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Printing Industry Exchange ( 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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Custom Printing: Grand-Format, Wall-Size Banners

Photo purchased from …

When I was a consultant working with a large Washington, DC, magazine publisher, one of my tasks was to coordinate the commercial printing and installation of a huge banner (an inkjet printed cover of one of the company’s magazines). I also helped the printer with the installation.

I’m a great believer in learning on the job. Just as it didn’t hurt to learn how to use motorized pallet loaders, plastic skid wrapping, and industrial freight elevators when my fiancee and I were doing freelance display installations for Chanel, neither did it hurt to help install a three-story-high banner on the side of the magazine publisher’s exterior wall.

This is what I learned. Hopefully it will help you in your custom printing work.

Design Considerations

First I had to find a vendor. Not all vendors produce large-format print graphics. In this category I include all forms of inkjet work produced on either flatbed printers (for rigid substrates) or roll-fed printers.

Fortunately most inkjet printers include large inksets (cyan, magenta, yellow, black, sometimes a second black, sometimes light cyan and light magenta, sometimes white, sometimes red, blue, and green, or even orange and purple). The goal is this. The more additional colors beyond the traditional CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) color set, the wider the color gamut and the more individual hues (such as specific corporate colors) you can match. So if you need to select a large-format print shop, I’d encourage you to approach a dedicated sign-maker or ask a trusted commercial printing supplier for a referral. Referrals go a long way in ensuring product quality, vendor skill, and deadline reliability.

Regarding technical specifications, consider size and resolution. For a large-format print image, you don’t need 300 dpi resolution if your banner will be three stories high. This would create an unnecessarily large (and time-consuming to print) art file. From a distance, your eye is perfectly fine with 80 dpi, or whatever else your printer suggests. (So ask him specifically.)

Presumably he will want a PDF file (not InDesign or Photoshop) of the job. But you should ask about the overall size. Most probably he will ask you to make the banner file the exact size of the final art (to avoid needing to enlarge the artwork when printing). He will probably also ask you to embed the fonts in the file or, more likely, to convert the type into outlines. He will definitely ask for files in CMYK format rather than RGB format. (If he does accept RGB files, he will still need to convert them to CMYK files on his end, so it’s best for you to make the shift before submitting the file so you can see how this will affect the overall color.)

What Will You Print On?

If your banner will be hung indoors, you might consider some kind of fabric (maybe for a table throw, interior wall banner, or roll-up banner stand). But for the kind of exterior banner I needed to provide to my consulting client, vinyl was the best choice. After all, it had to withstand the elements (sun, rain, and wind), which are very hard on a banner.

In this case I had the vendor stitch together the sections of the huge magazine-cover photo image, since the final banner was larger than the 16-foot width of many grand-format, roll-fed, inkjet printing machines. The vendor also hemmed the edges of the banner to improve durability, and added metal grommets along the edges to accept the rope for tying the banner to the side of the building.

Inks were also a consideration. Dye-based inks are more vibrant than pigment-based inks (solutions of water and dye molecules rather than larger particles of pigment suspended in liquid). However, dye-based inks are less weather resistant. More than likely, your printer will suggest a solvent-based, eco-solvent-based, or even UV ink that will tolerate rain and sunlight (which otherwise will cause the color in the inkjet inks to fade).

Be specific when talking with your custom printing vendor about whether your product will be an exterior banner, a bus or car wrap, or a billboard. You may also want to ask about lamination to increase durability, depending on what inks and substrate your printer will use. How long you will need the banner to be outside will also make a difference (three days, three months, three years). Solvent-based inks have the greatest longevity, eco-solvent inks slightly less, and water-based inks least of all. Unfortunately, the most durable inks also pose the largest health and environmental concerns.

