Making a Difference and Making a Profit
How the pandemic is creating a need for wide-format suppliers to offer solutions, and how that can be profitable for business.
“Architects everywhere have recognized the need of… a tool, which may be put in the hands of creators of form with the simple aim… of making the bad difficult and the good easy.”
– Le Corbusier, modernist architect
Throughout history, architects and space planners have often considered the maladies of society and have designed to remedy “the bad” and make easy “the good.” Today, the coronavirus pandemic represents what must be considered by space planners around the world. They’re tasked with creating spaces that will minimize the likelihood of infection, yet make them functional and appealing to the human spirit, and still allow the wheels of industry to turn.
Le Corbusier himself was profoundly involved in designing spaces for the treatment of tuberculosis, which immensely informed many of his other projects. Whether you appreciate his designs or not, many of his spaces were created with disease in mind. The form of many of his structures was a result of the scourge of tuberculosis at the turn of the 20th century. Other architects, interior designers, and space planners have addressed disease also, like cholera and influenza, through the creative design of the spaces in which we work, shop, and educate. It is with all this in mind that wide-format suppliers can, and should, be participating in solutions to mitigate the effects of SARS CoV-2 on our world.
Many designers and space planners are thinking of this in two to three phases. As the world hastily responded to the threat of COVID-19 back in March and April, Phase-1 was implemented. We’ve seen Phase-1 in many locations in the form of quickly installed clear “sneeze guards,” 11 by 17 posters taped to windows, often with just a handwritten note and graphic, and generic, design-off-the-shelf floor graphics. Phases-2 and -3 in the coming months will see more sophisticated design, materials, and implementation. The timing is now perfect for wide-format shops to enter these arenas and be a part of profitable and effective solutions toward the return to a safe and operable world.
More Than a Printer
It’s tempting for those of us in the wide-format industry to think: “We are just printers. We put ink on substrates, cut it, and then ship it. We can’t participate in any meaningful solutions.” But we can, and we should. The world needs us to participate and be smart about creating results. And, in doing so, we can also create profitable opportunities for ourselves.
Already, some wide-format shops with dye-sublimation printing and CNC cutting have helped by creating functional masks and face shields. But as retail, corporation, and educational space planners draw up the future of those spaces they’re considering and redesigning a “new normal.” And wide-format printers and fabricators should be at that design and conception table, participating with those architects, interior and graphic designers, retail space planners, retail merchandising managers, corporate real estate and facilities managers, and institutions of education.
If you’re a wide-format shop that has traditionally not worked with those industries, consider that now may be the time for you to step up and help your community by offering helpful ideas that would also enter you into a profitable venture.
Much is already being discussed and published by trade journals, analysts, and researchers about retail, corporate workspace, and educational segments of society. They’re already shifting and allocating budgets and planning for the future redesign of those spaces. With some continuing education on those industries, the comprehensive wide-format supplier can not only participate in those solutions, but can easily expand their wide format capabilities and business with a little bit of study and preparation.
Many of the publications I’ve read and web conferences I’ve attended in the past three to four months are laying out concepts and guidelines by which to consider the upcoming redesign and layout of those spaces. As an example, the “open workspace,” popularized many years ago and used prominently today, was implemented within corporations and offices to facilitate collaboration, speedy and efficient communication, and problem solving. But many space planners now see it as a problem to solve, and at least revise, due to a better understanding of droplets, aerosolization, and the travel of disease through the air. Floor plans, desk layouts, dividing screens, and panels are already emerging as likely long-term fixes.
It’s tempting to think a vaccine will detour and pause these redesign efforts, but that’s not too likely. The world has awoken to a new reality, a “new normal.” Even if a vaccine is developed, there’s concern for how well the vaccine will work, other future pandemics, and/or mutation of current viruses. It’s in this paradigm that space planners are beginning to design and in which wide-format suppliers can participate. Based on more than 25 years of experience, here are some common architectural and space planning considerations that are under development worldwide for the retail, corporate, and educational environments your wide-format shop can address. If you’re interested in pursuing this type of business, you should continually follow developments so as to speak most intelligently about the developing science and space planning concepts and needs.
- Learn the nomenclature and concepts being developed by architects, interior designers, retailers, and facilities managers. Learn to read their blueprints, elevations, and plans. Trade journals and webinars within those industries are a good resource for current thinking and information. Informal interviews about how those designers are thinking about future spaces can also yield valuable information and further a meaningful dialogue
- Many solutions currently being designed include printed and colorful crowd control panels and screens that direct foot traffic through spaces to minimize the likelihood of people infecting each other. Examples include one-way aisles indicated by floor graphics and ceiling danglers; hallways divided by printed panels and screens; divided elevator bays using clear and/or printed panels; elevator queuing areas delineated with freestanding panels directing the flow of foot traffic; store entrances with waiting areas for “shop-by-appointment;” curbside BOPIS and BORIS (buy-online-pickup-in-store, buy-online-return-in-store) kiosks; and corporate lobby entrances directing the flow of people through the use of a variety of similar graphics. How those panels react to gravity, high traffic, cleaning, and disinfecting will be important to understand. Common panel solutions already in high demand are clear acrylic, polycarbonate, PETG, and similar. How those panels respond when standing vs. hanging should be a part of any consultation to your clients. How your ink might adhere to any of those panels should be tested for scratching, cleaning, and disinfectant solutions, as well.
