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Printing Industry Exchange (printindustry.com) is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Large Format Printing: A Standee Light Box Case Study

My fiancee and I received a request from our California broker yesterday to install a lightbox standee in a local movie theater. The movie the standee promoted was Fifty Shades Darker, the next film in the Fifty Shades of Grey series.

To give you an idea of what a lightbox standee is, picture a cardboard rectangular box, taller than a soda vending machine as well as a bit wider. It is black, with a transparent graphic panel on the front and a light source within. The goal is to backlight the graphic image. As with a computer monitor, this backlighting gives the graphic image incredibly vivid colors. In addition, the whole box stands out from among the surrounding movie standees because it has a light source and is therefore brighter than the other standees, even the larger ones (called “theatrical standees”).

To add drama to the aforementioned description, the image on the lightbox is of Christian Grey holding a lace carnival mask over Anastasia Steele’s face and eyes. Everything else on the graphic panel is typography, promoting the film and providing marketing and film-opening information.

On a Deeper Level

It seems simple enough: an especially large format print poster, similar to the smaller “one-sheets” (posters with one image on the front and a reverse of the image on the back of the poster to intensify the colors when the poster is illuminated in a lightbox).

As my fiancee and I assembled the large format print lightbox standee, I thought about the benefits of such a standee for marketing purposes, about how such a structure fits into the “functional printing” category of commercial printing, and about exactly how the product was produced.

From a Marketing Perspective

I mentioned earlier just how dramatic a backlit standee can be. Many standees actually have their own light source, in my experience, but often these are just rows of LEDs, which highlight the three-dimensional image but don’t dramatically illuminate it. These are decorative, whereas a lightbox turns an image from “reflective” art into “transmissive art.”

To explain these two terms, think of a photographic slide, which in graphic arts terminology is called a transparency. Light from behind creates the image, much as an image is created on your cellphone, desktop computer or tablet screen, or your television. Since these images are created by transmitted light, the colors are brighter and the color gamut (number of reproducible colors) is larger than that of a printed poster. In contrast, a poster can only be seen when illuminated by reflected light coming from the front of the poster. For instance, in the movie theater lobby, a large format print banner is visible because of the ambient light.

From a marketing perspective, this makes for highly dramatic backlit images on lightboxes. When paired with a good design, this kind of display option enhances the marketing effect. In the case of Fifty Shades Darker, the simplicity of the graphic image, along with the focus on Anastasia’s face, benefits from the backlighting. The light makes her face “glow.” On a purely functional level, this is because there is only a thin film of bright, transparent ink (presumably inkjet ink) on the clear acetate base, in the area of her face, so the five banks of fluorescent light inside the cardboard lightbox structure come through this portion of the graphic in full intensity, drawing the viewer’s eyes magnetically to Anastasia’s face.

So from a marketing perspective, this clearly works. It will distract passersby from all of the other standees, presumably selling tickets (or at least sparking interest in the movie).

From a Functional Printing Perspective

“Functional printing” is all about physical products that include ink or toner on a substrate. Your car dashboard with its knobs and buttons is functional printing. So are elevator panels and computer keyboards. And so is an inkjet printed circuit board imaged with inks that can transmit an electric charge.

Functional printing involves the physical properties of an object, in this case a promotional lightbox. The box is an object in space. When you assemble one, you first build the back, walls, top, and bottom to create a “trough” that is larger than a bathtub made out of cardboard. The paper walls fold back over themselves to strengthen the paper board, and everything is held together with die cut tabs inserted in die cut slots (all prepared on a special die cutting press).

A separate unit, which is a scored and die cut piece of white cardboard, has holes for wires, which come out of 12” fluorescent tubes that are attached to the backing board with die cut cardboard clamps. When the fluorescent lights have been attached to the board, the white cardboard light panel is lowered into the exterior “trough” to which it is then attached with screws. At this point, the only commercial printing is the flexographic black ink laid down over all of the exterior panels of the lightbox, plus the white printed on the front of the light panel. The black draws the viewer’s attention away from the exterior of the lightbox, and the white background of the light panel enhances the reflected fluorescent light within the box (i.e., behind the transparent graphic panel covering the front of the box).

The transparent graphic panel is then screwed onto the exterior perimeter of the lightbox (like a swimming pool cover is stretched over a pool at the end of the season).

What made this particular lightbox standee interesting is that instead of printing white ink on the back of the printed graphic panel (of Christian an Anastasia), the standee creator had included a white plexiglass panel to position between the light and the graphic panel in order to diffuse the light.

(If you look at the back of a backlit display image in a cosmetics counter lightbox in a department store, you’ll see that the artwork of the model is printed on plexiglass or other thick plastic, and there is an opaque white film over the side of the image facing the light source. This diffuses the light so it will be of even brightness over the entirety of the graphic image. Without such a barrier, you would see brighter light–or brighter imagery–in those areas of the graphic panel immediately covering one of the illumination lamps. Diffusing the light with a backing of white ink behind the graphic image avoids that problem.)

In the case of the lightbox standee, the transparency (the large graphic image of Christian and Anastasia) had been printed on a thin sheet of plastic. My fiancee and I had to sandwich the additional sheet of thick, frosted white plastic between the cardboard lightbox frame we had just assembled and the thin, transparent graphic panel. We did this, and then we screwed the graphic onto the lightbox assembly with nuts and bolts. (In fact, due to the weight of the graphic panel and the plastic diffusion sheet, we had to first put several screws in strategic places around the perimeter of the lightbox to suspend the heavy plastic image evenly, and then fill in the remaining screws. It was not easy.)

However, once we had folded the exterior flexographic printed panels over the backing paper and plugged the lights into the wall socket, the overall effect was profound.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

I think the take-away from this case study is threefold:

  1. Commercial printing extends far beyond flat brochures, annual reports, and posters. In many cases printed press sheets are converted into three dimensional objects. These include product packaging and movie standees. In these instances, if you look closely, you can see the finishing operations of scoring, folding, pattern gluing, and die cutting. When you’re designing such a promotional piece as a movie standee, you have to think in terms of creating a physical object. You also have to think about the weight of the product (how the graphic panels will hang on the lightbox, for instance, and whether they will be too heavy to be supported by the cardboard structure).
  2. You also have to think about printing technologies that fit your purpose. In this particular case, the outside walls of the cardboard structure would have been crushed by the pressure of offset press rollers, so the printer had to use a flexographic press. For the transparent graphic panel, presumably the plastic sheet would not have gone through an offset press without shifting, so my assumption is that the printer had used large format print inkjet technology to produce the transparent graphic panel.
  3. In spite of the limitations inherent in creating a physical product, the overall effect has to be stunning. In the case of this lightbox movie standee, the designer and printer used two printing technologies, a lot of die cut cardboard, and lighting materials from the hardware store to promote a fantasy and create an image that captivated the viewer.

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