Printer Primer: How substrates and inks impact in-store marketing

When you’re designing signage and displays, how much thought do you give to the physical materials they’re made of?

All substrates and inks will have a major impact on the look of your in-store marketing and visual merchandising materials. Choose incorrectly and the colors fade, the materials weather and age, and those stunning visuals your design team created end up looking worn and cut-rate.

Fortunately, you don’t have to be an expert on substrates and inks: that’s your in-store marketing partner’s job.

The best thing you can do is engage with your partner as early as possible.

They can help you choose the right high-quality materials to create eye-catching displays that perform the way you need them to, while keeping your budget in mind. They’ll also guide you to match the best printing method (digital printing, screen printing, offset, litho, dye-sublimation, etc) for your project.

To guide you through this critical planning, here’s an introduction to the considerations that guide a commercial printer to the best substrates and inks for your designs.

Know how and where your signage and displays will be used for superior substrate selection

The printing process isn’t the only thing that makes a big impact on your point-of-purchase displays, promotional signage, and in-store marketing.

So do the physical substrates and inks used to create them.

In printing, a substrate is the base material on which your design will be printed. If this definition seems pretty broad, it’s because modern printing methods can use just about any surface as a substrate, from glass and metal to foils and films.

But today, we’re going to focus on three common substrates to illustrate the factors that will influence the materials used and how they can affect your designs.

Paper: Affordable and versatile

Paper is a popular choice for a reason. Paper-based substrates (such as offset printing paper, coated and uncoated stock, corrugate, kraft paper, cardstock, etc.), are affordable, extremely versatile.

But when it comes to duration and durability, is paper up to the job? There are a few things to consider.

First up: light. Will your printed materials be displayed in natural light or under UV, LED, or fluorescent lights?

Many paper substrates contain optical brightener agents which glow under UV light. This can cause the color to change depending on the light condition. If you have two identical signs—one placed near sunlight and one lit only by artificial lighting—they could end up looking very different. This can be especially problematic if you need to match specific brand colors.

Another consideration is how and where your signage and displays will be used. Paper tends to breakdown in certain outdoor conditions, where sunlight, rain, and weather can warp its appearance.

Paper substrates are also easily damaged. If the signage is going to be heavily handled, or placed in a high traffic area where people may touch and bump into it, a paper substrate may quickly show signs of wear and tear you don’t want.

None of this is to say you shouldn’t use paper substrates.

Paper can be an excellent, lightweight, eco-friendly, and economical choice for short-term use-cases, such as point-of-purchase (POP) displays that change out frequently. But it’s important to talk to your partner early in the planning process about what you need from your visual merchandising and whether paper is the right material for the job.

Example use cases:

  • POP displays that change frequently
  • Short term signage
  • Folding cartons
  • Most commercial print applications

Best to avoid:

  • Permanent signage or displays
  • Outdoor use
  • High-traffic areas
  • Glass (window clings, cooler doors, areas with moisture or heat)

Synthetic substrates: Maximize longevity with the right light

Generally speaking, “synthetic substrates” refers to those made from polymers, but can range from paper-like material to thick, rugged slabs of plastic, PVC, or acrylic. This can include fluted polypropolene, foam core, vinyl, styrene, and more.

One of the great things about synthetic substrates is they can be incredibly durable.

Let’s say you are looking to include some outdoor signage as part of your next campaign. Perhaps you’d like to put an A-frame sign outside your front door, a synthetic substrate is a great option because of its weather resistance.

But despite this durability, synthetic substrates can still be vulnerable to weathering with enough exposure to different elements. Plans to put that same sign under the harsh Florida sun would prompt an experienced printer to use fade-resistant colored inks.

Expert tip: Discuss your sustainability goals with your print partner before selecting a synthetic substrate. While they are not always recyclable, there are still ways to reuse them or reduce the overall carbon footprint of your efforts.

For example, at Imagine, some of the partners we work with recycle the water used to make the fabric. Others have ways to repurpose the materials into other things to give it a new life after it has been used. We can also suggest synthetics that are made from plants or other alternatives that are more environmentally-friendly yet still deliver the quality and finish you are looking for.