- Learn how to solve for gravity. Standing a panel versus hanging a panel will usually require an entirely different understanding of the properties of the material being proposed and the structure that will support those panels. If panels are hung from the ceiling to divide a hallway or to direct elevator queuing then the ceiling should be evaluated for the weight it will need to support once the panels are hung. Similarly, if the panels are going to stand upright then the physical characteristics of that material will need to be considered to prevent warping and bowing, stumbling hazards, and similar issues. Frames or extrusions may need to be employed to capture the edges of those panels and, if so, how those materials are cut, drilled, and assembled will be important to test and understand.
- Inform yourself on wall and ceiling construction. Common ideas include: how much weight a wall or ceiling will hold or how to anchor – for example, decorative panels to a variety of wall types like drywall, concrete, wood, etc. Learn about what primers, sealers, and paints are optimal for digitally printed wallcoverings or other adhesive-backed materials. Understand the variety of wall anchors, VHB tapes, adhesives, cleats, and the like.
- Become familiar with the variety of architectural surfaces and how your graphics might be applied to those surfaces. Those surfaces and their properties include a myriad of primers and paints (drywall primer, pre-wallcovering sealer, flat, eggshell, semi-gloss, gloss; oil vs latex; VOC or low-VOC odor in a public space; and drying vs curing times); metals (stainless steel, cold and hot rolled steel, coated and uncoated aluminum); plastic laminates; glass doors; exterior windows; conference room partitions; etc.).
- Antimicrobial coatings: A number of antimicrobial laminates and liquid coatings to be employed by the graphics industry have emerged. Some are merely disinfectants, but others claim to provide long-term protection of some, but not necessarily all, microbes. If you undertake such a service you should study it well and be certain you’re making truthful statements about what your product and service can do. Bacteria, virus, mold, mildew, fungus, and algae are all considered microbes. A solution might legally state it’s “antimicrobial” simply because it disrupts one of those microbes. Wide-format customers, however, will likely be most interested in whether the antimicrobial you’re using on your graphics and panels will disrupt or “kill” the SARS CoV-2 virus, and they will be less interested in an antimicrobial product that only disrupts, say, mold or mildew. In addition to these coatings, and similar in nature, will be suitable cleaning agents and disinfectants any client may want to use. Advising on proper cleaning methods will be helpful and beneficial to the long life of any graphics and panels you may be producing.
- Part of Congress’ CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) includes monies for higher education institutions through HEERF (Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund). Understanding which institutions in your area may have those monies to spend on mitigating risk to students and professors can direct an intelligent consultation and sales effort. This could include everything from floor and window graphics with COVID-19 messaging and protocols to decoratively printed panels around study cubicles and panels that divide hallways into one-way walkways.
- Create spaces that are not only safer but also “feel safe.” A space that is safe but doesn’t address the psychology of anxiety about people in those spaces is only partly solved. Common solutions: cheerful colors, large scenes of nature, smiling faces, humor, music. While this is more of a “design consideration” not often made by a wide-format shop, simply being able to offer ideas or communicate familiarity centered on those notions can make you a valued consultant when sitting at the design table with your client.
- Consider temperatures, humidity, and moisture that might affect the various graphics and panels you might provide, including on the actual day of installation. A graphic panel at the height of summer in Arizona will react quite differently than a graphic panel in the middle of winter in Alaska.
- Learn to print on a broad variety of materials and develop means of fabrication suitable to the task at hand. Many architects and interiors planners will want to pursue LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) qualifying or environmentally sustainable materials. LEED may be a requirement on any given project. Understanding LEED and the parameters surrounding those initiatives will make you a well-informed and valuable graphic consultant. In addition to designing environmentally responsible spaces, some projects will require that materials being used have Flame Spread and Smoke Developed certification. This is not difficult, but you want to have that certification on file and understand which materials qualify.
Hopefully these ideas will put you on a good foot going forward. In my experience, developing expertise of this sort elevates you and your company and makes you a valued service provider. And, because it takes a little more effort, it can lead to a fair amount of this sort of business as well as some of the easier, more traditional wide-format projects.
Stan Lucas is currently serving as business development manager for the Wide Format Department of DCG One, a large commercial printer in Seattle. He is having great success (and a bit of fun) introducing wide-format concepts, technologies, and methodologies into the world of offset printing. Lucas has 25-plus years of experience in wide-format print and fabrication including photo, screen print, and a broad variety of digital production technologies. He is a Big Picture Editorial Advisory Board member. Feel free to reach out to Lucas for consultation on any of the above topics at firstname.lastname@example.org.