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LEDs + Lighting

Illumination Helps Communication

Signs and advertising need to be effectively and humanly communicated.



“The difference between face-to-screen and face-to-face communication is broad. Thus, it should be clear that communicating in such a manner is fraught with peril.”
— Joshua Givens, journalism student
University of Southern Alabama


“Fabrication, if even possible, is not the most important part of the work. Thinking, planning, studying and finally creating a new solution to a design problem is the ultimate goal.”
— Gail Diebler Finke, Author
You Are Here


“The first and foremost reason for a sign is to convey a message.”
— Ken Woodward, Author
Sign Design and Layout



The European Conference on Optical Communication (ECOC 2009/Vienna) is the largest optical-communication conference in Europe. I attended the conference while en route to several LED, solar-powered LED and lighting companies in Dornbirn, Austria. At the show, I encountered colleagues I’d once worked alongside in the optical-fiber-communication industry, a field in which I was employed as an research scientist for 18 years, specializing in high-speed, fiberoptic transmitters and receivers — machines that allowed ultra, high-speed communication between the extremes of a high-bandwidth, fiberoptic link.
Such a transmitter is a semiconductor laser that uses electroluminescence to generate light, similar to an LED, which is how I became an LED technologist in recent years.
In Vienna, during a dinner conversation with several optical-fiber-communication leaders, someone asked about my present profession. They inquired if I still worked on communication-type LEDs. In jest, I said, “No, I don’t communicate — I illuminate!” This concise depiction of my career change — communication technologist to writer/illumination-technologist — set off copious laughter at the table.
Sometime later, I reflected on how LEDs can illuminate a sign through both day and night. LED sign illumination, which has become common, is generally applied as a backlight, but also in side, edge, focal and front lighting, each method possible with varied brightnesses and colors. In the future, engineers will fabricate organic, light-emitting diodes (OLEDs) from various materials — or they may add OLED panels to a fabric or material — to uniquely shape a message or illuminate the surface.
In many ways, signs are a modern art form. And, like artisans, signmakers fabricate their products from various materials — wood, acrylic, vinyl, stone, fabric and more. Each material, its texture, color, shapes and the associated graphics and lighting, is intended to rouse viewers’ thoughts and feelings because, as any sign designer will assert, such triggered, supplementary feelings are a type of communication. Marble portrays wealth and steadfastness; stainless steel speaks of modernity; unfinished wood tells of nature.
All such reactions are a direct result of deliberate design, so, although a sign should communicate a basic message, a well-designed sign will say — connote — more than its read. And, LED lamps, because of size, uniqueness and the ability to affect lighting, shadows and form, offer countless opportunities for signmakers to add a secondary, visual, message.


Electronic vs. printed media
I don’t believe all, or even most, future signs will be LED displays. In her new, wayfinding book, You are Here, Society for Environmental Graphic Design (SEGD) writer Gail Diebler Finke said, “Signs need to make visitors feel safe, secure and in good hands at all times, whether they’re looking for an attraction, an exit or a restroom.”
Because of their structure, LED displays can engender an clinical impression. True, they’re both effective and entertaining, but encased, electronic devices seldom provide charm or other empathetic, human communication features. Therefore, to replace a preponderance of today’s signs with flat-surface, unframed LED displays certainly wouldn’t, as Finke suggests, make sign readers comfortable.
Nonetheless, electronic displays and technologies, combined with creativity and a palette of signmaking materials, have a tremendous capability to generate, handle, transport and display content. Compare, for example, your capabilities with a notebook computer versus a magazine.
Question: Do you experience the same feelings when you read as you do when you read a Signs of the Times magazine?
Answer: Of course not.

