A Halo Primer

ArtFX's Lawrin Rosen discusses creating effective halo lighting.

Consider lighting as the sign industry's fourth dimension. Though it's not a dimension of form, it brings dimension to form. The human eye perceives nothing without light. The sun and moon provide free light, but sign designers need to understand manmade lighting sources. Never underestimate 3-D sign design, but devote serious attention to illumination.

In the 27 years I've been privileged to be in the sign business (I've owned ArtFX for 22 of them), I've made countless lighting-design mistakes. Reflecting upon that quarter century, I assure inexperienced people that there's no greater sinking feeling than initially firing up a sign and getting disastrous results. Fortunately, mistakes lessen with experience; victory and elation grow in tandem.

A complete glossary of the dos and don'ts of sign lighting would fill this magazine, and no one can claim expertise in every aspect. Therefore, my concentration centers upon design experiences with halo lighting alone and resultant lessons I can share.


I vividly remember one of my greatest sign-lighting disasters. In January 1991, I traveled with an ArtFX journeyman, the talented Bill Johnson, to St. John, New Brunswick, Canada, to install a distinctive monument sign for Irving Lubricants' headquarters and bottling plant. The sign required more than two months to design and refine (via fax and overnight deliveries before the convenience of e-mail) with Vice President John Irving Jr. and his Toronto-based architect. Pursuit of the perfect design meant countless changes.

Irving had contacted me in Spring 1989. He'd learned of one of our more successful halo-lighting jobs for the Bank of South Windsor, which was published in that year's ST Electric Sign Design Contest.

Irving's sign comprised a 4 x 30-ft., black, monolithic slab of fabricated, 0.125-in., plate aluminum perched atop a custom-fabricated, pre-cast pedestal. We fabricated polished, stainless-steel letters and affixed them to the sign with the Irving logo. The letters contained Voltarc 6500, 12mm, argon tubing; we used 12mm, clear-red, neon tubing and ultra-blue, argon tubing in the logo. Because of Maritime Canada's harsh winters, we chose 60mA transformers in hopes of keeping it bright year-round.

The Bank of South Windsor sign worked especially well because of favorable conditions. No ambient lighting from street or parking-lot lights bleached the halo effect. Disruptive ambient lighting is reason enough to steer a client away from choosing the seductive elegance of halo-lit signage. Even more problematic are open, undraped, building windows that allow light to gleam in darkness. Don't try situating halos next to those -- like the moon in daylight, the effect is lost.

The Bank of South Windsor signage also worked because the letters were mounted to red brick. Although red brick found on most buildings is slightly darker than a five value (white is a one value, black is 10 on the color scale I use), it generally has a porous surface -- porous surfaces produce greater halos. The pits -- small, projecting particles like those found on red brick -- act like thousands of miniature facets. The facets angle toward, and amplify, the light. This characteristic resembles, in miniature scale, the setting sun illuminating mountaintops.

By contrast, a polished surface reflects light back into its source. Thus, the halo constricts itself and diminishes the effect. Worse still, highly polished surfaces work like mirrors and reflect every standoff, wire, rivet and piece of neon or argon.

Years ago, we designed and installed a set of polished-brass, halo letters on a dark-green, polished-marble background; it was a disaster. Rather than a halo, we achieved a perfect reflection of intense, bright, 10mm argon tubing. To alleviate this condition, we sanded the polycarbonate letter backers. Though this diffused the reflections, it also muted the light's brilliance.

A contrasting color enlivens halo lighting that's white 95% of the time. The Bank of South Windsor's logo featured a tree with green leaves. This feature provided a perfect opportunity to introduce a second color. Though the bank president insisted on a staid, uniform, white halo, I suggested we try a green halo around the tree. While he initially rejected this bold idea for a conservative bank, he agreed to try it. I assured him we could change to all-white if necessary. After its first illumination, no one questioned the green again.

A cautionary tale

The sign for the bank wasn't a stroke of genius. Rather, perfect conditions converged to make it work perfectly. It grabbed Irving's attention, and he brought us back to Canada to create another sign.

Imagine installing a sign when it's -6