Pattern Prognosticating

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Distressed tile, exotic fish and ocean life, ancient mosaics, pebbles or abstract ripple patterns: Creating compelling visual design concepts is only half the task of producing new vinyl-liner patterns each year. In addition to the graphics, designers have to consider color trends, the properties of the inks used to print on vinyl and the capabilities of the current printing technology. The design process requires art and science at the highest levels.

For consumers, the most important part of choosing a pattern is aesthetics. Will it carry out the (tropical isle or ancient Rome or modern Scandinavian or mountain stream) design theme. Will it work with the coping, pavers, deck, outdoor furniture and landscape plantings. Are the colors up to date or classic. Much of the decision process is guided by emotion.

Vinyl-liner pattern designers face some of the same concerns as consumers do when selecting a pattern, and there's certainly an emotional component to the process, but for the most part, designers are guided by more pragmatic parameters.

"Anyone can design a pretty picture; a successful [vinyl-liner pattern] designer needs to be a combination of chemist, gravure engineer and artist," says Steve Leavitt, technical design manager for HPG International, a Pennsylvania manufacturer.

Weird Science

Vinyl artists work with two materials: ink and vinyl. And not all inks and vinyl are the same. Different colors of inks have different pigments and may have different compositions to create a given color. Treated vinyl and vinyl of different thicknesses may react differently to the ink and to the presses.

"Knowing how the inks will perform is a major factor in designing vinyl-liner patterns," says Leavitt. "A designer needs to know which colors have the properties to withstand the chemical and environmental demands of the end product.

"Another huge factor is gravure printing technology. You can create something that could merit display in a museum, but if it cannot be replicated on vinyl using available technology it's just not going to look good at the end-product stage. From trapping techniques to knowing just how much detail a cylinder can replicate from conceptual artwork stage to production stage, gravure-printing experience is probably the single most important aspect of designing for vinyl."

Fading — of the inks and of the base vinyl — is one of the biggest complaints vinyl-liner manufacturers hear about. Exposure to sun and harsh chemicals takes its toll on oncevibrant patterns. Most manufacturers have tasked their technical R&D teams to solve the problem.

"For the inks in the patterns, we examined each and every ink color used to print the vinyl and found areas to improve the fade resistance. Inks with more tendency to fade were replaced by new, innovative inks that resist the bleaching action of chlorine," says HPG technical manager Yvette Ploskonka.

Design Dynamics

With durable ink and a vinyl canvas chosen, there are also some design techniques that will improve a pattern's ability to be translated into vinyl. A design that requires precision beyond the capabilities of the printing process simply won't look good no matter how wonderful the concept and colors are. Designers have to build in a little "fudge factor."

"Vinyl is a flexible substrate so as the sheet passes through subsequent gravure print stations there needs to be a little tolerance aspect built into the designs, which allows a layer or two to shift slightly out of register without being noticeable," says Leavitt. "This is the single aspect of designing that is probably the most unconsidered, yet it is the most important because at the end of the day whatever you create needs to be printed with this technology. Good vinyl designs will be able to shift out of register a little without looking blurred.

"A designer needs to find the perfect balance between great textures and design elements, while recognizing the parameters and limitations of gravure printing technology. It takes minutes to understand the technique, yet years to perfect."

What About The Art?

So technical wizardry comes from years of experience. But where do the ideas come from. Designers in any industry watch trends and try to figure out what styles and colors will appeal to consumers in their target market.

"I'm a member of the Color Marketing Group, a premier international organization of color design professionals," says Mary Calnan, design director at HPG. "CMG forecasts the color directions used by commercial designers around the world. It's a tremendous asset to know which colors will be used in outdoor accessories, because that in turn allows us to coordinate our pattern colorations accordingly.

"We make a conscious effort to keep a finger on the pulse of the landscaping industry to incorporate the popular textures and colorations used in today's and tomorrow's outdoor living spaces."

In the vinyl-liner pattern market, the goal is to sell as many liners as possible. "It all comes down to appealing to the masses," says Calnan. "Some patterns will sell better in specific regions, while others will have a broader appeal because the colors and textures used relate to more of a variety of regional materials used around pools.

"It's not an exact science but we can greatly improve the odds something will sell well by keeping abreast of color and outdoor living trends and just by talking to people, from customers to installers to end consumers."

Future Perfect

What do the pattern prognosticators see in the future. Tile patterns — as always — lead the way but it appears that consumers are growing bolder with their color choices. Consider the growing palette of outdoor fabrics now available: Orange, sunny yellow, lime green, scarlet are all being shown at casual furniture markets.

At Canadian General Tower, the designers also recognize the need to give consumers design options to match their backyard decor. Along with the trustworthy variations on blue, CGT offers some earthy sandstone colors, and for the whimsical pool owner, the new Tropical Mosaic pattern features cheery accents of bright yellow, red and orange and a school of exotic fish swimming along a reef.

At O'Sullivan Films, manufacturer of H2Okay! liners, they're adding another dimension with embossed textures. In addition to traditional matte, textures called taffeta, fine satin and suedene add another dimension. Dramatic dark colors in an Italian marble motif are also pushing the design envelope.

As consumers ask for bolder colors and patterns, the future looks bright — and colorful — for vinyl-liner pattern designs.

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