Years spent in graphics, print, signs, events, displays and technology have led me to a fascination with electroluminescent (EL) lights. Many people are familiar with images of Burning Man neon bikes. They use EL wire, but EL panels and shapes are also used. Electroluminescent (EL) lights are an old technique, suddenly new again. Basically a light-emitting capacitor, a layer of phosphor reacts to an alternating current by lighting up. EL technology has been around since the 1930’s, but now the technology and the quality of materials have improved to the point where it’s now viable for use in the sign industry.
Thin, flexible and lightweight, EL’s adapt to a variety of display configurations, design styles and visual effects that require long life, high reliability and low power consumption.
I first came across ELs while researching vintage signs. Miller Engineering has a line of miniature signs and billboards for scale model railroaders. The gateway for me was their Downtown Series Multi-Graphic, an HO scale EL animated building sign that comes with six vintage style graphic overlay stickers.
I bought one of their experimenter’s kits just to find out how they worked and after deconstructing it, I started looking for stock EL panels and shapes, cutting them up to make custom shapes. My first sign was this five segment backlight for a small counter display, adapting a small battery powered sequencer.
Another prototype made use of an old soda label for inspiration. The ELs, black mask and translucent overlay merged to make an updated neon look.
At the same time, I was exploring vintage beer sign graphics, so it was natural to attempt a reproduction of the animated signs from that era.
That resulted in a 14″ point-of purchase sign, that was flat printed, vacuum formed and rear-lit using hand cut EL shapes powered with an Arduino and an EL shield.
You can get EL’s is a variety of panel sizes and shapes to work with, and there are many sources of finished products such as animated posters, t-shirts and car paint. But as cool as they are, they aren’t necessarily cheap. EL’s are screen printed electronics so there’s a lot of skilled manual labor involved, expensive raw materials and inks that come with OSHA issues and clean room environments are required. I’m looking forward to when we can print an EL graphic on a desktop inkjet printer. But the advantages of ELs are many, and for certain signage and display projects they can play a part. Fitting in a sweet spot between flashing signs and neon or LEDs, if a project requires a light weight, flexible, low power, reusable and programmable solution, an EL solution should be looked into.
Scratching the Niche
So in the process of exploring EL applications and production design, I have come to focus on two areas: creating reusable animated EL templates and developing a simple sequence controller. But there many others exploring the medium as well and I’ll be passing those examples on as well.
SignLites will evolve as a curated journey of EL information and products, as they relate to signage, display and all manner of maker explorations. I hope you find something you can use, and look forward to hearing your EL experiences.
Comments or questions are welcome.