Accounting for Wind

Wind does interesting things to banners. When I was hanging the banner on my client’s building with the sign manufacturer, I was struck by how even a gentle wind would catch the vinyl banner like a sail. To keep such a large banner from taking flight, the banner vinyl is often slashed in a regular (often curved, like horizontal “C’s”) pattern. The wind just travels through the vinyl material, and the pattern of slashes is minimal enough to not really compromise the overall look of the banner from a distance.

Interestingly enough, a similar technique is often used for large-format banners that cover windows in buses (or that cover vendor shop windows). These are called 60/40 mesh banners. (I have also seen them outside on fences, so the breeze travels through 60/40 mesh as well.) When a banner or bus wrap has been printed on 60/40 mesh, from a distance the eye sees the portion of the image that is printed and doesn’t really notice the matrix of regularly-spaced holes with no commercial printing ink.

But again, even though it can be used to reduce wind interference, 60/40 mesh is primarily a way to allow bus riders to look out the windows and those outside the bus to just see the banner wrapped around the vehicle.

Two More Considerations

Large-format graphics such as my client’s three-story banner may also show up as billboards, depending on how they are designed and positioned. Interestingly enough, one of the considerations for such a banner is viewing angle.

From a marketing perspective, it’s important to get the attention of the viewer when she or he is driving (especially true for a billboard but also true for a building wrap). In my client’s case, the front of the building was at a 45 degree angle to the road and right next to it. So it was visible for a number of seconds to those driving by.

In contrast, a banner facing a road or highway at a 90 degree angle might be missed, or it might be seen only for an instant. You may want to think about this, and ensure that the viewer gets as long an exposure to the image as possible. Of course this is also why you want to only include a few words on the banner along with a striking image. (Don’t make the viewer take more than an instant to process the information while driving.)

This is relevant in terms of safety as well. If the banner faces the street at a 90 degree angle, and the person driving looks away from the road to see the banner, she or he will be at serious risk.

Final Thoughts

So, as with most other printed products, a large-format print banner (whether a building wrap, a bus or car wrap, or a 60/40 banner covering a store window) has both a design component and a functional, production component.

The best large-format graphics make a dramatic statement with only a few words and a striking image in brilliant color. They don’t make the viewer take more than an instant to process the information. But it’s also important to consider the best vendor for such a job, as well as the proper inkset (both the hue and the ink formulation, whether dye-based, eco-solvent, UV, or solvent), file resolution, and document size.

Your printer is your best ally in helping you get this kind of work done.

2 Responses to “Custom Printing: Grand-Format, Wall-Size Banners”

  1. R Hodgson says:

    I’m curious about why you would send a file as CMYK if the printer can print more than the usual gamut of CMYK colors? I have had printers ask me to send RGB files when I’m doing things like giclee printing (which would be a great article to write one day!) because of the larger gamut that their 6-8 color printers are much more capable of printing. Some printers provide their own color profiles too, and those are often a take on RGB as well.

    In the end, it’s really always good to check with the printer before assembling final files because sometimes even the CMYK standard falls short when your goal is spectacular color with a printer that is capable of fulfilling that goal. 🙂

    • admin says:

      Great question. Thank you for writing to the PIE Blog. RGB has a larger color gamut than CMYK (a far greater number of distinct colors), meaning the print shop will have a more color-faithful image if you submit an RGB file rather than a CMYK file. This may be particularly true for a digital inkjet printer with an extended color set (C, M, Y, K; light black; light cyan; light magenta; maybe orange, green, and/or violet–or some such combination in up to a 12-color inkset). That said, it is my understanding that since RGB is an additive color model based on light, and CMYK is a subtractive color model based on ink (offset, inkjet, or toner), the printer’s software will need to eventually convert the file to CMYK before printing or even do the conversion automatically during the printing process. I’m pretty sure I have this right, but you might want to run this by your commercial printer to confirm. I’d speak directly with someone in the commercial printer’s prepress department. BTW, thank you for the article subject idea: giclee printing. I’ll look into this. And I strongly agree that designers should discuss the color space with the printer before submitting the final file, since printers may differ in their preferred workflow.


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