Layers: Anatomy of a Decal


Decals look like simple vinyl stickers, but if you were to see the way decals are constructed, they're anything but simple. At every phase - from initial design to final product out of the printer - layers can be found everywhere.

Although there are many different types of decals, the majority of them are design, printed, and manufactured in a similar manner.

We're passionate about decal printing, so we thought walking you through the process would help you understand why we love these "simple" little stickers.

Setting Up the Artwork

A decal's design begins with the artwork files. And a professionally-done art file will prevent these mistakes and keep the customer representatives, designers, and print shop workers all on the same page.

However, most of the designs we print are fairly complicated both in color combinations and shape. All of these have to blend together properly in order to prevent errors like color's bleeding together or missing cut marks.

A screenshot of setting up a design file's dimensions

Step 1: Begin the Decal Construction

Using one of your favorite graphic design programs - we typically use either Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop - it's time to put together the decal's design.

For this particular square decal, the following dimensions are sufficient for the design, room for the trim line, bleed area, and the line where the decal is trimmed.

Creating decals with multiple colors is best done by creating multiple layers within the design file, and placing similar elements of the decal on each layer.

Decal Layer 1

Step 2: The Base Layer

In this particular decal, the square black background is the only element of the design on the first layer.

The width of the square is approximately three inches across and two inches in height. This finalizes the bottom-most layer of the decal. You can safely lock the layer and move on to the next phase of the decal's design.

Decal Layer 2

Step 3: Adding Color in the Second Layer

Adding color is one of the most exciting prospects of creating and printing a batch of decals. This particular sticker featured a thick, simple stripe of orange across the black square in layer 1.

Making a rectangle that's three inches across and one inch tall, and centering it inside of the black square is all that was necessary. It may look like a Halloween decal, but that's not where this design is going.

Once you've ensured the stripe is centered using the design programs grid guidelines - drag them over from the ruler on the side and top of the work space - lock layer 2 and add another layer to the file.

Decal Layer 3 - the first half of the logo has been added.

Step 4: Complexity Comes into Picture

The third layer - which can also be labeled by the color used (blue) - represents some of the most complex aspects of our design. An emergency medical technician (EMT) logo is placed at the center of the orange stripe on layer 2.

An EMT logo is comprised of two distinct parts:

  1. The thick, blue star (or asterisk) shape;
  2. And the ancient Greek symbol of healing, The Rod of Asclepius.

This design creates complex shapes, curves, and could cause a problem if you're using a low-quality printer. However, you can do your printer a lot of favors by setting this up properly.

With the EMT logo placed in the very center within the orange stripe - again, use your grid guidelines here - you can safely lock layer 3 and move on to the fourth, and final, layer.

Decal Layer 4, the second half of the logo has been added.

Step 5: A Decal's Finishing Touches

The final layer is just filling in some holes and creating outlines in white. The trim around the EMT logo allows it to really "pop" off the decal's dark background.

Filling in The Rod of Asclepius with white stays true to its origin while helping the average consumer see the most important aspect of the decal's design.

The white color allows the design to "pop" and fills in some of the empty spaces left over from the three previous layers. You can finish this layer and move on to the next aspect of the decal production process.

When saving your artwork to send to the printer, you can either save each individual layer as it's own file, or save the artwork as one large file. The only difference here is how the decals will be printed.

Depending on your sticker's design, the options your printer of choice has on-hand, and the desired application for your decal either files may be used in the printing and manufacturing process.

Consult your local print shop if you have questions about the optimal way your decal should be printed.

Hot Off the Printer

An infographic of the three physical layers that make up a decal.

Once the design phase is over, the decal goes through the printing process and is a physical product ready for to join your marketing campaign.

When it comes off the printer, understanding how all the layers of the design come together is crucial to knowing how durable your stickers are, when and where you should use them, and how many you'll need before another order.

Most of the time, each decal will come with three layers:

  1. Application tape
  2. The top layer protecting the surface of the decal;
  3. Vinyl decal
  4. The actual decal you've designed and ordered;
  5. Protective backing
  6. Paper on the bottom of the vinyl that preserves the decal's adhesive.

To break down each layer in greater detail, the application tape is a slightly transparent layer that is similar to a masking tape. In most cases, you should be able to see your decal through this top layer.

In the middle of these three layers is your decorative vinyl decal. A standard shape or a die cut sticker, this is what you'll be adhering to the desired surface.

Whether it's glass, a wall, or the floor, this layer is what you spent time designing and are paying for.

Finally, the protective backing is a thick layer that acts as the foundation of your vinyl decal. It secures the artwork in place until you separate the adhesive bond between the two layers.

Applying Your Decals

We've created a large variety of resources to help you know how to properly design, print, and adhere your decals. Now that you have a better understanding of the anatomy of a decal, and all their layers, proper application may come easier now.

Below is a list of our most popular resources to help you:

Decals are a lot of fun to print and manufacture on a daily basis. It's one of the reasons we love them so much. Now that you better understand the layers of a decal, we're sure you will love them too.

Feeling inspired?
Let’s get your project started.

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