banners, street banners

The Digital Eye: Designing and Printing Banners

Stephen Romaniello is an artist and educator teaching digital art at Pima Community College in Tucson, Arizona for over 20 years. He is a certified instructor in Adobe Photoshop and the author of several books on the creative use of digital graphics software. Steve is the founder of GlobalEye systems, a company that offers training and consulting in digital graphics software and creative imaging.

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Banners are certainly a way of life in the print world. It’s helpful to know what design techniques work best in assembling long or tall formatted images. The horizontal banner is very likely the first thing a visitor sees when walking into a store. The banner sets the tone and ambiance of a space and impresses the viewer immediately by the quality of its design, and the impact of its graphics. The banner can also inform the viewer the name of the place, company or product. It may display a corporate logo, incorporate high impact photography or art and usually has some descriptive text. That's a lot to ask of a skinny piece of vinyl!

Design

Splashing a picture and bit of text on a horizontal or vertical shaped rectangle is easy in pretty much any software program; however, designing a layout with impact presents a more significant challenge. It’s not uncommon for companies that produce banners to provide complete design services to customers and online templates that have pre-printed graphics. They also provide templates that help the client layout a custom banner “from scratch.” There are hundreds of online companies that produce banners, and the competition is pretty stiff (see Figure 1).

In this article I’ll explore details to consider when planning a banner so that you can feel confident that your own designs are visually appealing and state a clear effective message. 

A banner does not necessarily have to be a rectangle. Feather, teardrop and flag banners are quite common these days (see Figure 2). Several varieties of banner stands are available that support these odd shapes.

Purpose

The most important question to ask is, what is the banner aiming to accomplish? Is it purely decorative or will it attempt to announce an opening or sales event? Will it inform or direct? These are important considerations that determine the relationship of the layout to the images and text. No matter what its purpose, bear in mind that strong graphics help attract the attention of the viewer and impress the message into his or her mind.

Duration

Another important factor to consider is how long will the banner be displayed? A banner might need to hang anywhere from a few hours to several years. Although banners are usually considered to be temporary signage by city sign codes, you may see banners waving in the wind for a few years before they fade or tear. 

Local weather conditions play a significant part in the life of a banner and the materials chosen to print it. For example, solvent-based inks printed on heavy vinyl material last considerably longer than water-based inks printed on lighter weight vinyl materials. Overlaminating the banner can significantly increase its life by as much as 50 to 100 percent, especially where humid weather conditions exist.

Banner Sizes

Banners come in virtually all sizes from yard signs to gigantic banners you see on buildings and skyscrapers in big cities. Banners are sometimes placed in high-traffic areas, such as thoroughfares or draped over large structures. They can be used as backgrounds for concert venues and trade shows. Especially large outdoor banners often have semi-circular slots cut into them to reduce wind resistance (see Figure 3).

Choosing the correct size is critical for distributing your message. The size of the viewing area determines the size of the banner. The most important factor is that the banner can be seen clearly from all positions in the viewing area. For a small space a 2’ x 6’ banner may work perfectly, but if the banner is hung at a convention center or in front of a building for example, a considerably larger banner is required. The idea is to get as much impact from the banner as efficiently and economically as possible, therefore it’s a good idea to carefully examine the space where the banner will be displayed to be sure that the banner is of a sufficient size to get the job done.

Banner Characteristics

There are several construction characteristics that most banners share. For example, the most common weight of material is 13-ounce vinyl. Less expensive, lighter weight vinyl can be used for temporary indoor banners that saves a little money. Heavier weight vinyl, 16 ounces or greater, is used for large outdoor banners that may be displayed in windy areas.

Banners are usually seamed or sewn for extra strength. The vinyl is folded over and either sewn, attached with double-sided seam tape or seamed with a vinyl welder. Most banner companies seam their banners to assure durability but smaller banners don’t necessarily need to be seamed. Banners that are hung for a long time in windy conditions require sewn or welded seams instead of seam tape. Your banner design will need to bleed one inch around the edge to account for seams.

If your banner is going to be hung with rope it most certainly will require grommets to provide the means to attach the banner to the chords. Grommets are circular metal rings that are stamped onto the edge of the banner. The cord is inserted through the eye of the ring to attach the banner to a pole or rope (see Figure 4).     

Banner Design Principles

When designing a banner keep in mind its purpose. If it’s a small indoor banner celebrating a birthday for example, the content is less critical than if it’s an outdoor banner that needs to communicate a message from a distance in changing lighting conditions.

Typography 

Bold sans serif fonts work best for conveying important information like announcing a sale or an opening and other critical contact information. Avoid ornate typefaces that will be difficult to read or at a distance or by a moving car. Avoid using more than two typefaces and three sizes for your text. It sometimes helps to stroke colored characters with a thin black outline, or apply a layer style like a bevel and emboss to the headline for emphasis.

Contrast Colors

Dark letters on a light background or the opposite, light letters on a dark background are the most visible.  Avoid colors that vibrate like two different colors of the same value or closely related hues like blue on purple. 

Lean and Clean Elements

Avoid text or graphic elements that are too small to see. Too many visual elements will clutter up your design and make it difficult to read. Keep text to a bare minimum, only enough to convey the message, and leave plenty of space between elements. Also, use a hierarchy of sizes to emphasize the most important elements of your message.

Image Resolution

Your design will be printed on wide format printer. Images that are too small or too low in resolution often pixelate or soften when enlarged. In general, if your picture file is under 2 MB, you run the risk that your picture will be blurry when printed (except in the case of vector images) Depending on the printer’s requirements, images should have a resolution of 300 pixels per inch at 100 percent of their size. Many large-format printers require smaller resolutions when printing large documents that will be seen from a distance. Be sure to contact your vender to acquire the information you need to provide the appropriate resolution for the best-quality print.

If you’re creating a custom banner in Photoshop, and you’re working on a large image, you can save it to the PSB (Large Document Format), which supports images up to 300,000 x 300,000 pixels, (see Figure 5).

Proof Positive

You can get a pretty good idea of the impact of your banner before committing it to a large-format print on vinyl by printing a small version to a color inkjet or laser printer on an 8.5" x 11" paper sheet. Stand 5 to 10 feet away and observe the banner. You should have no trouble reading it clearly from this distance.

File Formats

Whatever software you’re using to lay out your banner be sure to save it in the correct format.  Common formats include AI (Adobe Illustrator) PDF, JPEG and TIFF. The file sizes can be quite large, but you can compress your images in JPEG or TIFF or using compression software like Stuffit or ZIP for transfer to your banner company online. If a file is too large to email, you may have to hand deliver it on a flash drive. Frequently banner companies have FTP sites that facilitate the transfer of large files.