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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: What’s Behind the Standees?

My fiancee and I spent about ten hours this week installing standees. It’s that time of year again, and movie theaters are receiving stacks of cartons containing the large format printed pieces that we will assemble into the (sometimes) massive cardboard structures used to promote upcoming movies.

When you look at the front of a standee, you can get lost in the promise of fantasy, adventure, and just plain good times. But what’s behind the standees?

I know this sounds like a trick question, or even a philosophical or psychological one based on marketing theory. But I mean it quite literally. Behind the ink or toner on paper (the graphic panels that face forward), there is a huge amount of artistry that goes unseen. That is, the finishing operations required to present a three-dimensional marketing structure both require a lot of thought before the actual design process and fabrication, and also depend a lot on several post-press operations.

Choice of Substrate

Last night when my fiancee and I were assembling the new Baywatch standee, I noticed that several of the structural elements looked alike but were made from different kinds of cardboard. Since I’m familiar with the graphic studio that designed this piece (and since I have a lot of respect for them), I assumed there was logic behind the decision.

One of the structural “girders” (for want of a better term) spanned the space between two base units I had just assembled. It was composed of chipboard (thinner than corrugated board and without the fluting). This was a horizontal piece. In contrast, two vertical girders, which were also 4” x 4” square crosswise and about six feet long, were made out of fluted cardboard, also printed black (presumably with flexographic ink).

I thought about why the design studio had made different substrate choices as I proceeded with assembly, but as I built up the portion of the standee above the horizontal chipboard base girder, I realized that the weight distribution requirements were different. The horizontal chipboard piece held less weight. Basically, it just connected the left and right base of the Baywatch lifeguard tower. In contrast, the thicker, vertical corrugated-board “poles” held up the entire lifeguard building. The moral is, chipboard is flimsy when compared to corrugated board. It’s perfect for some things, but not for “load-bearing” structures.

The Take-Away

Throughout the design and fabrication process, the standee designers are thinking in terms of structure. What has to be strong? What can be less strong, but perhaps lighter? And what commercial printing technology is required to decorate each: flexography, custom screen printing, offset printing, or digital printing? On a smaller scale, even the point of purchase and point of sale large format print products you see in the grocery stores depend on the same kinds of functional decisions as well as the marketing and commercial design decisions that influence the creation of the graphic panels the viewer sees.

Pattern Gluing, Die Cutting, and Scoring

I’m going to address these together because each depends closely on the others.

In many cases, when you look at the back of a standee, you’ll see one piece of cardboard that has been glued to another using hot-melt glue. For instance, in the back of a large graphic panel, or even a die cut figure, you might need a spacing “arm” (if you will), to hold the center of the piece rigid and straight. If you have a die cut figure, such as that of Dwayne Johnson in the Baywatch movie, such attachments may be needed to keep the lifesize image from flopping over or tearing off the standee.

In the case of the Dwayne Johnson “lug,” as these attachments are called in the industry, extra cardboard (flexo-printed black) has been hot-melt glued to the back of the die cut Dwayne Johnson image. If you fold in the tabs on this attachment and insert them into the background—and, if you use double sided tape on the bottom of his feet to attach the figure to the printed floor panel—Dwayne Johnson will be stable and secure.

So automated pattern gluing is integral to this process, even though the viewer will never see the glue or any of the strengthening cardboard attachments. And, by the way, the extra cardboard structures glued behind Dwayne Johnson’s character’s legs are made of corrugated board, not chipboard, for durability.

Regarding die cutting, you will see all number of cut-outs if you look closely at the structure of the standee. All tabs and all slots into which the tabs fit are die cut. In addition, the silhouettes of all the characters that are free-standing on cardboard poles had to be cut out of flat printed press sheets laminated to corrugated board. Everywhere you look, something has to be cut out, and all of the “scrap” (anything that’s not the image) has to be punched out and removed.

Granted, this kind of die cutting makes the silhouetted figures less sturdy. If you look closely, in fact, you’ll see that in transit through the Postal System, many of the die cut character figures have been banged up, since in most cases they are not securely attached together in the shipping carton. So it helps for a standee installer to have experience in the fine arts and commercial arts to be able to touch up the banged-up pieces with tape and marker pens.

Regarding scoring, all of the pieces of cardboard that will be folded must first be scored, and this is another automated post-press function. Scoring is, for want of a better term, a “pre-fold” crease made with a metal scoring rule on the cardboard using a letterpress. The scoring rule mashes the fluted corrugated board slightly, so that when my fiancee and I fold over the corners of the standee (or the spot-glued arms attached to the back of a figure to hold it straight), all of these pieces align correctly when folded. This is not for our ease of assembly. Rather it is to ensure that the folds are made exactly where the designers had intended, while avoiding mis-folding or tearing or any other problems.

The Nuts and Bolts

Any large format print product attached with enough screws in enough stress points will gradually become very strong. Some of these standees can have 80 or more screws, used for attaching pieces together while improving stability and strength. And all of the screw holes are considered die cuts, which means that overall, a massive and intricate matrix of die cuts has to be planned for (and metal die cutting rules created) to make all of this happen. If everything is not precisely and accurately aligned (with zero tolerance for even a hair’s breadth of misalignment), things won’t go together correctly. So to the educated viewer, each and every complex standee is a masterful success that has been clearly crafted by both knowledgeable graphic designers and the computer aided design hardware and software that are their tools of trade.

The Take-Away

Here are some thoughts to ponder:

  1. If you choose to be a standee designer, you will need to understand marketing, psychology, and graphic design. But you will also need to understand the laws of physics, differences in materials (such as chipboard vs. corrugated board), and all commercial printing processes (when to screen print, for instance—on clear plexiglass substrates; or when to flexo print—on incidental or unseen background pieces).
  2. All of this must be unbelievably expensive to do—per unit, ie., for each standee. So the press runs for these standees must be very long for the unit costs to be reasonable (think how many theaters receive the standees across the United States).
  3. However, for the larger standees, not every theater gets one (because they are expensive to produce, ship, and install). So for all of the post-press operations that will drive the unit cost of each standee way up, the overall press run is not unlimited, so the final cost per standee must still be very high.
  4. This shows how much the movie industry depends on, and how committed it is to, marketing.

Final Thoughts

If you can handle the deadlines, this may be a very lucrative field for commercial designers to consider. It’s fun, and it challenges both your creative and mathematical/engineering skills.

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