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Thin is In With LEDs

After 19 years in the sign industry, working in a variety of different positions and companies, I’ve seen my share of trends. Nothing has been quite as transformative as what is taking place within the lighting side of our industry, specifically the LED lighting segment. It’s an exciting time. As a product manager a major part of my role is to spot trends, capitalize on them, and most importantly, to provide our customers with the products they need to support those trends.

Thin is In

What are the trends I’m seeing? Less is more, R.O.I. is king, and a little bit of old is new again. From an industry-wide perspective, thin is in, including channel letters and box signs and everything in-between. Single-faced box signs typically running between 5-6” or deeper are now decreasing to as shallow as 2" to 3”.

Of course this allows for a cleaner, sleeker aesthetic, something I’m personally noticing in my day-to-day activities and travel. The older, thicker signage is starting to stand out and look dated. I’ve been surprised at how noticeable the difference is, especially considering that the super thin trend is relatively new and still catching on in the U.S.

I recently spent a week at a large international sign show in Europe. The thin trend has fully taken over signage across the pond. It was hard to find a sign thicker than 4” deep anywhere at the show—often even with the double-faced signs.

On the other hand, I still saw a lot of thicker signs on display at a large retail design and shopper marketing show I attended this year in Las Vegas. But even there, I saw some thin versions on display. Thinner channel letters have a cleaner, sleeker look to them. Here in the U.S. the thin trend is still emerging.

Wider Adoption

As demand for wider adoptions of thinner channel letters and light boxes gains momentum here in the states, the LED module companies are responding accordingly. We are already seeing the top extrusion companies reacting to the market with lower-profile options. My company just introduced a new module aimed at thinner box signs. The modules mount to the sides of the light box and, thanks to advanced lens technology, shine evenly over the sign face.

This rapidly evolving side-lit technology is a great alternative to using a baffle in a double-faced sign and jamming modules on both sides of it until the face lights properly. As the box signs gets thinner we are seeing the face material change as well, so we’re also seeing fabric faces make an appearance on a grand scale.

Fabric Box Faces

At a recent international specialty printing trade show I attended in Europe I could not find a single acrylic face in a box sign—only fabric. I expect to see fabric take over the majority of interior light box faces in U.S. in the next two to three years.

Stores are looking to make their signs as versatile as possible for their ever changing markets and fabric faces allow the flexibility in changing them out more easily and more frequently. Typically a fabric face is shipped in a simple poster tube and can be installed by just about anyone.

Even though acrylic faces are currently cheaper up front the flexibility the fabric makes the total cost of ownership and value of a fabric face very appealing. The economics and ease of use with fabric make too much sense to ignore.

As you might expect, our European office in The Netherlands is already working within this market daily and we know the demand in the U.S. is growing rapidly. The thin trend is all but making fluorescent obsolete for interior signs. Only LEDs allow for this thin, slim and trim trend in signage to work.

Old is New

Film backing or mats with LEDs in them is another interesting signage lighting trend, again very popular in Europe. This product attempted to enter the market full force 8-10 years ago but for various reasons didn’t succeed. While this technology is not that new, the new trends in the market have created a demand for it and if the quality and price align it will open up many new design opportunities for the sign and marketing industry. While the adoption rate for LEDs in channel letters is closing in on 100 percent, we have only just scratched the surface for the thin box sign market and new technology like this will reign supreme if perfected.  

For all the new happenings within the sign industry there’s a little bit of old I have to focus as well. It’s the marquis sign lighting look which is incredibly popular in regards to home décor and design. Only now, those marquis sign light bulbs are lit with LED modules—an efficient and modern way to achieve a vintage look and minimize the constant service incandescent bulbs require. The open-face neon look, all lit with LED, is another throwback that’s making a comeback. The vintage look will always have its place in our market, but is currently making a resurgence now that the right look can be achieved without the issues associated with neon.

Challenges and Opportunity

Trends sometimes get a bad rap for being "trendy" and keeping up with them, or in my case, planning for and predicting them, is surely a challenge. Within these challenges, however, there is plenty of opportunity. LEDs have proven they are here for the long haul; their versatility, efficiency, and even pliability are allowing for uses we couldn’t have imagined 10, or even five years ago. However, these innovative uses demand high quality LEDs—something that should never be compromised, despite changing trends.

Quality LEDs start with robust R&D from a skilled engineering team and serious investment into quality components and manufacturing. When a company sells LEDs that are on the forefront of a trend one of two things tend to happen, they predict the trend accurately, or research, design and test time is shortened rushing product to market, which we see much too often.

The challenge for sign shops is knowing which type of LED you’re working with—high quality or a rushed-to-market version. Most LEDs look great right out of the package. Testing is critical for the LED manufacturer, and partnering up with a respectable LED partner that does this is critical for sign shops.  

Changing with the Industry

The sign industry is rapidly and continually changing, but we can all grow from the opportunities created when we change with it! We can now turn our creative designers loose because the lighting solutions exist for most anything. By keeping up with the trends you can establish your shop as a solutions driven answer to your client’s needs instead of getting caught up in the generic sign price war that doesn’t work for any of us. Embrace the signage trends and let’s continue lighting the way (with LEDs of course).