Fabric Display Graphics - The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Over the past several years, the display graphics industry has fallen in love with fabric. When you consider the qualities of fabric display graphics, it's easy to see why they would be popular for a wide range of applications. Dye sublimated graphics generally offer vibrant color that becomes part of the fabric itself, making them very durable and beautiful. Dye sublimation inks are available for printing on many different types of fabrics, but for the display industry, inks that print on polyester are the standard, which makes sense because of the incredible range of weights, weaves, textures and finishes that polyester offers. If you've shopped for a trade show display in past 2-3 years, you've almost certainly looked at fabric displays as every manufacturer has been pushing them, and new models and styles are constantly being released. If you listened to the industry, you would be under the impression that fabric graphics are the best option for virtually any display, and that a fabric display is the best choice for every need. Unfortunately, like most industries, what sales people want you to believe and what's actually true are not often the same thing. The best example of this is how dye sublimated fabric graphics are often referred to as wrinkle proof. Certainly, dye sub graphics are more wrinkle resistant than any other type of graphic, but it's funny to watch a salesman demonstrate how wrinkle proof a fabric is by wadding it up and then showing the resulting wrinkled graphic like a magician that has just pulled a rabbit out of his hat. The look on their face is a little perplexed when the wrinkles in the fabric are pointed out, as if no one had noticed before that the emperor had no clothes. The fact that fabric wrinkles shouldn't be a surprise to anyone, nor should it prevent anyone from purchasing a fabric graphic, since unlike other materials, the wrinkles can be steamed or ironed out, but it's important to know that in advance in order to be prepared for that step when setting up a display.

The reason fabric displays are being pushed to consumers is that dye sublimated graphics are seen as a premium priced graphic option, with much larger profit margins than standard graphics. Because of this, display manufacturers have decided to get into the printing business by offering overpriced fabric graphics, and they push fabric displays so they can sell the pricey graphics to go with them. Because printing and finishing fabric graphics is more involved and requires special equipment, usually the expensive kind, there are fewer companies producing fabric graphics in-house, and therefore less competition to drive down prices. This doesn't make fabric graphics bad, but it can make them wildly overpriced, so it's important to know when they make sense, and when a different option is the better choice.

Fusion Fabric Graphic Display
Where fabric graphics really shine are when stretch fabric graphics are used, usually with zippers in a pillowcase style. Displays that are designed for these kinds of stretch fabric graphics are typically made of aluminum tube frames that are lightweight and easy to assemble. The frames can have interesting shapes and when the stretch fabric graphics are pulled over the frame, the resulting display is eye catching and beautiful, and could only be created using this type of technology. A good example of this type of display is the Formulate Vertical Curve Wall. This display has a curved shape that would be possible with other technologies, but it wouldn't be easy and it wouldn't be seamless, so that's why dye sublimated stretch fabric is used. More elaborate displays, like the Formulate Fusion 20' Island trade show display could only be created with stretch fabric graphics.


Even some simple displays like the Cobra Tension Fabric Banner Stands could only be made with stretch fabric, and because the unique shape is something unusual, it's very eye catching. That's where fabric display graphics are best, because getting the attention of potential customers is what a trade show is all about. And, because pillowcase graphics stretch tightly over a frame, any wrinkles in the fabric are usually pulled smooth so steaming may not be necessary.

In some other cases, there is some advantage to fabric graphics, but these are not displays that couldn't be made with traditional graphics. Customers like the HopUp Tension Fabric Displays because they are extremely easy to set up. In this case, the stretch fabric attaches to the frame with velcro, and the pop up style frame folds down with the fabric still attached. To set up the Hopup, you simply expand the frame with the graphic attached and you're done. In this case, the stretch fabric doesn't typically pull tight enough to remove all the wrinkles in the fabric, so for the best look, some steaming is probably going to be necessary. Traditional pop up displays only take about 10 minutes to set up, but there are several steps to go through, the graphics can be damaged if they aren't handled properly, and it takes some adjustment to get the panels aligned properly. For some customers, dealing with a few wrinkles is a fair trade off for the extra work involved with a traditional pop up, but there are definite advantages to the traditional style display as well so it's really a matter of personal preference in this case.


Similarly, the Formulate Horizontal Curve or Formulate Straight Wall offer shapes that are available in pop up displays, but with small differences like rounded corners that could only be done with fabric. The light weight, seamless look and lower cost are the typical reasons for choosing this style of display over a pop up, rather than because the shape of the display couldn't be created otherwise.

Some of the newer displays are rectangular aluminum frames that have a channel where fabric graphics with a silicone edging sewn into the perimeter are inserted. The silicon edge graphics, or push fit graphics, as they are sometimes called, have very little advantage over traditional graphics in terms of how they look once installed, but they do have the light weight, durable nature that dye sublimated graphics are famous for. It's also possible to make a 10' display with a single graphics without seams, which can't be done with a pop up display. When these rectangular frame sections are combined together to form larger displays with right angles, they can be very interesting and attractive. We'll be adding some of this style to our site very soon because there are good reasons to use such a display. This style of display can also be backlit with LED edge lighting, which is a great idea for both trade show displays and retail displays, because illuminated graphics are always effective at drawing attention, and this would be difficult to do any other way. However, there are quite a few displays available that are simply a single, rectangular frame with feet that allow it to stand up, and we see no point to these displays at all. The same look could be achieved with a banner stand that would cost less money, take less time to set up and take down, and be more stable. Other than some backlit configurations, we have no plans to offer this kind of display, even though they can be seen everywhere at the moment.

Similarly, we have no plans to offer dye sublimated prints for retractable banner stands. We think they're a terrible idea in general and cannot understand why other companies even offer them. None of the benefits of dye sublimated graphics are an advantage in a roll up banner stand. Dye sub fabric graphics must be hemmed to prevent fraying, or have the cut edge melted with a hot knife. The melted edge is not particularly attractive, and isn't 100% reliable in preventing fraying, and the hemmed edges look bad and can cause wrinkles when the banner is retracted. Hems can even prevent the display from rolling up properly, so they are a terrible idea. Dye sub fabrics are not typically opaque, which is a important, although not critical, so that light from behind doesn't cast visible shadows on the front of the banner. Direct printed fabrics tend to be stiffer and don't drape nicely like dye sublimated fabrics, but in a banner stand, they are ideal since the stiffness keeps them flatter and the drape-ability of the fabric isn't important. They also tend to be less expensive, which is why we offer an opaque, direct printed fabric option with most of our banner stands.

The bottom line is that fabric display graphics can be an excellent option, but like any graphic, they should only be used when they are the best choice for a particular need. Choosing a fabric display because it's the latest style, or because it's being pushed by a manufacturer or salesman who is more concerned about how much they are profiting on the sale and less about what's best for your needs, is never a good idea.


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