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Lightboxes -- How, When, and Why

It is likely that after the first sign was ever put up inside a store the first consideration was how to set it apart from its visually busy surroundings. The most effective solution was to simply aim a light at it. This continued to be the practice for many years -- designers assigning particular lights in a store the job of illuminating specific signs. Meanwhile the science of directing light evolved. Louvres on fluorescent fixtures directed some of the diffuse lighting in a particular angle. Track and ceiling floodlights came along that could be more precisely aimed to accent products as well as the signs above them. Narrow beam spotlights controlled the light even more.


But as lighting becomes more controlled, hot spots on signs become more of a potential problem. When spotlights are properly distributed across a sign and balanced with the ambient light illuminating its darker areas, this method is still quite effective.

The placement of incandescent or fluorescent units behind dimensional lettering results in a clever use of hotspots. Backlighting letters is eye-catching but only works when the object being lit is meant to be viewed in silhouette.

When graphics occupy a larger area of the sign than simple lettering, a way of lighting the entire sign evenly becomes desireable. A popular solution for this is the lightbox. A lightbox is a translucent surface illuminated from behind. It is used for situations where a graphic needs to be seen evenly lit across the entire surface and with higher contrast and more brilliance than is possible with a sign lit frontally.

Types of lightboxes

Our company, Off The Wall, designs, builds, and installs various types of lightboxes. The difference between each type has to do with the kind of lighting used behind the picture surface and where the source of light is placed.

1. LED direct backlit. This is a very bright and evenly lit way of illuminating a graphic surface. In this variation of the lightbox, strips of LED lights are placed either vertically or horizontally in rows directly behind the graphic surface of the box. In most retail situations, backlighting with strips of LED lights is very effective in creating an eye-catching sign. While not absolutely the brightest way of backlighting a surface, it is usually bright enough and more economical than fluorescent lighting.In order to match the brilliance and evenness of a fluorescent direct backlit lightbox, a box lit with LED lights requires more rows of strips and uses nearly as much energy and produces nearly as much heat. But most situations do not call for matching the effects of a fluorescent direct backlit box and when the LED strips are spaced further apart than fluorescent tubes would be, the savings are dramatic. The result with LED is a beautifully and uniformly lit graphic surface that is certainly bright enough for most indoor retail environments. Most direct backlit lightboxes need about about 4 to 5 inches of depth.

2. Fluorescent direct backlit. It used to be that nothing could match the even brightness of the light that emanated from rows of long fluorescent tubes. This was because of how uniformly an internally diffused tube could emit light. LED technology has surpassed flourescent lighting for brighness and is every bit as even across the surface of a sign Example of 4' x 7' sheets of plexi directly backlit with flourescent tubes. Shoprite in Flemington, NJ. Designed, fabricated, and installed by Off The Wall

Example of an edge-lit lightbox in Shoprite of Bethlehem, PA. By Off The Wall. In these instances, the lightbox graphics are used to also accent the dimensional lettering in front of them.

3. LED edge-lit. This is by far the most economical way to illuminate a lightbox. In this variation of the lightbox, LED lights are placed only along the perimeter of a lightbox behind the graphic surface. This type of lightbox uses only a fraction of the wattage direct backlighting uses. The amount of heat emitted by any type of lighting is notable when one considers that every joule of heat requires a watt of energy to cool a room back down. And each unit of energy, whether for lighting or cooling, costs money. The reduced amount of brightness and evenness resulting from edge lighting compared to direct backlighting is really negligible. Again, the only way the average person could tell the difference between all three of these types of lightboxes would be through a side by side comparison. Most retail spaces stick to either one kind of lightbox or another so such a comparison is not likely. But it is good to know that if there is one area of a store that is significantly brighter than another, or if a situation calls for a sign to be brighter than all others, choices are available. In most situations, an LED edge-lit lightbox will be eye-catching and often the brightest sign in a store. And LED edge-lit lightboxes can be as thin as 1 or 1-1/2 inches depending on the dimensions of the sign. This could be a definite plus in many retail environments.

Other pluses for the LED option are low cost, sturdiness, and low-maintenance. A strip of LED lights are nearly as bright as a fluorescent tube and cost a little more, but they will last 50,000 hours and are just as easy to change out when the time finally comes. What’s more, only four strips are used around a perimeter as opposed to the number of fluorescent lights needed to light a graphic surface directly. So the savings in heat and energy using LED strips are remarkable.

Another consideration in favor of using LED strips is that at certain lengths, say over five feet long, fluorescent lights become quite flimsy. Moving a box, or installing one where it could be bumped by customers or employees will result in broken tubes. Larger, shallower, and sturdier lightboxes can be used when using LED light strip for illumination. Need an eight or ten foot tall lightbox to work at ground level near customer traffic? Off The Wall makes LED lightboxes in all sizes and configurations.

Lightbox Graphic Surfaces

1. Polycarbonate or "Plexi". Typically, the picture side of a lightbox is printed on rigid.030 clear polycarbonate. Working with a VuteK printer, it is no problem for us to get brilliant translucent colors onto 4’ x 10’ sheets, or larger by custom order. On this type of surface it is the colors themselves that keep the hot spots of the light sources from showing through. That is to say, it is the tints imprinted onto the polycarbonate surface that diffuse the light behind the panels. The result is a higher contrast and more brilliant image than is possible with any other material that can be similarly backlit.

2. Textile. But when some of our clients requested lightboxes that would emit a softer more diffused light, our solution was to use a textile surface made of a stretched polyester and vinyl blend. This application calls for dye sublimation and direct printing techniques. The result is an impressive abrasion-resistant and water-proof textile surface. Now while it is not as brilliant as a shinier surface like polycarbonate offers, the colors are just as bright in a much warmer, more intimate way and with absolutely no glare.

It is also very easy to change the graphic on this type of lightbox. The textile graphic is stretched across a collapsible aluminum frame and attached with velcro. Removal and replacement can be done by in-store staff and takes only minutes. Example of a collapsible aluminum frame with graphic printed on polyester textile for an edge-lit lightbox by Off The Wall.

Another great feature of our textile lightboxes is their ease of shipping. The lightweight aluminum frames that hold the fabric assemble easily with simple hand tools. This means we’re able to ship a four-foot by ten-foot light box in a box ten feet long and only ten INCHES wide that’s only 5 inches deep. A current project we’re in the process of fulfilling for a major national chain of supermarkets calls for a set of nine lightboxes to be shipped to hundreds of different locations. No problem.


Off The Wall Company provides our clients with innovative solutions for all retail environments. We have been doing this for over 40 years and would be happy to discuss the design, fabrication, and/or installation of any type of décor you are interested in. Not just lightboxes.

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