By itself, the tube is not just the light source—it is also the color and the shape. It is linear, lucid, and light. No other medium in the electric sign industry comes close.
And keep in mind that you still see classic neon signs in operation, which, based on their longevity, does a good job of displaying a further level of competency and quality in the product.
But if there is a reason for neon failing in the signage industry, it could be attributed to its complexity. The requirements for neon tube fabrication have long been roadblocks to its widespread usage. Fragility and high voltage have also long plagued this medium in the sign industry, as has long-standing ambiguity on just what makes a safe and simple neon installation.
But let’s move past fabrication and focus on appearance. From a design standpoint, the question may be: “So what can neon do here?”
The best reply: “Well what can it not do?”
Script. With only the neon tube, a sign might be complete and functional. Script neon, designed in the form of cursive writing, needs limited support or block-out paint. The electrical connections at each end need sufficient insulation based on the high-voltage requirement, but the illumination along the length of the glass tube does not.
Again the neon tube’s rigidity is the key here. Plug the tube into the right transformer, and two parts make a sign!
One often sees open-face neon signs across the face of a stucco or brick façade. With a remotely mounted power supply, a red neon tube glows in the night, spreading light across the building and beckoning passers-by.
Shapes. Bending the neon glass tube takes a good level of skill. The bender’s ability to form neon into any shape equates to simplified yet communicative advertising. Popular shapes include flowers or (my favorite) the cocktail/martini glass.
Neon has become synonymous with several businesses. These establishments sport neon signs to carry along that friendly, yet casual, atmosphere.
Some of the most viewed glowing electric shapes in the world are far-reaching, elaborate neon tubes at major airports. Have questions if they’re calming? Comforting? Then check out the amazing neon animation inside Chicago O’Hare, as well as those green and red curved wisps as you race down the corridors of Hartsfield in Atlanta.
Outline. The ability to form a glass tube to follow the shape of a letter has always been and still remains the forte of neon lighting. The letter perimeter helps to bind the flow of the neon glass, but a letter face does not bind the glow of the neon tube.
This classic rendition of an electric channel letter is a remarkable beacon for many a business. Top that with our human vision selecting red as the easiest color to see. The end-result is that the vibrant red glow is a basic neon tube.
Outlines are often the basis to what the sign becomes only at night. Neon tubes have filled a long-time need of illuminating the outside perimeter of a sign cabinet, object (or a building itself). A twin row of neon tubes is able to run out across a facade and electrically back with a single power connection point only at the beginning, with no need for additional structure or limited support in-between.
Off the Sign. Keep in mind that neon is not completely bound to—or by—the sign cabinet. This “off-the-sign” cool line of light forms a contrasting, concentric square with twin tubes of glass running off the sign in opposite paths.
The classic Holiday Inn Great Sign was topped with another example of off-the-sign neon tubes. This uppermost starburst was evident during the day but crowned the sign brilliantly at night. (Note: If you are not aware of this classic neon landmark, look for it online.)
Accent. Finally combining neon’s rigidity and vibrant color makes its visual appeal easy to use for an accent. The color of neon can help turn any sign into something quite eye-catching and help define the identity of an establishment.
By Peter Perszyk
All photos: Peter Perszyk.