I Saw the Sign

‘Cars are the sculptures of our everyday lives.’ –Chris Bangle, automobile designer

I see “signs” every single day. Seriously, I see them everywhere. And I’m not talking about signs from the universe or in a spiritual sense, but signs that are posted and plastered at every corner of our physical space – often vying for my unbridled attention. I don’t actively look for them. But there’s no avoiding the wealth of vivid messages, symbols, numbers, letters, colors, and drawings that I’m getting – consciously or not – through many incarnations in the form of metal, wood, plastic, fabric, and our favorite material from this raw batch: vinyl graphics. In other words, it’s a full-frontal, graphic display of information that has been placed on a series of objects or substrates with the intent of exposing themselves to as many viewers as possible, whether you like it or not.

There’s no need to cover up the fact that there’s an increasing demand for our wrap services – they’re being secured each day by customers in many unique fields. With its own thriving international market, the automotive sector has consistently provided us with a blank canvas on wheels to transform vehicles into works of art or simply moving billboard advertisements. I have no real interest in fixing, restoring, or collecting cars, but I do have a vested excitement in watching them shed their painted exterior in lieu of a new look or identity via a body wrap. With everyone wrapping just about anything they can get their hands on these days (check out #wrapeverything), I truly hope that we never lose sight of one fact: that it all probably started with a car. I believe our line of work has gained its reputation, notoriety, and popularity based on its association with vehicle wraps.

Fleet Vs. Custom Wraps

About a month into my job as a graphic installer, I had concluded that the bulk of vinyl wraps were reserved for all types of vehicles from the vast and lucrative fleet/commercial community. This is why the automotive arena, including modern modifications like electric and autonomous units, was such a key factor in the overall success of our much-heralded medium. Before the social media revolution, I never knew that the custom side of the business existed nor was I even remotely interested in executing wraps in an area where I had no formal training or experience. I was already too busy learning every facet – as well as the many pitfalls – of the fleet branding side to even take notice. 

Eventually, I redirected my own company’s narrative, a move that I’ve tried to perfect throughout a decade-plus career, to accommodate both the ever-changing fleet and custom markets. It’s a move that would furnish us with a steady stream of additional assignments that I never thought to explore. These new assignments provided us with an unexpected twist in profitability and a seat at the table among our peers on the wrap scene. Although the fleet and custom areas are similar in technique, style, and execution, they produce different results for our clients and are often categorized as separate disciplines by wrap professionals. And when they are jointly produced together upon a customer’s request, I find the emergence of a hybrid-like unit that incorporates the very fine characteristics and details of two worlds. 

First and foremost, it’s no secret that I’m a proud fleet wrapper at Icon Image Graphics. It’s where my story began. An ending has yet to be written, but there have definitely been invaluable lessons and experiences in between. This middle section is the most compelling aspect of my story because it’s brimming with so many field and shop experiences that no one in the wrap community nor a distinguished business guru could ever teach or show me. It’s also taught me three principles to live by that I’ve applied to my professional life: adapt, reinvent, and explore. They’re the building blocks that have successfully shaped my business model, including a strong foundation for my company’s fleet division.

Break It Down

So what exactly are fleet or commercial wraps? They’re typically vinyl vehicle wraps that are extensions of retail installations used to promote the brand name of a corporate entity. Brands such as Nike, DirecTV, and Target have vehicles in the form of pickups, sedans, vans, transits, trailers, and box trucks, either owned or leased by a company, that are used for delivering their goods or commuting to a client’s location. In hopes of scoring a marketing campaign that will click with the public, brands are willing to spend their hard-earned dollars on a short- or long-term conversion or program. The complexity and strict deadlines of fleet graphics today have placed a huge amount of pressure on my company in our neverending quest to reduce operation costs, maintain a daily output of units, and adapt quickly to potential problems that may arise. And I never want to succumb to low-quality vehicle wraps when speed becomes an issue, should we fall behind. This issue will surely affect your reputation in the industry and cost you a customer or program if you do not proceed with caution. 

By professional standards, the custom discipline is often defined as the pinnacle of highly advanced work in the art of wrapping. It requires a lengthy period of time to master, including the development of the installer’s signature style. Custom doesn’t only apply to luxury cars or souped-up vehicles; its broad range of modified appearances can be seen on drums, coffins, washing machines, vapes, keyboards, tables, etc. The look of these objects as a whole is largely your responsibility, and it can be as interesting as your imagination and ingenuity will allow. Furthermore, custom is not just reserved for cosmetic purposes. With paint’s messy streaks and sheens that aren’t fully blended, the wraps of today have been engineered to compete against its biggest known rival. 

Similar to the installation techniques that are required for fleet wraps, there’s very little room for errors, and a seamless effect is mandatory for custom wraps. Your panel seams are not noticeable or visible on a wrapped unit. The detail work also becomes magnified around corners, edges, door jambs, etc. with close attention being paid to panel alignments of a custom digital print. [Editor’s Note: Check out our Born to Wrap Workshop recap for more vehicle wrapping tips.] Instead of coming from a single creative viewpoint, my advice is to approach custom subjects from a multitude of viewpoints. I’ve learned that even unflattering choices and angles could contribute in representing the subject in a dynamic or even larger context. It’s always a risk when you choose to infuse big ideas with experimentation into your design aesthetic. Your choices, deliberate or not, could very well redefine the scope and landscape of vinyl wraps. 

Offer Both

For the applied wrap practitioner, the purpose of our work has become paramount and essential to niche fields by possibly bringing some untapped opportunities to your shop. These deals may appear small or insignificant at first, but they can amount to bigger and recurring assignments in the near future. Moreover, it affords you the chance to build new customer relationships that may yield some ambitious installations to diversify your portfolio. What strictly began as a journey into fleet projects morphed into many notable experiences that were similar in themes, techniques, guidelines, and areas, but still had our personal imprint: custom, followed by retail, and then architectural, and so forth. If one of our projects had been catapulted to viral fame or went through several reincarnations as a rebrand each time, it only validated what I had predicted: a genre-blending practice between all types of wraps and its application that have become increasingly normal to the scene. This practice is further indication that these new and stunning combinations, or hybrids, have contributed to a noticeable, if not considerable amount of attention, innovation, and revenue with our chameleon-like craft. 

Vinyl graphics are a fundamental part of our everyday lives; its ongoing saga will likely feature more untold tales of how much further we will take the discipline. And how many of us will rewrite our own narratives (and rules of the game) to tell a different story with the next evolution of vinyl wraps that will hit the marketplace? The industry has skyrocketed to global consciousness as a preferred, if not cost-effective, choice to get your message to the masses by its unparalleled technology. Chances are, you’ve already spotted some of those “signs” and have chosen a route – or perhaps a detour – to a rewarding path, and in some cases, a sharp turn for the better. I guess the universe was probably trying to show us something after all. We just needed to pay more attention.

View more from this Big Picture issue