Keep in mind, it’s not just what your signage is made of, but how you plan to use it. When you share this information with your partner early on, they can help you find a durable, cost-effective substrate before you finalize your design.

Example use cases:

  • Outdoor signage
  • Semi-permanent displays
  • Retail window signage and displays
  • Backlit menu boards
  • High-traffic areas
  • Floor graphics and decals
  • Anything that requires the ability to heat bend/shape signage

Best to avoid:

Fabric: Lightweight and light-sensitive

Fabric substrates are a durable, versatile option that won’t be easily damaged.

Fabric or soft signage is lightweight (hello, shipping savings!) and can also be a great, sustainable option for many in-store marketing programs—especially if you want to include wide format signage as part of your program.

These substrates can showcase an array of vibrant colors but also have some unique properties which affect the way they reflect light—and therefore the appearance of your signage.

Knit fabric, for instance, has a grain which can affect the appearance of color. If you take the same piece of knit fabric and rotate it 45 degrees, it will change the way a color appears because the orientation of the grain affects how light is reflected. This difference might sound subtle, but if you’re passionate about getting your brand colors just right, it makes a big difference.

For both knit and woven fabrics, you’ll also need to consider the lighting.

Will the fabric be backlit? How far away will it be from the lighting? And what kind of light will it be in? All these factors can impact the way fabric picks up, absorbs, and reflects visible light, which in turn affects the appearance of color.

It’s best to work with a partner that can test your materials in a variety of lighting conditions and positions before they complete a full run.

Example use cases:

  • Small and large format printing
  • Backlit displays
  • Wayfinding
  • Window displays

Best to avoid:

  • Die-cuts or custom shapes and sizes

Have a think about ink: How it will be lit, where it will be used

When it comes to ink, there’s a lot more to consider than shade and tint. Just as with substrates, lighting and usage can have a profound impact on the way ink actually appears once it’s put on display.

Plan for light to get the color right

Has a printer ever sent you a digital file with the caveat, “This will look different when you see it in print?” Part of the reason is digital design and print design work in two different ways.

Your computer uses a red, green, and blue (RGB) color space, but your materials will be printed using cyan, magenta, yellow, and black (CMYK). These two systems both use a limited palette to produce a full spectrum of color, but in opposite ways.

Where RGB uses “additive” color — e.g., the colors get brighter as you add them together, until they create white light — CMYK uses “subtractive” color, where colors darken as pigments combine until they reach black.

As a result, RGB is used for designing something which produces light (like images on your computer screen), whereas CMYK is used for designs which reflect light, such as signage and printed materials.

Why does this matter?

Because the type of light being reflected by the ink on your materials can have an impact on the appearance of color. To get the best finished product, consider and plan for the specific lighting environment—both the type of light source and its positioning.

Know the conditions the ink will need to withstand

Besides getting the color right, you also want an ink designed to withstand environmental conditions.

Signage and displays that sit in direct sunlight all day long is going to need a tough, light-resistant ink that won’t fade or discolor. Other inks may be suitable in other situations depending on temperature, lighting, humidity, and other factors.

If you’re printing on fabric, ink is an especially important consideration.

For long-lasting fabric signs, a good option would be a dye sublimation print, which uses a heating process to ingrain the ink deeply into the fabric. You can wash it, clean it, fold it, and put it away without fear of chipping the ink.

Seven questions to consider before your next project or campaign

Your print partner is eager to help you find the right materials for your project. Here’s what they want to know to get started:

  • Where will the materials be displayed? What are the dimensions of the space and the location in-store (or outside of the store)?
  • Who will be installing the signs or displays? Store associates, professional installers, or someone else?
  • What’s the environment like? (Tip: Answer in terms of light, temperature, humidity, and whether it will be indoors or outdoors)
  • How long will the materials be on display? Do you plan to use it more than once?
  • How quickly do you need it produced and delivered?
  • Do the materials need to meet any sustainability goals?
  • Is there a “look” you’d like to achieve? (e.g., rustic, swanky, playful, etc.)

Experienced commercial printers can work wonders with inks and substrates, providing you with dreamlike results (even with reality-based budgets).

By bringing your visual merchandising partner to the table while the dream is taking shape, they can zero in on the right substrates and inks that will get you that “Oh, wow!” impact every time.

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