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Differences in Signage Materials Explained

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Whether you’re outfitting an event venue or office location with directional (or wayfinding) signage, recognizing sponsors, or just promoting your event or company branding, there is definitely some type of signage on the market that can meet your needs. With so many vendors offering similar products and signage solutions, it can seem like a jungle out there, and even the most seasoned event professional can benefit from a guide. Just like with banner stands, there is guaranteed to be a sign (or signs) that aligns with your budget, desired quality, reusability/durability, size, and material. 

Nearly every material used for easel-based meeting signs comes in the standard sizes of 22”x28” and 24”x36” and can be cut into any custom size you may need. So without size limitations determining your sign selection, how do you know what sign is best for you? The short answer is it all comes down to the substrate or the materials your sign graphic is printed on. 

To determine which signage material suits your needs, it is best to understand what types of materials are common in the market and just exactly how a sign’s substrate can affect its quality, durability, and price. The first and most important question you’ll want to ask yourself when planning your project or event is whether or not you want your signs to be reused across multiple events or if you’re simply looking for something you can dispose of after the event is over. To help you navigate what sign is best for you, we’ve broken down the substrates or sign materials into disposable and reusable categories below. We’ll also dive into the pros and cons of each material to help you navigate what sign is best for you. 


Disposable Signs

If you’re trying to save some budget dollars, designing signs specifically to match your event’s theme, or simply trying to cut down on shipping costs, there’s no denying that one-time use signage has rightfully been a staple of the events industry for generations. Foam Core used to be the only option for meeting and event signs, and even with the best of care, reusing them was nearly impossible. However, over the past decade, alternative materials that boast other benefits have become available (think recyclable, slightly more durable, or just less likely to bow).  The lightweight materials typically used for one-time-use or disposable signage offer the benefits of low price points, extreme mobility, quick turnaround times, and saving on the cost of return shipping. 

However, this is largely where the benefits end. A lighter sign usually means a weaker sign, and one-time use signs are no exception. Damage in transit, creasing or cracking during onsite handling, crushed in corners, and breaking entirely if dropped are all common occurrences with one-time use signage. In addition to replacing that last-minute damaged disposable sign is a common occurrence I’m sure we’re all familiar with - calling a car and running out to the local sign shop hoping they are open the night before an event begins is the stress we all hope to avoid. 

The events industry and many companies (not to mention individuals) have been making pushes towards greener and more sustainable events. Since many of us have eliminated styrofoam in other aspects of our personal lives, it comes as little surprise that despite offering one of the lowest price points for signage, foam signs are becoming a less sought-after sign material in the events industry. Foam core can take up to 500 years to break down in a landfill, but the good news is that there are eco-friendly alternatives to foam available for a comparable cost. Let's dive into the specifics of each of the one-time use substrates below!

Foam core:  An industry standard for decades, this material consists of exactly what you’d think: a styrofoam interior with an outer paper layer. These signs are light, rigid, and typically digitally printed, meaning they are smudge and water-resistant. Foam is particularly susceptible to damage in transit, especially when you start getting to larger format signs like meter boards, and can fracture if dropped or knocked off an easel.  If you’re okay with sacrificing some durability, this can be a cheap, serviceable sign for temporary use.

Gatorfoam (Gator Board):  As you might infer from the name, Gatorfoam is similar to foam core in that it also has a styrofoam interior. Where Gatorfoam differs is in its outer layer, which instead of paper, is a wood-fiber veneer. This makes these particular types of signs significantly more durable than traditional foam boards, but that durability comes with a price, and these signs are often more expensive than their foam core counterparts and are significantly less popular. 

Wood Pulp:  This is a green alternative to traditional foam signage. These signs are typically made of a pressed pulpboard, often called Eco Board, made from pre-consumer material (meaning they're eco-friendly from the get-go) and can be recycled when they're done (so they won't sit in a landfill). These signs are slightly denser than foam, making them more durable and a great option for one-time use that is higher quality than its alternatives and a greener/more eco-friendly option than its foam-based counterparts.  


Reusable Signs

If your organization focuses on being green, offers environmental initiatives, or is looking to save some budget dollars over the lifetime of your event, reusable signs could be the perfect solution to your signage needs. The main difference between these reusable signs and their disposable counterparts we discussed earlier is the durability of the substrates or sign materials. Reusable signs tend to have a higher upfront cost or initial investment than disposable signs, but when this cost is split into many events or many years, it can cost substantially less per use than disposable materials. 

