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Design Development

Acoustical Foam Sign

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Managing the Unprecedented Use of Acoustical Foam in Signage

Untested materials can present a few hurdles. Think extreme sign making without a net.

A confined space was built to contain a specific size of acoustical foam sheet. No one anticipated a subtle variance in sheet size. Cutting it caused some expansion. Ratcheting drama still, the material proved scarce, fragile, expensive and irreparable. And yes, a deadline loomed and our clients rightly had expectations of quality and punctuality.

Here is our finished sign, in a wide shot from a pulled back position.

This lends a sense of the room. Behind the camera position is double-height glass that overlooks the tops of other Times Square skyscrapers. We later learned that the architect’s intentions were to bathe the white sign in alternating hues of light.

Front view shows the 7-foot high character shapes.

The font selection was a key element as will soon be demonstrated. We’ll also get a closer look at the acoustical foam material that the entire sign consists of.

Savas Kay of Techsign attended the kickoff meeting. He later said it’s rare to see only a small portion of a material you’ve never worked with before prior to going live with it.

... There wasn’t a chance to perform tests on it — only just enough time to acquire whatever limited amounts of it were available and get it in house to commence working on it.

At $325.00 per 2ft x 4ft piece, there was only so many extras you could buy and ensure you had enough on hand to complete the project. Expense, limited supply, and the time element made the project a tightrope walk.

But what came first was to help arrive at exactly what needed to be built. A font that supported the design intent was the first hurdle to solve.

The client supplied the printout seen here, but they did not know the font name.

Designers familiar with the look know that it’s a version of so many fonts inspired by Akzidenz-Grotesk, of the Berthold Type Foundry of Berlin. There are score upon score of variants with all different names and subtle differences.

It was a kick to go through the books starting from the beginning and finally discovering the font towards the end. The name of the font is Zurich, designed by Adrian Frutiger.

Thankfully, Adrian Frutiger designed many variants of Zurich.

We sampled almost all of them in order to see if we could establish a rhythm that worked with the size of the acoustical foam panels in the configuration that the architect had in mind.

Lo and behold, the Roman Extra-Condensed variant of Zurich had everything going for it.

We were able to meet the client’s sudden preference for 7-foot high letters and have it fit within the confines of the niche being made for the sign.

And it was perfect in avoiding the odd, random shapes and unnecessary seams as was demonstrated in prior font family testing. The sum total was encouraging. This could elegantly be built.

The same sketch was further modified to show the direction and make it clear to production as to what we were pursuing.

Yet another drawing based upon the original pattern led the way.

The art department commenced a systematic manipulation of full size art patterns from which we were intending to output as .DXF files — files necessary to feed into a water jet cutting machine. Within the sketch we represented the bevels that the material came with.

DXF file creation emanated from representations of each letter form, each letter consisting of 4 of the acoustical foam panels.

We point to a portion of the letter N, in which black represents the usable portion of one individual foam sheet.

Observe all the weak points and resulting unwieldiness emerging from an already soft material.

While cutting, we immediately learned that the negative areas proved crucial. They were employed to fill space so that the cut foam panels can go right back into the box from which they came for transport - careful marking of the boxes helped us limit unnecessary handling of the cut parts.

For the curious, we show the same portion of letter N in the installed position.

That sharp portion of the letter N was so incredibly easy to break that it was almost shocking how well it turned out.

We had to do some straight board trims on site to improve fit and maintain letter spacing. Whereas water jet caused some expansion, straight dry knife cuts trimmed miraculously well. We brought a straight edge, levitated in place by 2 persons (material could crunch if pressed), while a 3rd passed the blade as needed.

The breakage seen here gives you a sense of what we contended with.

The material required such a light touch and careful manipulation; from removal, to positioning at the ready, to bringing up the scaffold, test-fitting, gluing the back, and then positioning it with no real chance to pull it away and reposition.

Baby steps are always tough when we’re starting to install a project that contained so many ways to go wrong.

First row moving along. So far, so good.

The first letter being handled with extra special care.

Third row taking shape. Contrary to having removed the letters X and I, we decided to keep in place other cut parts for later removal. It helped resolve the grid while adding support.

The positive letterforms were plucked from the seemingingly impenetrable wall of foam after the fact, leaving the voids in the shape of each letter.

So cool to witness, while so unplanned — we’re talking precautionary necessity being the mother of invention.

This was just an unusual shot of the emerging sign, so it’s included. This scene arose having walked around to the pantry area of the facility.

Here’s your money shot, showing human scale among the letters to demonstrate a sense of dimensions.

The view was grand from up top. You could see the distant building that houses the New Year’s Eve ball drop.

The light wasn’t the best by this time, but the camera clicked away. It was joyous seeing all problems solved.

More gratuitous closeups. So great that the pressure was off and it came out to the client’s total satisfaction.

Finally, some sun broke through. It didn’t last long, but it’s pleasing to know that the client will be seeing the sign in all manners of light, by day and by night.