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Pretty Tough

Signs made from rigid substrates are both long-lasting and attractive.




WHEN A BUSINESS ORDERS one or more signs constructed of rigid substrates, they’re saying, “We’re here for the long haul.” The built-to-last quality of metal, aluminum composite material (ACM), acrylics and the like reflect their own permanence upon the establishment, whether it’s university-student housing, a harbor ID sign or a wall-mounted display.

Clear Sign used a blend of substrates in the many signs for this UCLA student-housing project.

Clear Sign used a blend of substrates in the many signs for this UCLA student-housing project.

Bruin up some signs

We’re used to seeing colleges compete with each other in sports, but that’s not the only way they compete. In fact, it may be fair to say that the competition colleges and universities care about most is attracting students to attend their institution. Thus, campus construction is often ongoing at many colleges, with new classroom buildings, student centers and school-run student housing becoming more comfortable, modern and high-tech.

The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) recently collaborated with Suffolk Construction (Los Angeles) for student housing at 1500 Granville. Clear Sign & Design (San Marcos, CA) has worked with Suffolk before and was brought in to provide the myriad signage required for this large project.

The San Diego office of international designer Miriello created the building’s design intent, from which Clear Sign operated, using SAi’s FlexiSIGN for their design submittals. After eight months and several rounds of revisions, the design and materials for all the signs were finally set. “The original design intent needed to be value-engineered to meet the client’s budget,” said Gabe Griffin, general manager for Clear Sign. “Several smaller-detail elements from the design intent drove the overall cost above the client’s budget,” he said. “One [of many suggestions] was to replace the small, laser-cut lettering on all of the birch wood signs [with] direct-print.”


When a client requests to value-engineer the design intent, Clear Sign always does so with caution, Griffin said, as to not disappoint the original design. “In this case, when some of the changes were made to shake some costs out of the package, we needed to build some prototypes for all stakeholders to approve, including the designer,” he said. As the samples made their way around the room, Griffin and his team were anxious about the designer’s feedback, but were pleased to see him smile and appreciate the alternate method, while also bringing his vision to life.

In addition to “a dynamic and creative blend” of birch plywood, as Griffin called it, Clear Sign also specified pre-coated black ACM and acrylic to achieve the final look and target price point. Rigid substrates were also used for the wayfinding signs, overhead directionals (V-Groove ACM), blade signs, and more, Griffin said. Those substrates were decorated with a combination of direct-print, paint, die-cut vinyl and tactile lettering.

To fabricate these substrates into signs, Clear Sign used their MultiCam 5000 Series with drill and tap capabilities, and a MultiCam Apex Series with optical registration. A fair number of the signs required the usual elements of ADA signage, including Braille. “We build our ADA signs in-house using an Epilog EXT 75W laser and a Gravograph IS 9000,” Griffin said. The laser uses Flexi and the engraver uses brand-specific software.

Some materials were value-engineered to meet the budget.

Some materials were value-engineered to meet the budget.

The installation was “dynamic,” as well, Griffin said, and involved wall-masking and painting of the large, garage-level ID signs, hanging of dozens of overhead directional signs, installation of three exterior illuminated signs and over 500 other ADA, egress and wayfinding signs. The job took place over three “mobilizations” and required about 100 installer-hours.


When asked what two things are most important to keep in mind when working with rigid-substrate signs, Griffin replied, “Intended use and creativity. For intended use, we always ensure that the substrate is rated for [that] use.” Griffin said he walks competitor sites often, and is surprised to see so many substrate failures because someone uses a material outside its intended purpose. In addition, the durability of the decoration is paramount. “Adhesion and top coating then follow quickly in the conversation,” he said.

“Creativity is next in line,” he continued, “which might lend us to pay close attention to layout, layering, coloring, contrast and other complementary materials.” Attachment details and dimension all come into play. Clear Sign feels strongly about focusing on the small details, which comes from their core belief, “to see the art in all that we do,” Griffin said.

Down the coast

Down the coast from LA, Oceanside, CA, as its name suggests, sits on the Pacific Ocean, just south of the US Marine Corps’ Camp Pendleton and just north of the LEGOLAND California Resort in nearby Carlsbad. With its long Oceanside Pier, palm-dotted Harbor Beach, Ocean’s Eleven Casino and more attractions, Oceanside essentially manifests the California Dream that draws surfers, vacationers and tourists from all over.

