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Moving Away from Vinyl Substrates: A Conversation with Pete Kouchis

As expectations rise, graphic imagers and installers are seeking out new ways to stay competitive in the marketplace.

By Lia Milgram, Industry Author

For a growing segment of the installation industry, this means an alternative to the traditional pressure-sensitive vinyl media.

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  • Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is among the most common, and for years has been the industry standard media for window and commercial-grade wall graphics, but it's not without problems. Its production requires harsh, harmful chemicals, while more still (e.g., phthalates, lead and tin) are released through the product's lifecycle. All this for a medium that is inherently limiting.

    Now, the SGIA community is searching for something different: They're looking for more versatile media that can meet the functional and aesthetic needs of the client. But that's not their only concern. New media comes with new challenges that encompass the design, printing, and installation processes all.

    Such new challenges require the advice and guidance of an expert, and that's why we took the time recently to chat with Pete Kouchis, president of the PDAA Master Certified installation company VisuCom Signs and Graphics, about the whys, whats and hows of the specialty graphic imaging industry's shift away from vinyl.

    Lia Milgram: So as the industry makes strides away from vinyl substrates, you'll find designers and installers are opting instead to outfit their wall and window graphic designs in alternative media; I guess my question is, why now?

    Pete Kouchis: The door has been opened. All these new buildings going up; they all want to be LEED certified. Everyone wants to be eco-rated. And vinyl films prohibit that; they contain offensive chemicals, and vinyl sits in the landfills forever and ever and ever.

    A lot of the non-PVC wall coverings can be used in conjunction with latex as an alternative to solvent inks. And so now people are like, "Okay I've gotten the nastiness out of my inks, but we still have this substrate that we're printing on that still isn't working with this whole eco-friendly thing."

    We're seeing a lot of this push toward being earth-friendly.

    LM: There seems to be a growing demand for high-quality, durable, attractive applied graphics; what do you think is the reason for this?

    PK: We'll see [requests for window graphics] a lot in the high rises in downtown Chicago especially. [These corporations] will take two or three floors of a building for their offices, and when they do the build out someone decides they want floor to ceiling glass. They love the look.

    It's open. It's clean. It's airy... And it doesn't take long before they realize the downside. It's like they're fish in a fishbowl. No privacy. Imagine a board meeting in a conference room where you have a lot of sensitive information on display on slides, or on whiteboards; people are walking by and they're seeing things they shouldn't be privy to.

    We've even run into this in some of the health clubs and the yoga studios for example: we'll do the build out, put up all of their graphics and branding and room ID signage. And three or four months later they'll call us back and say, "Hey we're seeing an inordinate number of guys hanging out outside the yoga studios and we need to address that."

    LM: Typically a request such as that would be met with an etched-look vinyl film, but SGIA Journal readers are interested in alternative substrates to meet their clients' functional needs in a manner that is aesthetically pleasing while also maybe a little more eco-conscious; what are those alternatives?

    PK: A popular option right now is polyester films(1) like those available from Lintec, which can be digitally printed. The material itself is optically clear so once it's installed properly, you're not aware there's a film there. Vinyl is not as optically clear, so there's a little bit of distortion. But polyester films are as crystal clear and non-distorting as the glass it's applied to.

    Then there are adhesive backed fabrics, such as the Photo Tex line of removable media. You can find fabric adhesive graphic substrates in a cotton canvas type, or a nylon, or a woven polyester. They come with varying types of adhesives depending on the end use: Some are highly removable; some are more permanent and aggressive, and these might lend themselves to the low VOC paints giving adhesion problems to vinyl films.

    LM: What are the distinct advantages of using a fabric-based graphic media?

    PK: You're saving a ton on shipping because the adhesive-backed fabric graphics can be folded and shipped in a small mailing box as opposed to giant six-foot long tubes with a lot of weight. And a lot of waste.

    When you're done installing vinyl, there's a whole pile of liner, and all that packing material and there's a big ecology concern with the silicone-coated liners.

    Fabrics offer a different finish altogether, looking more like a wallpaper than a vinyl, but as an added benefit, fabric doesn't shrink like vinyl. A typical wall vinyl is calendered film and will shrink over time. So, if you install a vinyl window graphic with a butt seam to avoid overlap, that's going to shrink over time and will leave a gap. And that's certainly objectionable.

    With these fabric alternatives, you can install a butt seam with a double cut like wallpaper and have it flush - and it will stay there.