You experience a finer sense of value when you handle a printed magazine. To see its design, craftsmanship, ambiance and vivid, high-quality color prints is a pleasant experience and, compared to the Internet’s swarm of 156 million websites, magazines are an uncluttered method to gain valuable, edited information.
Oppositely, online information is available anywhere you have Internet access; further, you can copy and paste online content and save it in your computer for later use.
Still, a magazine — or sign — offers more of a human element. They don’t have linked sites to distract you, nor does reading or responding require constant engagement, as does a computer.
There’s also dimension — the sentiment gained from depth, width and height — or tactile experiences. For example, ST’s October 2009 issue displayed a Grimco ad (page 17) that included a cellophane-wrapped sample of Key Banner’s blockout and mesh materials. You could remove the samples from the magazine page, to touch, feel and possible test its possibilities.
Thus, printed magazines — and signs — offer different types of communication than do computer screens. The experience of viewing printed pages and signs, those created with tactile materials, color, texture and dimension, often exceeds that of an online image.


Elements of human communication
What if we add extra, or unique, illumination to objects we normally see? Does the added light augment the human-communication aspect? I think so. Certain types of oil paintings — those fashioned with a palette knife or thick brush strokes — will appear more dynamic when illuminated from angles that establish texture, color and shape. Dimensionality also enhances human communication, so add planned lighting to this fundamental design list.
A digital-print machine can render an oil painting on canvas, but can’t transmit the same deep colors and textures. Also, with or without illumination, a printed, texture-technique painting loses much of its artistic ambiance. However, with planned lighting, an illuminated, flat reproduction may appear more interesting than an unlit original.



LEDs add communication
LED lamps often illuminate channel letters, cabinet signs and other sign faces. Further, they function on electronically controlled electronic message centers (EMCs). Only the imagination of sign designers and craftspeople can determine further uses, especially in light of other, modern contrivances.
An example is Larson Electronics’ new, bright, 12V, weatherproof LED vehicle lamps. Larson says its petite, LEDSM30 and the LEDSM30MW lamps are smaller than a quarter. They surface mount with a single screw, and can highlight (and add depth or shadows) small areas of custom signs, such as unique mall signs — or illuminate panels within a small, interior sign.
Don Biggs, Intouch Interactive’s (Atlanta) marketing and business development director, in his “The Digital Sign Revolution” article (November, page 72), wrote that electronic digital signage (EDS) will reside in our futures. He said thinner and flexible LCD panels will be wrapped around irregular shapes, to further the viewer’s interest. He also foretells EDS projection systems that can be viewed in direct sunlight and that our present, static-image signs will be surpassed by “dynamic content” which, with sight and sound features, will engage sign viewers on a different level.
Biggs portrays a bright future, but, nonetheless, today’s (and tomorrow’s) signmakers continue to design and fabricate various, large-scale, metal, stone or rustic wood signs. Interestingly, LEDs allow thin construction of such signage. In past times, internally lit signs required space for neon or fluorescent lamps and their related appurtenances. Today, illuminated, LED-based, indoor or outdoor signage can enhance modern or traditional sign designs, but also entertain viewers by lighting unexpected areas. And, if RGB-lamped, LED systems are installed, the sign can display programmed color changes.
LEDs offer discreet, direction or spot lighting and can emphasize design facets in custom-built signs. The super thin OLEDs or LCDs offer even more concepts and experimentation, including video images.
To progress then, from elemental, plastic, LED-based bricks to illuminated signs that comprise texture, color, shape and illumination, that is, signage which meets the various but discreet “human” demands expressed by Finke (“Signs need to make visitors feel safe, secure and in good hands at all times.”) is both the lighting engineers and sign designers challenge.
Don’t get me wrong, however, because I remain an “Illuminator or illumination technologist.” We’ve all seen electronics enormously boost human productivity. Early on, it brought audio, then video and now, worldwide, rapid-fire text and video information. Electronics allows the broadcasting of multi- and point-cast information at enormous speeds — it transfers our funds, allows massive data storage and makes paper records virtually obsolete.
Such a technological revolution has created enormous personal and business benefits, but it has also made our lives more complex. Too much information becomes difficult to process. Thus, if any design message should be carried forward, it’s that a sign — and advertising — needs to be effectively, and humanly, communicated.
Properly applied, LEDs can help.



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