There are a number of questions you must answer before determining what will be the best material for any specific trade show graphic. Among them is, how will the graphic by handled and by how many different people? Experience has shown that most damage occurs during dismantle of exhibits and unfortunately, a company’s distributors and salespeople are often the hardest on the graphics and the exhibit structures. Therefore, if the graphics are going to be handled by a company’s distributors and salespeople, then the most durable options are the best materials.
Other questions include, what is the impact desired for each graphic, how is the graphic going to be mounted and how many shows will the graphic be used for? If a graphic is only going to be used for one show, then often a less expensive material is used than if the graphic is intended to be used for numerous shows.
Tradeshow graphics serve four basic functions: they can be used to attract, inform, direct, and/or entertain. Which of these functions does each graphic hope to accomplish? Graphics that are created to attract, inform or entertain will most generally be of higher quality substrates or processes than those that are intended to simply direct.
I will address the most common materials being used, but I apologize to the manufacturers of those materials that I may have overlooked. New materials are being introduced regularly to the trade show industry, which is typical of an industry where being state-of-the-art is important.
Lake Powell had this 20’ x 80’x 10’ high exhibit created using a custom aluminum structure and the dye-sub graphics simply velcroed to the structure.
Dye-Sublimation Printed Fabrics
The most popular graphic material currently is fabric. Dye sublimation (dye-sub) printed fabric graphics are by far the most common and most used material in the exhibition industry today. The reasons for this are that fabric is lightweight and packs small, thus helping to eliminate costly transportation expenses.
Dye-sub fabric graphics are mounted to exhibit structures in a variety of ways. The most common are:
Silicone Edged Graphics (SEG), which consists of fabric with a silicone band sewn into the edge of the fabric. This silicone band then slips into a channel in aluminum extrusions.
Pole Pockets. This method of mounting consists of a simple pole pocket sewn along the top and bottom edges of the fabric graphic, then a pole is inserted through the top pole pocket, which attaches to the exhibit structure. Often a weight bar is inserted into the bottom pole pocket, which allows the fabric to hang straight, without wrinkles. Sometimes, a pole is inserted through the bottom pole pocket and attached to the exhibit structure, similarly to the top pole.
The Colorado Music Hall of Fame used laminated Lambda graphics attached magnetically to aluminum pop-up display structures.
Hook & Loop (Velcro). The loop material is sewn onto the edge of the fabric graphic, which then attaches to the exhibit structure that has the hook material adhered.
Edge Bead. This method is not used as often, but this method has flexible round tubing sewn into the edge of the fabric, which is then pressed into a channel in aluminum extrusion.
With the extensive use of SEG graphics, comments that have been heard by installers on the exhibit floor is that their fingers get sore and tired after installing a number of large graphics. This is not a huge concern, but one that you should be aware of. If a person has to install a significant amount of SEG graphics, those that are installed last are susceptible to not being done as well as those installed first. Therefore, have the most important SEG graphics installed first.
Tension fabric and pillow-case fabric graphics are also very popular and a number of various shapes of structures are becoming the norm. Again, dye-sub fabric is the material of choice. The good news is that a fairly wide range of fabrics textures are being used, which allows some variety to visual presentations. This difference of texture creates interest, because not everything looks the same.
Another material that has been used in the exhibition industry for many years is PVC sheeting, such as Sintra and Komatex, just to name a few brands. This is an excellent material to work with for exhibits, due again to its light weight, nice satin finish, and it is easy to cut, bend and work with.
The industry is seeing a great deal of direct printing on PVC sheeting, which is a very cost effective alternative to some of the more traditional printing processes seen in the past, such as Lambda, Inkjet, and Lightjet.
Direct printing is being used on more and more materials as time goes by. A great material that can be direct printed is MaxMetal. This is a material that has a PVC core and a white or brushed aluminum surface.
Scotchcal material is often being direct printed, and this material can be adhered to a wide range of materials such as aluminum, acrylic (Plexiglas), polycarbonate (Lexan) as well as many others.
An inexpensive material we have used with good results is 1/8" thick Tileboard that we have purchased from Home Depot. This material works well for vinyl or Scotchcal applications and can even be used as a dry-erase board. It comes with a nice white finish on one side and a hardboard back. It’s often used for shower wall applications.
Acrylic sheeting is still often used in the trade show industry. This material has been a mainstay for many years, as it has been in the sign industry as well. Polycarbonate sheeting is also used quite often.
Gatorfoam is another good material to be used for trade shows. Again, it is light weight, has a nice finish that can be painted, laminated, silkscreened, etc. I mention silkscreened, but this process is rarely used in the trade show industry now.
Foamboard products are used, but not for graphics that need to be more durable. Although this material has a nice finish and is easy to work with, the fact that the corners and edges are too easily damaged causes a concern for trade show graphics.
Laminated Lambda, Inkjet and Lightjet prints have been the primary materials used for exhibit graphics for many years. Different labs use different thicknesses of laminates for their graphics. The most durable graphics are those with thick laminates, such as 10 mil on the front and 5 mil on the back. For graphics that are to be used only once we have seen laminations of 2 mil on both the front and back. There are no set standards for lamination thickness. These materials when used for trade show graphics are generally attached to the exhibit structures with either magnetic tape or hook and loop material.
Duratrans were the standard for backlit exhibit graphics for many years, but dye-sub fabric is fast becoming a significant competitor. Dye-sub fabric is less expensive and the sizes can be very large, up to 10' to 12' high and unlimited in length. Improvements in dye-sublimation inks and fabrics have made this a winning material for backlit trade show displays.
The materials discussed above are the most commonly used for portable and modular exhibit systems and used in custom exhibits as well. However, when it comes to custom exhibits, anything goes! What makes a custom exhibit unique, and a one-of-a-kind exhibit, is not only the structural design, but often the materials used to finish the exhibit.