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Creating Superior Vehicle Graphics

Boosting your ‘car IQ’ can take your shop to the next level.



Most vehicle-wrap clients hire us for one simple reason: to make them money. Although some clients would like us to help increase awareness for their cause or charity, that’s certainly not the norm.

And clients are getting smarter when it comes to vehicle graphics—they’ve done their homework and discovered that a vehicle wrap can deliver the best results per dollar spent. After all, the vehicle-wrap industry hasn’t grown so fast because these “ads” don’t work. They do work. They last a long time, the message is huge, and they’re nearly impossible to ignore. The medium has proven itself to be effective, and corporate America has taken notice.

My company, bluemedia, has recently wrapped more vehicles for huge brands than ever before. Some of these larger brands engage our creative team, but the vast majority still opt to use their traditional ad agency to design the vehicle wrap.
While some of these agency designs are great, others are not. Many agencies struggle with the unique challenges that the shape of a vehicle presents. We often see agencies trying to force a great billboard design or magazine ad into a vehicle wrap and, generally, the results are far from ideal.

Finding ‘car people’
Why not let vehicle-wrap experts handle the creative for a vehicle wrap? Ad agencies are retained to present brilliant creative, among other things, so it seems like a natural response for them to not be open to subcontracting the design work to another company. Agencies also have no real reason to believe that a company that can print and install a great looking wrap would also be able to turn out award-winning creative that’s in line with their client’s branding standards and current campaign objectives. As many of you know, the sales process, creative process, print process, and install process are four completely different skill sets—and excelling in all four disciplines under one roof is not only difficult, but also very rare.

It’s no wonder, then, that ad agencies end up executing the design for many of these wraps. The wrap company sends the template to the agency and the agency uses its standard process to finalize an approved design. This “ad on a car” gets sent over and we simply need to make it fit. Something about this has just never sat well with me, even though I understand why it happens.

Don’t get me wrong; I like dealing with ad agencies. They can be very professional and, many times, jobs from agencies have ample turnaround time built in. My problem is that the ad agencies are not typically comprised of “car people.” They aren’t passionate about hot rods. They don’t build custom cars. Most would not know about suicide doors on a 1964 Lincoln or why an H1 is superior to an H3. Few ad execs have heard of automotive designers Chip Foose or Boyd Coddington. In short, they’re “ad people,” but not necessarily car people. This isn’t limited to ad agencies either; few graphic designers, marketing personnel, copywriters, photographers, or even vehicle-wrap designers are car people, either.


Why should we care if they’re “car people” or not? Because at the end of a long day of install, a car is backed out of the shop, not an ad. A car is driven down the road. A car is parked at the entrance to the event. A car sits in the tradeshow booth. Not an ad. It’s a car or a truck or even a boat. These are not billboards! Billboards are flat and have 90-degree corners. The same is true for a magazine ad—it’s flat with four corners. Why, then, are so many wrap designs also “flat with four corners?”

We as an industry need to keep in mind that we are dealing with vehicles: vehicles with body lines, vehicles that stand for something, vehicles that are from a manufacturer with a design team. They have built-in, unique body lines, headlights that compliment a shape, and angles that are there on purpose. They are Fords, Chevys, Cadillacs, Dodges, Nissans, and Toyotas. They are not square. They are vehicles and they have a shape.

First, make a good-looking car
The shape of the vehicle itself is all too often ignored. In many cases, it’s almost as if the vehicle-wrap companies simply shrunk the billboard art, printed it as a big rectangle, and slapped it on. Where is the pin striping? Where is the two-tone look? What happened to making the overall product—the vehicle—look great? We can all become so focused on the ad message that we forget there’s a car underneath.

I recently attended the SEMA automotive-aftermarket show in Las Vegas and was pleased to find that, not only were there more than 100 wrapped cars, but many of the exhibitors made sure the wrap worked well with the shape of the car.

Let me explain. My company recently produced a vehicle wrap for Cruz Pedregon Racing for a National Hot Rod Association Funny Car. Talk about body lines—these things look like spaceships up close. And although our company did not produce the design, it achieved exactly what I think more vehicle wraps should do: It began with the shape of the car in mind and kept a “good-looking car” as one of the final requirements.

The $40,000, carbon-fiber body came to us painted solid red. The design called for some carbon-fiber patterned graphics to be printed and digitally cut to shapes that complemented the car’s flowing body lines. It also required us to print a black gradient on a clear vinyl to help accentuate these curves and shapes (much like artists do when adding shadows and highlights in a painting).


After we made a very cool looking car, we added huge logos for car sponsor Snap-on, printed in solid white to provide high contrast and great readability. Did you notice the path here? First, make a cool looking car, then add the message. Can you think of how often that happens? Not as often as it should. We must not forget that our job is to deliver a message.

Yes, a loud, colorful wrap with the image of a tree frog is certainly one way to accomplish this. But this strategy is outdated, not creative, and flat out not cool anymore (if it ever was). Your clients want to come across as cutting edge and “with it,” all the while grabbing the viewer’s attention.

Boosting your shop’s car IQ
To take this industry to the next level, I think shops like mine and yours must push each other with better and better products to ensure we stay relevant and effective. I love seeing someone else’s work that’s better than mine. It makes me consider, “Now, why didn’t I think of that?” This kind of friendly competition challenges us all to stop knocking out big logos on vans and raises the bar to encourage us to come up with a cool design—something that hasn’t been done before.

The racing industry has embraced this since its inception. Movies such as The Fast and the Furious and television shows such as “Street Customs,” featuring the talented team led by Ryan Friedlinghaus at West Coast Customs, are great sources of ideas and provide clues about how to produce a vehicle that you can be proud of. They prove that it’s possible to create a unique vehicle design that accomplishes the advertising task you have been given.

So, how do you boost your own shop’s “car IQ”?
One way is to make sure your designers subscribe to car magazines such as 4 Wheel Drive, Lowrider, Dub, Dupont Registry, and Hot Rod. Take your sales staff to car shows. Get tickets to local races, SEMA, or even the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), held in Las Vegas each year.

When it comes to design and output, challenge yourself and your staff. You can deliver an effective wrap without starbursts, rainbows, and a huge stock image of a receptionist holding a phone. These have all seen their prime. Ditto for tattoo art, tribal designs, and barbed wire. Please, if you still have any of these images and effects in your graphics archive, take a few minutes today to hit “delete.” Don’t hesitate to terminate with extreme prejudice.


And take chances. Don’t be afraid to print brown color on clear vinyl and install on a tan-painted Scion. Don’t rule out printing a micro-logo pattern for the top half of the car and using a pin stripe to cover the border of the vinyl, leaving the bottom solid or producing a wrap that is part matte and part gloss on purpose. I think it’s possible to produce a conservative wrap for a credit union that can still feature effective use of a reflective stripe or a matte finish on the grille and bumpers. You can do it, you just have to push yourself.

By no means am I suggesting that we at bluemedia are great at this (yet). But I am saying you cannot ignore the body lines and stomp right over a stock vehicle design with your rectangular ad. Our clients are coming to us for our expertise and, as experts, I say we should spend a little more time considering the intricacies of the blank canvas before designing just another “ad agency wrap.”

It’s time to have some respect for the vehicle. Think of the animated movie, Cars, in which all the characters have distinct personalities. I think we can bring this same approach of developing a unique personality for each car wrap rather than hiding the cars behind a square ad made for a printed page. Have fun, and let’s make some cooler looking cars.

Jared Smith is president of bluemedia, a leading provider of design and printing for use in vehicle, large-format, and environmental applications, in Tempe, Arizona.




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