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    LM: How is installation of an alternative substrate markedly different than installing vinyl? Or is it?

    PK: It's definitely different, in tools and techniques. The fabrics can be installed with the same four-inch plastic squeegee used on vinyl, but there are other installation tools that make that process much more efficient, therefore faster and maybe more profitable.

    Where you can persuade vinyl to move a little bit one way or the other: If you see the second panel creeping away from your first, you can change the direction of your squeegee stroke and steer it back. You can stretch and shrink and do things to make minor adjustments to make your registration from panel to panel perfect. With fabrics and the polyesters, there's no stretch. There's no conforming. There's no give. You have to be dead on right out of the box. You can't adjust for it as you're going down. So that takes a little more practice.

    We tend to strip off the whole liner on the back of fabric films as opposed to maybe exposing a couple feet of adhesive at a time with vinyl. Only because you can't steer it. You have to tack that whole panel right in place, and then go back and squeegee. Same with the polyesters.

    Whether it's an application fluid like Rapid Tac or mild soap water in a small low concentration to lubricate the film, proper lubrication gives the air an easy way out, and enables the installer to slide the film around on the glass before tacking it down.

    And the better squeegees themselves are more the type of tools that window tinters use. It's made of a hard rubber, with a wider, bigger handle you can grab with two hands and put a lot of pressure on. You have to be sure you can evacuate all the fluid from underneath and get that thing down bone dry. It's going up wet against the glass, but you have to get that wet out of there.

    LM: How are the design and printing processes affected?

    PK: With the introduction of UV printing, designers are offered a new ability to get into printed background [as opposed to the traditional etched/frosted crystals] - whether it's step and repeat patterns - or a full graphic image or a gradient blend, there are a lot of options now, graphically and visually.

    When printing on optically clear films that go on glass, the designer has to decide if they are concerned with the backside of the glass. Because these inks are transparent, you're going to see through it. Unless you lay down ink and then white you're going see through it. If you have a lot of text on one side, it could happen that everything is mirrored on the backside. Is that important or not important? The designer has to decide.

    LM: Was this not a concern when printing on vinyl?

    PK: Well my thought with the vinyl is the majority of what was used in the field was white. Now you have clear films. And they're designed in such a way that nothing looks backwards, but in order to make this happen they have to be careful, using a relatively new process, print color- white-color.

    LM: Describe that printing process: color-white-color.

    PK: So you lay down the first layer of the colored image, and then you lay down a layer of white ink. Then you lay down the image again, on top of that. You have two showings on one piece of media separated by a layer of white ink. It has pop and now it has opacity, so you're not looking through the image. It goes back to the look of vinyl. Now you have one image on clear showing through to side A and the other image on white showing back to side B.

    LM: When it comes to installing fabric-based window films, are there are more of this type of environmental consideration that has to be undertaken?

    PK: You don't necessarily have the protection of a laminate. Let's say you're working on a piece of glass below a drop ceiling and a little piece of grit falls down onto your wet product and it drags across; now have unprotected ink that could get scratched or scuffed. Installers need to be a little more cautious and careful of their surroundings; to keep a clean workplace and take steps to anticipate the areas where dirt might fall and protect against that.

    UV inks offer quite a high durability, more so than an unlaminated latex, and this is why wall coverings in retail environments oftentimes are UV printed, because it takes a little bit more of a beating than the latex and solvent inks do. But you have to educate the client at the end of the install on the cleaning process.

    If you're installing floor to ceiling films as a distraction or to obscure a view, you need to make sure the cleaning crew isn't coming through at night and spraying ammoniated Windex or something that might attack that graphic. These graphic films need to be cleaned with kid gloves and not aggressive chemicals or tools.

    LM: So what I'm understanding is the substrate alternatives to vinyl offer more diverse design opportunity; are generally more eco friendly, more receptive to more eco friendly inks, but are somewhat less forgiving when it comes to installation and upkeep.

    PK: That's fair. That's fair.

    (1) Note Kouchis went on to say polyester films are not necessarily more eco-conscious than vinyl films, but are referenced in terms of a somewhat more visually appealing option.

    Lia Milgram is an editor and a writer.

    This article appeared in the SGIA Journal, September / October 2017 Issue and is reprinted with permission. Copyright 2018 Specialty Graphic Imaging Association ( All Rights Reserved.

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