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Your Tuesday Tip: Modular Signage Continues to Evolve

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Forty years into the category, modular signage has evolved along with its definition and the demands of a changing marketplace.

When modular first hit the market with the Slatz system in the mid 1970s, the term referred to a collection of components—extrusions and fasteners—that could be configured in seemingly limitless formats, providing solutions unique to each sign shop and customer.

Or, as Houston-based designer Steve Neumann—founder and principal of The Design Office of Steve Neumann and Friends—says, “Modular is a generic word for a kit of parts, which when combined make a unique, customized, final product, using a limited number of specially prepared stock elements.”

Today, some suppliers have broadened the term to include sign families that could be considered more “coordinated” than modular. They tend to feature an assortment of frames and/or pre-designed units in a variety sign types sold in pre-designated sizes.

Modular Signage Then and Now

“Modular found its roots in the early ’70s when architects and designers kept asking, ‘Isn’t there anything changeable?’” says Chuck Kelly, founder of Spandex USA (now Clarke Systems). “That’s the one thing that, in 1975, sent me on the search for a new product that would meet that demand.”

The search, with the help of a British sign magazine editor, lead him to the design team of Charlie and Mary Dobson in Bristol, England, whose newly-minted Slatz System of extruded aluminum faceplates and universal plastic clips was earning design awards and finding distribution throughout Europe.

“The definition of modular today is very soft,” says Neumann. “Right now, I would like it to be defined as totally expandable, interchangeable and consistent in sizes to allow infinite flexibility. However, excessive use of paper graphic inserts is now defining the term.”

Likewise, the definition has evolved to meet market demand for faster turnaround times, choices made simpler by limited selection, and development of new equipment and skill sets. Computer-driven design and advanced printing capabilities have changed the industry, benefiting producers and clients alike.

“There’s been a move away from the craftsmen and artisans of old,” says Charles J. Kelly Jr., president of Clarke Systems, Allentown, Pa. “In the past, 60 percent of what we sold was in stock pieces that allowed sign makers to do what they wanted. People no longer want to, nor have the time to, do it all themselves. Many don’t want to inventory parts, or figure out how to integrate them. It’s more about the speed and having more immediate satisfaction, so now we do it for them.”

Interior Modular Systems

As mentioned, Clarke Systems helped bring Slatz to the U.S. market in the 1970s and, due to its functionality in the hands of designers and sign professionals, still remains fresh and current today. Over the years adaptations have been made by adding sidetracks to hold the faceplates in line, applying industry colors with Clarke’s Colorfix system, and adding stylized finishes for the sidetrack rails and faceplates. Used extensively for wayfinding, the components can form directories, overhead hanging and projecting signs, door and countertop signs and more.

In 2008 a series of Slatz extrusions were modified to hold graphic inserts, creating Slatz Capture, enabling the use of applied vinyl graphics, inserted engraving stock or paper prints covered by a clear plastic lens.

Vista Systems of Sarasota Florida (headquartered in Israel) entered the U.S. market in the ’90s with their industry-changing curved, graphic insert system for wayfinding and identity applications. While other manufacturers had offered curved-profile, aluminum components, Vista attracted serious attention to the new paper-holding feature, ideally timed with improvements in digital printing. The product line has been expanded to include double-sided and triangular pylons as well as Vista Light—a free standing double-sided sign that can be back-lit or used without light. They recently introduced an aluminum frame system called Vista Expand for larger interior and exterior applications. According to Vista’s general manager Alon Bar, “It is a modular system in the true sense of the word, yet when it is assembled it is very firm and will withstand harsh weather conditions.” He says the system “will turn any size Dibond into a beautiful wall frame or a variety of pylons.”

In 2010 Arris Sign Systems, Atlanta, Ga., introduced its system, which is comprised of bullnose, low-profile, aluminum frames from 7/16” to 11/16” in thickness. Offered as an alternative to curved-face products, it accepts a range of insert/display materials, from non-glare PETG or acrylic lenses protecting digitally printed graphics to tactile/Braille and direct-print plaques.

According to Arris’ sales manager John Herren, “The small number of components and the intuitive nature of its functionality make Arris a very easy product to work with.” For their smallest sign, inserts flex in and out of the frame using a suction cup. For larger signs, inserts are removed from the sign with a lift-and-drop technique.

