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Banners Are Everywhere, but Professionals Want Vinyl That Pops!

Get rid of your humdrum banner designs and start creating vinyl banners that demand attention. Your customers will thank you.

By Jennifer LeClaire

We've all seen them - and probably wished we hadn't.

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  • You know those unsightly banners on buildings and in stores that only get your attention because they are so poorly designed. These banners are overloaded with copy, the spacing is too tight between the letters, there is no phone number or website, there are too many graphics and the backgrounds are busier than Times Square at rush hour.

    In short, these unsightly banners utterly fail to serve their intended purpose because they broke one or more of the aesthetic rules of design.

    "I've seen banners so busy that the copy disappears like a camouflage," says Joe Balabusko, sales manager at Earl Mich Company, a sign supplier in Wood Dale, Ill. "You don't need to reprint the Gutenberg Bible on a banner. Designers need to remember that the general public is looking at a banner from a greater distance than the space between them and their computer screen."

    Less is more
    Balabusko just touched on one of the keys to making a vinyl banner aesthetically pleasing: keep it simple! Debbie Feldman Jones, a graphic designer in Baltimore, Md., agrees. "Keep the design simple and the type large," she says. "Be sure to have enough contrast between the background color and the color of the copy or logo."

    If you can only live by one rule, live by the one that insists simplicity in vinyl banner design reigns. Realize that because most signs, large or small, indoor or outdoor, only have a couple of seconds to grab the attention of the audience. That demands a design that maximizes the time, space and environment, according to Dave Racine, president of Mindspike Design in Milwaukee, Wisc.

    When creating a vinyl banner sign, Racine suggests keeping several factors in mind. First, the hierarchy of messages. This is important because you can't - or at least you shouldn't - say absolutely everything you want to say about a product, service or event with a single banner design.

    "Prioritize by asking yourself, 'When someone looks at this sign, what do they have to know right now?'," Racine says. "Also ask, 'What can we live with not saying?' If you can't say what you need to say in two short lines, then a vinyl banner is not the right medium."

    The billboard approach
    Jeff Baker, president of Image 4, a visual marketing firm in Manchester, NH, agrees. He explains it this way: A banner needs to work like a billboard. "Distill the message to the absolute minimum to create impact. Say 'Cool Fresh Salad!' rather than 'Get your delicious, cold, watercress, specialty salad here.' Leave details for another medium."

    This plays into the "less is more" approach Racine subscribes to. The human eye is attracted to and is pleased by simple, readable text placed on large whitespace. So never fill a sign from top to bottom, edge to edge. The color palette is important too, but color is just one element of design.

    "Colors are affected by light, the setting they're in, the viewer's vision and the colors they accompany. Obviously, this is also where branding comes into play," Racine says. "Following branding guidelines and logo usage is one thing, but because color can set a tone, use dark solids for text against a light background and vice versa."

    Let the text do the work
    When it comes to layout, if a message is being communicated, then let the text do the work and let the logo be the last iconic piece the eyeball sees. Racine says, "Just like an ad, the last element is logo or call to action - like a website address."

    Bill Weber, president of Bill Weber Studios in Manhattan, also heralds the "keep it simple" theory. To him, that means avoiding complicated photographs, especially if you need to put lettering over the photo. He also reminds banner designers to keep resolution above 150 dpi in actual size. What looks great on your computer screen will look awful on a giant banner if your resolution is too low.

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    Weber also offers some advice on colors: use contrast. "A banner is not the place to show all the shades of purple that are in the color spectrum!" he insists. "Use white sparingly. White tends to turn grey on outdoor banners, so a giant white banner with red lettering would do better as a giant red banner with white lettering."

    Case in Point
    Balabusko recalls a vinyl banner he once hung on a curved building in Chicago. The banner showed the profile of an attractive woman's face and offered the name of the condo project it was advertising along with a call to action.

    "The graphic itself drew attention to the banner. There was minimal content, but it was effective. Thousands of people who drove into downtown Chicago got the message quickly," Balabusko says. "It had light letters on a dark background, and I think that's the most effective for banners because the background recedes and the letters come toward you."

    The Chicago condo banner also used double spacing between the letters in the copy so the letters would be distinguishable from 300 or 400 yards away in a moving car. The banner relied on upper and lower case letters instead of all capital letters to make it easier for the brain to recognize the words quickly. There were no clever graphics, no fancy fonts, and no heavy copy. But the banner was effective because it was striking visually and got the message out.

    "If your customer gives you the copy, it's your job to take the most significant parts of the message and display it in a way that's going to grab the public's attention," Balabusko says. "You need the company name and the website. Forget the address. Less is more most of the time."

    Does the material matter?
    For all the talk about the actual design practices, it may not make the best impression if you don't use the right vinyl. So says Frank Corey, senior sales and marketing manager at Quality Media & Laminating Systems in North Haven, Conn.

    Corey recommends material that is 100 percent opaque and viable for indoor and outdoor banner applications. This type of material, he says, will offer a consistent image quality in a stiffer, more durable format because of its low plasticizer content. Low plasticizer content also allows the printer to operate at faster production speeds and gives you a longer shelf life and fewer ink issues.

    "Some banners have very prominent threads, so when you look at the banner you see the threads," Corey says. "Smoother banner materials that are laminated give you a much nicer look. Our double-sided banners print virtually the same front and back. That's not the case with a lot of banners. So be sure to work with a material manufacturer that doesn't use plasticizers or you'll get inconsistent results that will water down even the best designs."

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