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A History of Signs and Printing - Part 5

Wide Format Printer

In this final article on the history of signs and printing, I’ll show how the two came to be combined in such a way as to make the two categories as one. Flexography, offset printing, and lithography have all been magically combined into a new category (although the old categories have not completely disappeared) called digital imprinting.

Well, I thought I would be done with this series last time on signs and printing, and I did actually get into the late 20th century, but I didn’t really get to where they and makers crossed paths. So this time, I am going to attempt to explain how they all got mixed up together into one big happy family!

In recapping the previous four articles on this article series, I’ve written voluminous verbiage about where signage display came from, East and West, and how wood have been replaced by electrical and neon in the past 100 year. The print industry changed dramatically in the 20th century, but has changed the most dramatically in the first part of the 21st century.

The History of How Printing and Sign Making Became Intertwined in the 20th Century

Digital Printing

Large Format Inkjet PrintingDigital print technology has been predicted to replace most, if not all, other forms of press in the 21st century. Whether this will be the case or not, it has already superseded other forms, and as its speed increases it is likely to be able to produce larger and larger print runs at high speed and low setup costs which will begin to eat into the previously discussed types.

Furthermore, digital processing doesn’t use plates as lithography, offset, and flexography do, so it is easier to set up a print, and less expensive. The devices are typically known as inkjet or laser if they sit on your desk, but digital printers in the sign trade. They can print on paper, fabric, glass, metal, vinyl, and other substrates on roll or flatbed printers.

In digital printing, the ink is deposited on the surface of the substrate rather than on a pressing plate. It dries either thermally or with a UV curing process. With the advent of large format impressing over the past 20 years, the movement away from painted graphics and even cut vinyl displays has moved from a trickle to an avalanche. Signs that have traditionally been produced with paint, such as internally illuminated polycarbonate displays are now imprinted either directly to the polycarbonate or onto translucent decal material and laminated to the polycarbonate. The result is the ability to produce photographic quality at very affordable pricing.

Smaller companies can now have full-color posters or window graphics made in short runs without having to absorb the costs of expensive plates, formerly considered the domain of the major corporations. Full-color digitally pressed banners used to have to be screen-printed by the hundreds or thousands to absorb set-up costs, now can virtually be printed singly and at a reasonable cost.

There are still many signage that are not produced digitally, but as time passes, it is likely that digital technology will supplant screen, lithographic, offset, and flexographic printing. Sandblasted and carved signage displays are probably safe at this point from the onslaught, but do to the cost of these it’s likely only a few percent of them will be the old styles, and even they often contain a digital element added to them. Try to view more graphic designs with digital prints.

Hey, I finally did it! I was able to move from traditional to modern signs and printing. What will the future bring? We can never tell, but people are always looking for a sign. Until next time, remember, the world knows where it’s going because of signs!


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Barry K. Brown

Barry Brown has been in the Sign, Banner, Decal and Display Business for over 20 years. It isn't what he thought he'd do with his life, but he says he knows too much now to do anything else!

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