In 1937, 3M engineers used reflective, double-coated, glass bead-embedded cloth tape as a roadway median. It became the catalyst for further research and development, utilizing advances in chemistry and manufacturing methods to create a product that revolutionized the graphic-art and signage industries. These advances resulted in improved road safety and new advertising opportunities for businesses. By the summer of 1939, Minnesota saw the first highway signs with reflective sheeting, and a new era in the signage industry began.


Improved adhesives on the backside of the sheeting enabled them to adhere to wood, metals, and other surfaces. Vinyl coating was used as a protection of top surfaces, which later led to the development of non-reflective, marking films. This constituted the first type of vinyl film. It is now used for truck identification and decoration.

The 1940s saw the development of a process to cast film on a liner, a technology that is still in use today. Film cast on a non-stretch release liner makes a very strong and useful film that will not decrease in size. It is currently considered the best way of making top-quality graphic film for many applications.

The pressure-sensitive vinyl film made its debut on the market in 1956. It enabled wider use of vinyl in the fabrication of emblems and signs. Later, a release liner made of easy-to-peel silicone was developed and became the main protective adhesive backing of vinyl films. Another version, a fluorescent film for enhanced visibility, was introduced, mainly for hospital and school signs.

In the 1960s, major innovations in vinyl production marched forth. Films for window stickers, embossed and textured metallic films, the use of more colors, and other advancements characterized the continuing quest to perfect vinyl film production. The improvements included decorative films using wood-grain replicas for use in the automotive industry.

Enhanced adhesives were subsequently developed to support the ever-improving quality of graphic films. Microscopic glass bubbles were added to the adhesive to allow the repositioning of the film before final placement. Another innovation that further improved adhesives was the introduction of micro-replicated air channels, which allowed the escape of trapped air. This improvement made it so that you no longer had to pop air bubbles with needles or knives to achieve smooth placement.

Translucent film was introduced in 1983, allowing uniform images to be produced with backlit substrate—something that could not be achieved with older technologies of screen printing and spray painting.

Hats off to vinyl. It revolutionized signs and ultimately changed the way we advertise, market, and communicate important information.