In terms of what makes reusable signs unique, it largely boils down to stamina. The best reusable materials are so durable you’ll only need to replace them when you rebrand. There’s something to be said for the peace of mind that comes from knowing your signs are going to arrive at the venue in great condition or that a wayward guest isn’t going to accidentally destroy your only breakout session sign. With all the stress that goes into planning a live event, having one less thing to worry about is sometimes a good enough reason in and of itself to choose the reusable route.

Since reusable signs are used across many events, their biggest benefit can also present the greatest design challenge. Instead of using meeting-specific branding or logos, most of these signs are designed with the organization or company logo so they can be used at any and all events.   

If you are a meeting or event planner who loves the idea of reusability but isn’t sure how to tie the event branding into your signage, you’ll love our Removable Sign Stickers! These can be applied to both the top and bottom of any reusable signs to change the look of your signs from event to event and even recognize sponsors. 

As we discussed in the disposable signs section, it is frequent that with increased durability comes increased weight. When it comes to larger sign size packages, most shipping carriers use dimensional weight rather than the actual weight, so the weight difference between a foam core or high-density plastic sign is negligible when it comes to shipping costs. If you’re responsible for putting the signs out or toting them around on-site, a wheeled carrying case or sign-carrying bag can greatly increase the mobility of multiple signs. 

All the reusable sign materials below share the same strengths and limitations as above, but each material offers its own unique set of features or benefits, so let’s dive in! 

Mid-Density Plastic:  A lightweight, 3 millimeters, aerated plastic is designed to be more lightweight than some of its higher density counterparts. The tradeoff for the decreased weight and increased mobility can often come at the cost of durability as it is not uncommon for these types of signs to break if they fall off an easel (don’t believe us? check out this sign drop test video). As these signs are known to break, they’re better suited for short-term use (several uses) rather than extended reuse. Still, they are a significantly more durable option for their price point when compared to the disposable, one-time-use alternatives.

High-Density Plastic:  A tried and true 6 millimeter PVC type material commonly used to produce some of the most durable reusable signage.  The durability here does come at the cost of weight, and even a standard 22” x 28” sign can weigh over 3lbs. Additionally, most printers cannot print directly on this type of plastic, so these signs use a labor-intensive 3-step mount and laminate process which causes the cost of these to be higher than some other reusable options. If you’re looking for an extremely rugged sign and are not deterred by the higher cost or increased weight, high-density plastic is a great option.

EDGE Material:  A proprietary impact-resistant thermoplastic that combines the strengths of both mid-density and high-density plastic. This material is as durable as the 6 millimeter PVC, but it weighs about the same as the 3 millimeter aerated plastic creating a nearly perfect reusable option. Unlike its 6 millimeter counterpart, this material can be directly printed on, reducing labor costs and decreasing the price of the sign. Not only is this substrate environmentally friendly because of its reusability, but it can be recycled when it is no longer in use or needed, reducing your events’ carbon footprint even further! 

Ultimately, the main differences between each reusable substrate can be simplified to just two characteristics: durability and price point. Cheaper reusable signs tend to be less durable and vice versa, so the substrate you choose can really be decided by what you’re hoping to prioritize when considering what’s important for your event. If you’re still unsure, take a look at our Drop Test Video, which can give you a better idea of how these signs may hold up when you’re onsite at a busy venue.


Accessories Abound

Sometimes planners may find themselves in a position where they’re settling for a sign substrate they don’t prefer simply because the budget dollars aren’t there to facilitate a more desirable material. An easy way to save money is by making your signs as versatile as possible so you can use them across multiple events and for various purposes around a single event. For example, when you’re able to use a sign to broadcast the lunch menu, then use the same sign later that day to direct attendees to a particular breakout event, you’ve effectively reduced the number of signs you needed by one. Imagine if you could do this multiple times!   

Our magnetic SMARTlens and stick-on directional arrows allow you to make your signs as dynamic as you can imagine! The SMARTlens® enables you to change out your own messages multiple times, and because it works with just regular printer paper, it's capable of handling any last-minute or on-site changes you may have. The directional arrow is repositionable, reusable, and can be used to direct attendees however and whenever you need. With the use of these accessories and depending on the size of your event, you may find that a single sign can carry you through your entire meeting!


So Many Options

Although there are many sign materials, price points, and options on the market, the selection process doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Just remember that choosing the best sign really starts with asking yourself just how long you want to use your signs and then choosing which of the available substrates works best for your particular needs. If you have questions or need help determining what material would best align with your budget and durability needs, contact one of our experts, we’d love to help! 

Zack Malpass
Written by Zack Malpass

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