Friday 14 July 2023

Illuminated signage! Who cares?

Reflections on my years in the outdoor media sector

Today, it's about those signs you see propping up the end of bus shelters; you know, the ones you probably lean on while waiting for the ubiquitous three buses, or while eating your chips on a Friday night. Some enterprising souls might nick the large posters. Others might attempt to break the glazing, not realising it is, well gooey PET plastic. They only use glass in posh suburbs.  

Maktab, history written

I spent the best part of 12 years from the year 2000 working in the outdoor media sector. At the time, I was studying for a PhD in physics education. A client of a friend let it be known that they were hiring for technical roles in an R&D start up. I got the job before my first exhale. I often wonder why though - my boss was profoundly deaf so he might have misheard when I said I was in the field of 'physics education'. 

Anyway, quirk of fate, within a week I was the resident 'optical physicist', my remit to improve the optical quality of existing illuminated signs, including getting rid of those nasty stripes of the fluorescent lamps you see through posters. We were an unusual company as we were trying to make improvements to optics and energy efficiency, well before any of that sort of thing was fashionable. 

Now, as a bit of background, UK outdoor media used to be a unique and in some respects a Wild West business. Charging clients to advertise their images in prime locations in illuminated units can win big bucks, but also lose them. A landmark case where a 48-sheet unit in Elephant and Castle, London, failed to illuminate, caused the media company to suffer a £100,000 fine. There are big players; there are little ones who would circumvent Planning, do a deal with corner shops to use their electric, running it under the pavement to their illegal monstrosities - only to move them down the road when the Planners caught on. 

As developers and suppliers of units, components and technology, we sought to get in the market - the legitimate part anyway. Media companies historically have always wanted cheap - they can typically reap back the cost of a unit in weeks from advertising revenue. Probably something to do with the modest habits of shareholders. So not only did we need to provide innovative solutions to problems they might not know about yet, we had to productionise them very efficiently. 

No pressure for a newly appointed physics-education-optical-physicist then. 

Some early wins

I immediately set to work with my slide rule and 486 computer. First I invented and designed a Fresnel-type lens to go over fluorescent lamps. I had the design modelled by Cambridge consultant and author of THE book on optical engineering, John Blackwell, a thoroughly lovely chap. Not your usual all-weather fluorescent cover - the facets really stretched the limits of what was possible with plastic extrusions. Anyway, with a few tweaks recommended by John B, we committed to tooling. The lens did kind of make the lamps disappear, and one major media company was interested ish. 

My next invention was the breakthrough. To get rid of lamp striping, people would traditionally just paint some dark dots on the opal diffuser you hang your poster on, in the region near the lamps. However, this would usually half the illuminance of the sign, not very desirable. Another method was to edge light the sign, but again these units were not very bright, a lot of light would be wasted. The problem was to redistribute the light away from the very bright fluorescent strip. I had the inspiration to turn traditional diffusers backwards. Have a bright diffusing film near the lamps, have the darkening dots poster-side. Totally radical. But it worked and we made a patent application. This configuration had an additional benefit in that multiple reflections between our special film resulted in the partial plane polarisation of the light, which mimicked natural daylight and gave our signs a certain 'presence'. We had a great story to boot as well - not bad for a physics-education-optical-physicist-lighting-expert. 

Steady state

A bit of corporate reshuffling later and I found myself promoted to Technical Manager with a team under me. We now needed to expand and prove ourselves to investors, and we muscled into the general signage design and manufacture market i.e. steel bashing. What the average person eating their chips does not realise, is that a humble 6-foot or 6-sheet sign at the end of a bus shelter requires expertise in many disciplines: steel fabrication, aluminium extrusions, glass, plastic, seals, electrics, lighting, paint finishes, mechanical gubbins like doors and locks, structural safety and wind loadings, and all the tricks you can muster to ensure units survive in the harsh British outdoors, and not get unduly vandalised or nicked. And we were adding in optical technology which was our USP. 

We enjoyed some years manufacturing 'bread and butter' units for a large well-known UK media company and also directed time for further R&D. We invented a lamp post-mounted unit where the entire innards could be lowered to the ground for poster changing AND electric maintenance - a game changer and worthy of another patent application. We invented a lamp fault detection unit that could report an SMS to your phone when a single lamp failed, in the wake of fines for non-compliance of illuminated units - this was in the days when wireless tech was in its infancy. We worked with a London architect to develop some very fancy street furniture incorporating our signs. 

We were also close to that inflection point of global expansion that meant I was sent off round the world looking for volume manufacturers. I was now Technical Director. Without naming nations, some really crafted units beautifully. Some had all the ISO quality certifications in the world but could not install a nut insert level nor weld a corner without gaps. One factory had Alsatian dogs and only three walls. One cheeky so-and-so pulled me aside and said he could make for me some special designs of his own, only to show me a plagiarised version of my designs! Oh well, imitation, flattery and all that. 


Revolution and crash

All good things come to and end, and the financial crash of 2008 was the final nail in the coffin for the business. Advertising is usually the first thing to get slashed in times of financial strain. It was probably the right time to move on as, also, technology was rapidly changing. LED lighting was ascending and the preferred solution. Fluorescent was somehow seen as dirty and inefficient. Source vs. source, fluorescent is always more energy efficient and I don't think LEDs ever match the colour rendition/spectrum - possibly because no-one knows about partial plane polarisation, but I need to stop moaning. LEDs have won the day. 

Also, wireless tech moved on leaps and bounds from our clunky GPRS to full internet capability. Full colour LCD or LED TV screens became cheaper, along with the capability to beam in images, sequences or entire movies from any computer to anywhere. The culture of plastering every available public amenity space with signage was also changing towards less signs, more targeting, and more fully digital ones, even in bus shelters. 

I enjoyed some years consulting after the 2008 crash, setting up Opal Flame Consultancy. Most prominently, I worked on and off in India for a few years, spreading the love of everything I knew, so long as it was relevant. I helped my client win some highly strategic advertising contracts and provided them with state-of-the art technical solutions for improving their units. I love India, as I have indicated in other posts here. They do some things very differently over there, and they are innovators. The Delhi media care crew (seen below) work very hard, through the middle of the night to re-post and maintain signs. In the big 48 and 96-sheet billboards, I note that a 24-hour guard lived and slept inside the 600mm or so deep sign between the lamps and poster. When I asked why it was necessary to have a guard, my host replied, "oh it's because people will steal the lamps or plug into the electric supply". 


Amongst other things, I provided a solution that meant they could double the illuminance of their signs, or half the electric consumption to get the same illuminance. Naturally they went for double! 


So, the next time you lean on a bus shelter sign, or observe units in airports or other mass transit systems all trying to get your attention, remember the armies of people working behind the scenes to sell the advertising, and the humble souls developing and manufacturing illuminated units and components, in a global supply chain. Or, you could just carry on enjoying your chips. However, you'll likely not be able to nick the poster these days.

Do you want one more?

In the time frame covered in the above story, I led a parallel life playing guitar in a Europe-renowned Yes tribute band, toured with original members, appeared on Richard and Judy, and released the critically acclaimed original progressive rock album 'Aquaplanage'. But that's a story for another time.

We would often see our posters on billboards across Europe. Goodbye Belgium, Hello Cleveland!  

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