! The perfect, diffused halo light outline is bouncing off a white cutting mat. Time to hurry up and get that bad boy installed for everyone to see.

Let’s now imagine that sign was for a new store opening at a nearby shopping mall. You decide to walk by to admire your work, maybe take a photo or two and — it looks terrible! Turns out that the storefront has a glossy, tile-like surface. Now your reverse channel letters are spitting out LED dots, lines or shadows instead of that perfect halo glow. What do you do now? Honestly, that’s entirely up to you and/or your company, but if you ask me, I’d fix the sign — or forever hide under a rock.

Regardless of whether that imaginary sign’s lighting is fixed, as a sign expert you should always be aware of what type of wall or environment your signs will be installed on and how those factors will affect the sign’s lighting. If you can avoid glossy/reflective walls like tile, acrylic and polished metals when working with reverse channel letters, don’t think twice, but if you’re stuck with any of them, consider the following tricks to help reduce hot spots, weird lines, shadows and LED module dots.

  1. Diffuse the letters’ polycarbonate backs with diffuser films/vinyls or by sanding the polycarbonate until obtaining a frosty finish. This will reduce unwanted reflections and help “trap” the light.
  2. Experiment with LED module placement. This can require extra hours of work, but don’t shy away from putting more effort into an unusual project to ensure a positive outcome. I have used a zigzag pattern to reduce hot spots that are normally not visible on non-reflective backgrounds. Be mindful of the size of the LED module, depending on the size, thickness and depth of your channel letters. Unlike neon, which provides lighting throughout the entirety of the glass tube, single-sided LEDs do create little rectangular shadows, so finding the right LED module is worth the extra time.
  3. Up next are dark-colored walls or backings, which I learned about in a very awkward way. A few years ago, I designed an interior sign for a lobby in a corporate office. My rendering basically got me the job; I drew a set of shiny, brushed aluminum reverse channel letters with a bright, white halo light. The client was overly excited to have their logo look this way in their new office — until reality set in. I wasn’t aware that a dark blue wall would not only suck all the lighting reflection out of my letters, but turn the very little amount of lighting left into a soft blue color. To make matters worse, there was a lack of additional room light, causing my brushed aluminum to have zero shine. I was embarrassed and tried to improve the sign. I added additional spot lighting to make the aluminum shine, and I switched the spacers on the letters to allow more light to bounce out. I wasn’t able to attain the original proposed look because my rendering was unrealistic.

Now, I keep a checklist to consider when working with reverse channel letters. This experience made me a better sign designer and salesperson. I either learned my lesson or live with trauma, but designing a more accurate rendering has never let me down.

Mars Bravo is a sign designer and owner of Signs from Mars (Los Angeles), which designs and produces illuminated and non-illuminated custom signage. Contact Mars at [email protected].

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