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Vehicle Wrapping, Part II: Design and Preparation

A haphazard approach to designing for wraps and preparing the vehicle for application will result in disaster. Find out how the pros work.

By Jennifer LeClaire

Now that you’ve decided to take the plunge into vehicle wrapping you’ll need to understand how to effectively design for vehicles and how to prepare the substrate for installation.

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  • Design work for vehicle wrapping is much different than design work for flat graphics or banners or any other vinyl application, according to experts, and preparing vehicles for installation is critical to the appearance and life of the wrap.

    In part one of this series, we discussed the benefits of venturing into vehicle wrapping and the materials and tools you would need to jump aboard this skyrocketing trend. In this article we will look at the ins and outs of designing for wraps and how to best prepare the vehicle for installation.

    Knowing the vehicle
    Knowing the shape and size of the vehicle and all its nuances is a critical part of the design process; therefore, taking measurements before you do any design work is a must.

    “You really have to have a good handle on templates,” says Peter Bearth, director of Spectrum Media Group in Dallas, a division of J Perez Associates. “Templates are so key because positioning is critical. If you have to do a lot of reprints, then that could break your business.”

    Experts also recommend an auto library that contains vector images of cars, trucks and buses and a digital camera with which to take pictures. The goal is to know every inch of the vehicle. If you don’t take time to do this up front, then you could end up with text over a door handle. Even though you are wrapping a 2003 Dodge Caravan, for example, measurements are still important because there are slight differences that could cause major problems during installation.

    Designing for wraps
    “Designing for wraps is completely different than other types of design work,” says Manuel Vicnansky, president of DeSignCo in Miami. “It’s like any new media, you have to learn the media and you have to learn what is going to capture the attention of the people. It’s more than just putting graphics on a car.”

    Vicnansky suggests avoiding using too much text or colors. He says many people are using rainbows on cars and that causes the intended viewer to miss the message. In fact, making a bold statement is one of the biggest challenges in designing for wraps.

    “You have to keep it simple. You need a strong message. You only have a few seconds to get the message across as the car passes by,” says Vicnansky. “It’s a branding media; it’s not a message media. You just show the brand for recognition more than to run a brochure.”

    Keeping it simple
    Bearth says one of the biggest mistakes with wrap designs is going overboard with flashy graphics or trying to put a one-dimensional design on a three-dimensional vehicle.

    “Normally where your hood and your front bumper transition to the side of the car is challenging,” says Bearth. “You are basically laying down a flat design on the hood and a flat design on the side of the vehicles and if you have a wacky design, then they don’t transition well on either side of the hood and on either side of the trunk on the back.”

    Bearth recalls doing a big push for an Internet company’s new sports portal. The design consisted of hundreds of tennis balls to be installed on a Jeep CJ-7. But the one-dimensional design did not transition well on the three-dimensional vehicle.

    “The designer kept looking at the wrap and saying ‘That’s not what I wanted’,” says Bearth. “So we told him he would have to make adjustments to the design. When clients try to get too fancy, the trick is getting them to give you a solid color so that there are not lots of lines or matching up to do.”

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    As Bearth hinted, one key to success boils down to common sense: work closely with the client throughout the design process.

    Outsourcing the entire process
    If you don’t have the skill set to design the wrap in-house -- perhaps your core competencies are sales and installation -- then outsourcing could be an attractive alternative.

    In fact, says Art Wollenweber, president of Qube Visual, a Denver-based visual services company, you could even outsource the design work, the printing and the installation and basically act as a sales rep.

    “If the customer wants to deal with you and the price is fine, then go for it,” he says. “We give sign shops wholesale prices on turnkey work. That’s a good way for small sign shops to get into wrapping.”

    Preparing the vehicle for installation
    Once the design work is complete, the next step is preparing the vehicle for installation. Proper cleaning and preparation of the substrate prior to application is critical to the success of the wrap, according to Molly Waters, spokesperson for Avery’s technical marketing department, because if the vehicle is not thoroughly cleaned immediately prior to application, then the result could be adhesion loss.

    “You want to make sure to get all the dirt out of any contours and grooves,” says Waters. “Any dirt can effect how any of the film adheres to the substrate.”

    Most vinyl manufacturers recommend cleaning the vehicle with a commercial detergent and water. If grease, oil, wax or any other grime is present, then the substrate must be scrubbed with a solvent and wiped with a soft, lint-free cloth before it dries.

    Isophoryl alcohol is strong enough to clean away any left over impurities that could hinder the adhesive, but not so strong that it will damage the paint. Still, experts recommend testing the cleaning solvent on an inconspicuous area of the application surface first to check for potential damage.

    Allowing the vehicle to dry
    Experts say a common mistake during the preparation process is not allowing the vehicle to dry fully. It can take up to 24 hours for a vehicle to dry completely, especially in humid or cold atmospheres.

    “We emphasize the importance of surface preparation,” says 3M spokesperson Peter Cree. “One common mistake that is easy to understand but often overlooked is having the vehicle at the proper temperature for installation.”

    Cree says sign shops in the north are at somewhat of a disadvantage because vinyl films are typically more susceptible to failure in cold environments. “Even if the vehicle seems like it’s dry, if it’s cold and there’s moisture in the air, then it sticks to the surface of the vehicle and creates barriers to the performance of the film.”

    Considering paint and glass
    If you are applying film to a newly painted surface, Avery recommends following all drying and curing instructions provided by the paint manufacturer prior to surface preparation and film application. Avery also recommends the use of high quality exterior grade paints and OEM systems.

    You also need to prepare the glass if you are going to apply perforated vinyl to these areas. Like the vehicle itself, the glass should be perfectly clean. Avery recommends removing any stickers, paint or over-spray using a single razor blade scraper. Then spray the glass with cleaning solution, squeegee it dry using a soft rubber window squeegee and wipe the edges using lint-free paper towels.

    Once the vehicle is thoroughly cleaned and dried, then you can proceed with installing the wrap.

    Check out part three of this series for practical tips and tricks to help you install and remove vehicle wraps like the pros.

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