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Architectural Signs

Fabricating Bannerisms

Banners and fabric printing for signshops.



Years ago, and for a span of eight years, I ran an art-media department for a rapidly developing Colorado city government. When first created, this branch was crowded into the city planning department, in a space alongside the zoning section. A thin panel separated my desk from the zoning counter, so I overheard every grievance. I soon learned that zoning regulators don’t have it easy. The most disconcerting complaint I overheard was from a citizen who came to the counter and bellowed that his neighbor had chickens in the backyard.

Damn. I had chickens in my backyard. And, I recognized the voice – the guy was my short-tempered neighbor. He was complaining about my two Rhode Island Reds – Cogburn and Katherine – pets I had taken in from a relocating friend. Trouble was, rooster Cogburn crowed at dawn every morning. Proudly and loudly.

That day, I learned that zoning officials have clout. Oh, the zoner guys were sweet but also adamant – my chickens must go, they said, either through my actions or theirs. Rest easy, however, because the story ends well. By the following Sunday, Cogburn, and Katherine were settled in a faraway barnyard. I traded them and a hundred dollars for a monkey.

The Greenville, NC, zoning department provides a terrific definition for a flexible-type sign – I’m using the word “flexible” as a general, not product-specific term – because that city requires a rigid framework around any non-self-supporting materials that are to be proposed for, or qualify as, a permanent sign. I learned of the ordinance while reading a sign-frame manufacturer’s press release that announced its (or others’) framing products were necessary in Greenville because of such requirements.

I was impressed with the code’s explicit definition: “Non-self-supporting materials,” because the term incorporates much more meaning than, say, “fabric,” “banner” or “flexible face.” It’s a great term, right? Non-self-supporting materials? It describes every pliable signface – fabric, flexible vinyl, paper, canvas, Moroccan tapestry wall hangings used for commercial messaging, or other lissome materials that would be permanently attached to, say, a brick wall and therefore, require a type of permanent framework to survive the elements and look respectable.

I telephoned Domini Cunningham, Greenville’s planner 1, zoning enforcement officer and chief handler of sign ordinances, permits, temporary sign applications, zoning complaints and sign certification letters – and asked about the framework requirement. I said, “As I read it, that ordinance applies to types of printed, flexible materials being used for signfaces, right? Like, you can’t just print a flexible sign and nail it to a wall and call it permanent, right?”



As planners and zoners must, Cunningham is accustomed to speaking legalese; therefore, and somewhat reticently, he said, “The city code requires a supporting framework if a signface comprises ‘non-self-supporting materials’ and is to qualify as a permanent sign.” I asked about temporary banners, or flags and, expectedly, he said they fall under a separate rule set.

The manufacturer’s ad said banner frames provide a great opportunity to show clients how to take vinyl banners to another level – and I agree. A wall-mounted, easy-change frame, similar to the poster frames found in movie theaters, provides a permanent location for new posters, fabric-faced signs or other printed information. Best is that you could sell a complete package, the frames, installation and an ongoing contract for fabric printing. You can also bypass the print and fabrication process by ordering printed fabric signs – or banners or flags – online, from such enterprises as the United States Flag Store, which offers every flag possible, including advertising types; or, which, in addition, offers installation advice on its website. Classic examples include the carnival flags on Kissel Entertainment’s Monkey Maze or perhaps the more regal banner set displayed on the Univ. of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Memorial Hall. The benefit of such banners and flags is that they are easy to print and fabricate – or online order – as are the street flags or church-type banners. For example, Josh Clark, the signshop manager for the UNC-Chapel Hill campus, has a 64-in.-wide Roland VersaCam on hand, but says the college contracts outside for specialized fabric printing. “This shop has just me,” Clark said, “so we sometimes need extra help from outside.”


Odds are, your shop is producing banners. In his 2017 State of the Industry Report (See ST, July 2017, p. 42-48), managing editor Mark Kissling reported that 86.1% of the 180 survey respondents sold banners. An interesting aspect of the survey is that 159 respondents (97% of respondents) reported using vinyl in 39% of their commercial signs. In addition, 128 or 80.5% of respondents use in-house digital printing to produce 41% of their signs, and 114 or 71.7% of respondents contract for wholesale digital imaging for 17% of their signs. My experience in visiting signshops aligns with Kissling’s survey because digital signmaking comprises too many diverse client demands for an average shop to have machines to handle; thus, outsourcing close to 20% of the orders isn’t unusual. Kissling, in his article, wrote, “Our 2017 survey indicates a positive present condition and an even rosier outlook for the immediate future, though it should be pointed out that a plurality of respondents felt the single greatest threat to the industry was price competition and diminishing profit margins.”


Which is the better, more profitable option: digital-printing banners in-house or subcontracting them? The answer is both, with the weight on ordering if you’re new at it. (I once asked a signmaker when he knew it was time to quit ordering digital prints and buy a print machine. “When you get damned annoyed at your print supplier,” he said.)

Like UNC-Chapel Hill’s Clark, if you own digital printing or even fabric production gear, you’ll still want to outsource some work, e.g., unique ink requirement orders or such difficult-to-build items as multi-paneled tradeshow signage that requires complex patterning, sewing and closures. The good news is that several digital print machine manufacturers have aligned with suppliers who offer machines and equipment for patterning, cutting and sewing fabric signs.



ST columnists Chris and Kathi Morrison recently noted that banners are an absolute staple of the sign industry. They said you can paint, screenprint, apply cut vinyl lettering to or digitally print banners on practically any flexible media, and that eco-solvent and UV-cure printer manufacturers offer various print machines that are designed to either print directly to fabric or dye-sublimation transfer paper (See ST, August 2017, p. 48). The Morrisons noted that typical banners – think fire department fish-fry banners strung on nylon cord – cost less to produce, are fast to turn around and should land good profit for your efforts. They also note that high-end banners like those at Chapel Hill are more difficult and expensive to produce and install, but offer you more specialized growth opportunities.

Kissling wrote, “While it’s true that some sign companies are just hanging in there, the overwhelming majority reported increasing sales and profits for last year over the previous, and expect incrementally greater sales and profits by the end of this year.” He said that more than 75% of the survey respondents reported purchasing equipment last year and nearly 79% plan one or more purchase(s) this year.


Decision-making that involves a heavy financial investment requires a good deal of critical thinking. An interview taken from the book Conversations with Critical Thinkers includes an interesting quote from Dr. Stephen Brookfield, distinguished professor in the Graduate School of Education at the Univ. of St. Thomas, St. Paul, MN, who was asked of his conception of a critical thinker. He said, “Basically, it’s someone who is in the habit of attempting to identify and examine the assumptions that underlie his or her habitual ways of thinking about something, and the assumptions underlying habitual ways of acting in situations – identifying and scrutinizing them as to whether or not they are well-grounded in reality.”

Brookfield added a requirement that such a thinker “be able to easily slip into alternative perspectives and inhabit other interpretive frame-works.” A critical thinker, he added, is someone who can see a situation from a number of different angles, put themselves in another person’s head and see through their eyes, and do some role taking. He said anyone who attempts to do this – noting that no one can, completely or consistently – fits his idea of a critical thinker. He also advised his readers to avoid classes on critical thinking because such learning develops content rather than process. Lifelong learning is the best formula for becoming a critical thinker, he said.

Allow me to add an additional quote, one from Irish satirist Jonathan Swift. He said, “When genius appears in the world, the dunces are all in confederacy against him.” Keep that phrase in mind as you develop new ideas.


You might even print it on a banner, with a picture of a monkey.



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