Printing and Design Tips: December 2020, Issue #233

Options for Dimensional Lettering on Buildings

The next time you walk or drive by a building, whether a retail shop or a government edifice, look closely at the signage, particularly the three-dimensional letters. Look at them in daylight, and look at them at night. Often they are different, and this difference is due to how they are illuminated. Both in low-light and in bright-light conditions these signs need to be seen clearly from a good distance to help customers find the buildings in some cases, or to entice them to enter and buy something.

In this light I had the opportunity a few years ago to visit the sign-making shop of a relative of my fiancee’s. I jumped at the chance both as a student of printing and as a commercial printing broker. I had never seen such a shop, and I was intrigued.

Channel Letters

The first thing I saw was a fabrication station for channel letters. These were three-dimensional letters with plastic or glass faces over (essentially) a can in the shape of the letter (sides and back). Lights were wired inside, and the frosted glass or plastic coverings diffused the light. In daylight they appeared to be large, solid letters (forming the words within the company’s name). At night they were still visible and dramatic when lighted.

I learned that the surrounding metal (vertical sides of the letters and the flat back of the letters) were often made from aluminum, since aluminum doesn’t rust.

In my fiancee’s relative’s sign shop I saw table routers driven by computer-based art files cutting the letter shapes. Then metal was bent into the side shapes of the letters and welded onto the base letterforms, lights were wired and inserted into the cans, and the plastic coverings were affixed to complete the letterforms. Apparently the lights were either neon or LED bulbs. Around the top edges of these (frosted plastic) outer letterforms were metal edges/borders that made the letters look finished and pristine. I also learned that instead of clear white plastic, the lenses (or light covers) could be made with black perforated plastic, which would make them look solid in daylight but which could still be illuminated from within at night.

Interestingly enough, at that time my fiancee and I were still assembling movie standees in the local theaters, and I noticed that the build shape for the large, individual letters on many standees were constructed in much the same way (usually, but not always, without wiring and lights). The main difference I noticed, of course, was that the channel letters my fiancee and I were assembling (front, back, and sides, using cardboard tabs and slots) were paper instead of metal. Other than that they looked very similar.


During my trip to the sign-maker’s shop, I learned that clear plastic could be used for the coverings of the letters as well, and this would allow the interior neon bulbs to be visible (as a design effect) during the day.

In addition, the sides of the letters didn’t have to be metal. They themselves could be frosted plastic, allowing the interior light to radiate out through the sides as well as the front of the sign. Chrome or other coloring could be applied to the plastic letters, as well, to create still more visual effects.


I learned there were still more options, one of which was the opposite of the channel letter signage. Instead of interior lighting within the "cans" of each channel letter, there could be lights within/behind the letters projecting backwards onto the brick facade of the building. These would create a halo effect. The term for this particular signage is "back-lit," or "reverse-lit" lettering, or more specifically "halo lettering."

Apparently, instead of a frosted plastic front, these letter "cans," which are usually aluminum, have translucent backing, allowing the light to radiate outward from the back of the letters. But, since they contain lighting and wires, these, like the channel letters, are eventually sealed off for protection from the elements.

What I found most interesting is that "halo lighting" apparently puts the design focus on the background material (the building itself). So when the light shines intensely on roughly chiseled stonework or bricks, it will highlight the texture of the building wall, in contrast to the channel letters described above, which draw more attention to the light, color, and shape of the letters themselves. Apparently light, matte wall surfaces work far better for this type of signage than mirrored exterior wall surfaces. To intensify the lighting effect, sign-makers often paint the interior of the cans white. Presumably this is also true for the other interior lighting options for these 3D letters.

Finally, there seems to be an option that allows for both a translucent back and a translucent front of the "light cans" that comprise a channel lighting sign. In this case, the effect is both to enhance the front view of the letters at night and also to draw attention to their silhouette on the facade of the building.

What About Letters with No Lights?

Sign-makers even have a name for the letters that are three dimensional but that have no internal source of illumination (like the big letters my fiancee and I assembled for many of the movie standees we installed).

These are just called dimensional letters. Same idea, no light.

The Physical Requirements

Signage, like point of purchase displays and even corrugated cartons, have physical requirements as well as design and/or marketing goals. As noted before, the first goal is to protect the wiring and lights from the elements.

However, there’s also the issue of support/installation. How do you support and electrify what is essentially a rather fragile—and heavy—structure while making it seem both dramatic and graceful?

I did some research tonight on Google and found that the letters could either be directly mounted onto the side of the building or mounted onto a metal structure ("raceway"). The raceway can contain the power supply and other electrical components and also provide a rigid support for the letters (a little like the metal structure onto which you might mount a large flat-panel television, another type of fragile, back-lit display).

Another option is to attach the letters to a much thinner "wireway," which usually only houses the wires passing from letter to letter.

Finally, front-lit channel letters can be mounted on the flat top of the building structure instead of the vertical exterior wall of the building. In this case there would be rails across the top and bottom of the letters to keep them aligned and correctly directed.

What Can We Learn from This Case Study?

Signage is like product packaging. Passers-by have limited attention with which to digest a huge amount of visual information. How many signs do they see in a day? How many packages do they see in the grocery store? I’m sure the numbers are staggering.

As a designer, anything you can do to make your signage stand out will add to the company brand and (hopefully) drive traffic into the store or building over which the sign hangs. This is why company managers spend astronomical amounts on signage. It just works.

[Steven Waxman is a printing consultant. He 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.]