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Spaceship Earth

(May 2011) posted on Mon Mar 28, 2011

Banner Creations specializes in Earth Balloons, utilizes Mimaki JV-4 dye-sub printer.

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By Paula Yoho

When David Knutson first dreamed up the idea of a portable, inflatable classroom shaped like the Earth, in which children could learn about their world from the inside, out – literally – he spent more than 500 painstaking hours hand-painting the artwork for the 22-foot-tall balloons.

His company has come a long way from those early days in the basement of his home, selling more than 70 balloons to schools and nonprofit organizations since the mid-1990s. The balloons themselves have evolved, too. Today, his Earth Balloons ( are decidedly more high-tech, trading freehand drawing and painting for NASA satellite imagery. And Knutson has outsourced printing of the balloons to Minneapolis-based Banner Creations. But while the production process has come into the 21st century, it hasn’t become much less time-consuming.

The team at Banner Creations  is no stranger to printing on fabric, or even to creating larger-than-life balloons. In addition to other balloon projects for different clients, they’ve worked with Knutson for several years to perfect the Earth Balloon, and in the process have created more than 60 inflatable globes, ranging in size from 19- to 22-feet tall and up to 69-feet in circumference.

It all starts with high-resolution images of planet Earth taken with NASA satellites. Each balloon comprises 24 unique image files, which arrive at Banner Creations manipulated in a “gore” shape – narrow and pointed at the top and bottom and wide in the middle – so they can eventually be stitched together to create a sphere.

“With 24 panels, you get a really round shape,” explains Banner Creations production manager Bob Mahoney. “The fewer panels you have, the less of a circle it’s going to be.”

The level of detail provided by the satellite images makes for a crisp and realistic image of the Earth. “Those start off as really big files, about a gigabyte a piece, and we have to change them all to raster files, which decreases their size to about 25 percent of the original size so we can work with them,” says Mahoney. “Then we have to go back into each of the 24 files and add [in Photoshop] latitude lines for the Equator, the Tropic of Cancer, and the Tropic of Capricorn.”