PSI Outdoor used HDPE to replace the plywood for this harbor ID sign.

PSI Outdoor used HDPE to replace the plywood for this harbor ID sign.


The City of Oceanside’s Harbor Department had constructed an ID sign, composed of painted plywood boards, to spell out “OCEANSIDE,” with one board for each letter. However, despite the serene landscape, it didn’t take long for the salty sea air to begin to degrade the painted plywood — and so they called upon Public Safety Industries (also known as PSI Outdoor), an architecture and planning company located in San Clemente, CA, to come up with something more permanent.

“We closely copied the prior, painted plywood installation,” said PSI Outdoor owner Rick Wilson, but his company substituted .75-in. King Plastic ColorCore HDPE (High Density Polyethylene) in blue/white/blue for the plywood. Like Clear Sign, Wilson confirmed the client’s comfort with this product by presenting samples. With the design taken care of, PSI Outdoor proceeded immediately to fabrication, using their C.R. Onsrud CNC router. But this is not to say the project was completely free of challenges.

To achieve the desired size for the letters, PSI Outdoor stacked two sheets of ColorCore to make each letter 8 x 8 ft. “We milled a lap joint and secured [the sheets] with stainless screws along the back of each letter,” Wilson said. They also added RGB uplighting to each letter, which the Harbor Department can change to reflect the season or holiday.

Budget considerations led the maintenance crew at the harbor to install the panels in-house, with PSI’s consultation, Wilson said, but this did not hinder the quality of or satisfaction with the project. “Everyone involved was excited to see this project through,” he added. “The communication between ourselves, the distributor [Piedmont Plastics] and the folks at King Plastic was fluid and professional.”

Now the Oceanside Harbor features a big and bright sign often used for selfies, which will last for many years. “For any client, but especially in public spaces/projects, the longevity, durability and low maintenance of materials used are very important,” Wilson said. While the upfront cost may be greater, the long-term, ongoing need for painting or refinishing is eliminated with HDPE, which won’t rot/decay, fade, splinter or delaminate. “I love recommending and using these materials and the support from the manufacturer is unequalled,” Wilson said.

Higgins Signs UV-printed 3D layers on this acrylic wall display for an aerospace component manufacturer.

Higgins Signs UV-printed 3D layers on this acrylic wall display for an aerospace component manufacturer.

Up on the wall

Back up the coast — all the way to Clackamas, OR — Higgins Signs just completed a wall-mounted display for a northwest aerospace component manufacturer. The display shows both complete and X-ray renderings of the F-35B Lightning II fighter aircraft, with the internal view highlighting the manufacturer’s components, the statistics for which are printed along the bottom.

Higgins Signs’ design team and Clements Graphics collaborated on the design, with the sign company using Photoshop for the layering and image-enhancement components, according to John Higgins, co-owner with wife Joni. “FlexiSIGN was the additional software that helped with the production of the 3D layers, and Roland VersaWorks ultimately helped achieve the finished result,” Higgins added. The design portion took 3.5 hours to complete from the start to printer setup.

Like Clear Sign and PSI Outdoor, Higgins Signs created samples for the client to view the quality, translucence and 3D embossing cabability. “Samples [of the .25-in. cast acrylic substrate from PT. Margacipta Wirasentosa were] necessary because one of the challenges of printing acrylic is how light will affect and interact with it,” Higgins said.

Higgins Signs used their Roland VersaUV LEF2-300 flatbed UV printer for both the background image on the back of the acrylic and the embossed image on the front. The embossed surface features layers, providing a 3D effect. “The great thing about this printer is the ink system, which has eco-UV inks,” he said, though Higgins had to pay close attention throughout the process. “One of the major challenges to UV printing on acrylic is the ink adhering to the acrylic,” he said. “I was very pleased that the LEF2-300 utilizes primer in the printing process to resolve this concern.”

For installation, Higgins used .75-in. Rowmark Dimensional Design Chrome Offset Mounts, taking extra care to make sure they were aligned correctly. Now the aerospace component manufacturer can proudly display their role in the F-35B, and viewers will likely take several closer looks. “The thinner acrylic gives more of that 3D effect compared to the thicker version,” Higgins said. “This is because of the optical illusion from an angle that elongates the image dimensionality.”

Yep, pretty tough and very cool.



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