Exterior Modular Systems

Modular signage systems for outdoor uses are also available. For example, Charleston Industries of Charleston, Mississippi, offers exterior modular signage employing a specially designed fastening system that allows for quick and easy installation as well as copy changes, according to the firm’s cost estimator and designer, Jamie Anderson. “Installation is generally a four-step process,” he says. Charleston’s modular extrusions accommodate other materials besides aluminum; and frames can be modified for thicker-faced materials such as acrylic. Signs can be “pre-assembled or in knock-down/unassembled form for easy assembly onsite,” Anderson says. Additionally Charleston will ship the sign blank, ready for graphic application, or they will do the application of vinyl, digital prints or dimensional letters prior to shipping ready-to-install signs.

And Component Signage Inc. (CSI) of High Point, North Carolina, offers a beveled post with its 300 and the 600 series outdoor system that is exclusive to CSI, says Stewart Curtis, company president. “The six-inch post and panel in the 600 series is a unique depth that cannot be found elsewhere,” he says. “It’s comparable in durability and functionality to the seven-inch system that many manufacturers offer, but with the slightly smaller depth. It is cost effective and allows for more competitive pricing in bids and pricing to the end customer. Many times, even if a seven-inch system is spec’d for a project, CSI’s six-inch system can be substituted.”

In addition, at Howard Industries of Fairview, Pennsylvania, it’s their 2 ¼-” deep EZ Change Wordbar System that defines modularity for Bill Freeman, vice president of architectural sales. “It allows for quick and easy changes using our two-part mounting extrusion,” he says. “Regardless of its placement on the sign, a Wordbar can be changed by simply removing a few tamper-resistant screws which are hidden in the reveal between the post and bar. A single Wordbar can be removed and replaced without disturbing any other Wordbars.” Made of high-quality 6063T5 alloy aluminum in sizes ranging from 2 ¼” to 18” in height and up to 120” long, it can be used single- or double-sided and customized by using other sign system headers, bases, skirting, and mounting posts of various styles and functions.”

And SignComp of Grand Rapids, Michigan, offers a number of extrusion systems and sign kits. “At Signcomp, we have many options,” says company CEO Tom Breihof. “We have an insert panel system that facilitates individual panels that slide side-to-side for changeability, replacement and interchangeability. The panel system has 4”, 6” and 8” standard aluminum panels and accommodates custom height panels of all sizes for aluminum and plastic faces. All of our systems are designed to assemble, change, alter and re-configure with minimal tools and labor. And, the end user receives a sign that is truly modular at a great price.”

Pricing Pressures

It’s changeability at the right price that designers are concerned with today. “I think my personal biggest wish is that there were more firms making raw product, which would then allow an infinite number of smaller contractors to supply the completed product in a competitive manner,” says Neumann. “There is a tremendous amount of resistance to using proprietary products (sold only by the manufacturer direct to end users) because they are a single-source supply.”

He adds, “We see in the healthcare world, deep consternation regarding the absolute financial need for cost containment and competitive bidding of similar (equal) products. Nowadays, we design three different (equal proprietary) solutions, so the CFO and purchasing agents can get prices on similar—but not exactly the same—products. And then, unfortunately, they pick the low bidder.”

Sal Verrastro, AIA, FCSI, architect with Spillman Farmer Architects in Bethlehem, Pa., also sees the need to for affordable, highly adaptable systems. “I want to see sign systems that are fairly inexpensive and offer a lot of flexibility with true modular components that you can add and subtract,” he says. While the firm’s high-end clients are more apt to go for highly customized signs, changeability is still of primary concern, whether for department churn or branding.

Looking Ahead

Where is the market going? It depends on whom you ask. According to Charleston Industries’ Burney, “We see the modular market being incorporated more into custom signage featuring radius tops, peak tops, accent bars and more radius accents across the tops. It’s like architects are using modular signage profiles and tweaking them to make a more customized architectural type sign.”

Howard Industries’ Freeman believes that “With businesses expanding and campus footprints getting larger, modular signage is a must to help with navigation, identification and future growth.”

And Curtis from Component Signage makes this observation: “The modular market seems only to be growing as sign companies and end users are looking for products that can be produced quickly in higher quantities and with consistent quality. CSI is producing new extrusions to cater to modular trends and works closely with sign companies to develop new modular products.”

With so many companies in the industry offering similar products, the real differentiator in the business is customer service and the positive attitude of the people who represent their companies, note Bar, Herren and Kelly Jr.  No matter how far the modular category and its definition evolve, that is the one thing that will always stay the same.