Apple-opaque sticker printing: unpossible!

I talked before about my complete failure to find a sticker vendor who was capable of printing glow-in-the-dark stickers that were DNA-green instead of glowstick-yellow.

Well, I had a second idea for a sticker, which was one that would, when placed on an Apple laptop, cause the light-up bit to glow a DNA Lounge logo instead of an Apple logo. The trick being to make the opaque part of the sticker be opaque enough that the Apple doesn't shine through the background anyway. After going round and round with several sticker vendors and getting no guidance on whether it would work, I reached the conclusion that nobody had ever tried this before.

But, we had a batch printed up anyway just to see, and, yup, it doesn't work. These are printed on fairly thick white vinyl, and you have to stack three stickers on a Mac to cover up the Apple glow in direct sunlight. In the dark, you can still see it, and three stickers are already way too thick.

You can't see it in this photo, but the light shows through the black parts too. Possibly it would have worked if we had printed a solid layer of black on white vinyl and then printed the green and black on top of that, or even multiple hits of background black, but no one we talked to was willing to consider doing anything even remotely complicated or creative.

Possibly it would have worked with die-cut black vinyl instead of white, but I kind of doubt it. I suspect the only way to make it work would be die-cut aluminum with glue on the back, but who wants to pay $20 for a sticker?


Oh, and speaking of those glow-in-the-dark stickers... We tried a dry run experiment by having our business cards printed with glowing green. The cards themselves were printed with a digital CMYK process, and then a second pass of transparent glow ink was screen printed on top of that (making them thick and sandpapery). These were very expensive business cards... and they don't glow. If you charge them up and cup your hands over them, you can kinda-sorta see the glow, but turn off all the lights and you can't see any glow when they're 6" from your face.

Even if it did work, the guy who was willing to go to the extra effort to print these cards doesn't do stickers at all. If it had worked we might have tried harder to talk him into it, but it didn't.

And... fail.

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33 Responses:

  1. Ian says:

    You might be able to get away with black cut sign vinyl. It's pretty opaque, much more than stickers tend to be. It's possible to print on it, but it'd be much cheaper to cut the text out instead. Something like this:

    I made a custom vinyl for my laptop this way. It's possible to do stuff that's fairly detailed and still doesn't come apart easily. I find that it's more durable than cheap stickers, and less durable than really good ones.

  2. LafinJack says: one we talked to was willing to consider doing anything even remotely complicated or creative.

    Next stop: buy your own sticker printing setup and run mad scientist experiments with it.

    • Pavel says:

      It would be nice to have another Jamie Zawinski novel to round out the series of Jamie and the Philosopher's Browser; Jamie and the Chamber of Pizza; Jamie and the Prisoner of ATM; Jamie and the Order of Alcoholic Beverage Control - and finally, Jamie and the Half-Printed Stickers.

  3. Your business cards can glow the way you wish, I believe. The trick is to use newer strontium aluminate glow pigment, not the traditional zinc sulfide stuff that we grew up with. The SrAl glows literally 10x brighter and 10x longer than the ZnS. There's no cupping your hands and peering: it glows. If you have it in sunlight even briefly, and bring it indoors, it is often visibly brighter than the ambient room light (for a little while). The only downside SrAl costs 10x as much as ZnS. But on the other hand, you're getting 100x the light output for only 10x the cost, so it's cheaper on a per-photon basis. And besides, if you're going to have outrageously expensive glowing business cards, they might as well actually glow.

    United Nuclear (and many others) can hook you up with paint and pigment to experiment with.

    Personally, I'd also recommend just buying a roll of SrAl glow tape to play with. Once you see just how bright it is, and how long it glows, you'll think of all kinds of things to do with it.

  4. Matt says:

    Out of curiosity, did you try foil-backed stickers? A surface that reflects light might work a bit better at blocking it...

    • jwz says:

      No, we only tried this one batch, because getting information out of people who print things is like pulling teeth. The only way to answer any question about any of this is to actually order hundreds of stickers, wait weeks, and see whether you wasted your money.

      I'm not throwing any more cash down this hole unless I hear from someone who says, "I have done this thing, and lo, it has worked." ("And here's the vendor I used.")

      • Patrick says:

        I've got a foil backed red star covering up my MacBook's Apple logo and it still leaks light like a mofo. Googling around, while there is a difference in vinyl designed for transparency and vinyl that isn't, I suspect it's more that the transparent stuff is intended to transmit light while the opacity of the other stuff is more of a side effect.

  5. I doubt you're going to be able to overprint white over black, because the white is presumably not opaque enough to cover the black. I think you'd have to, like you said, order a metal sticker with the DNA logo cut out. You might be able to get away with foil stamped, which are much cheaper than the aluminium. But, of course, this is not helpful, as I haven't done it...

  6. Lloyd says:

    On a flight recently, I sat through a film (Friends with Benefits? The Social Network?) which briefly featured a Windows laptop with a small glowing white four-square Windows logo where one might expect an Apple logo to be. And no sign of the Apple logo.

    Someone, somewhere, has done this, if only for a film.

  7. Ben Bennett says:

    You probably already thought of this, but I didn't see it above...

    What if you did the sticker more like the business card where you run the black up to the edge of the logo, then do the helix in green? Then you'd at least have glowing green and get rid of the apple.

    Or does the black let the light through too?

  8. Enid says:

    "die-cut aluminum with glue on the back" -- Market it as a computer accessory, and people will pay.

    • Leolo says:

      Yeah! Just claim it will improve WiFi reception or something!

      But... I don't think Our Gracious Host is one to sell snake oil. Except maybe snake oil infused vodka.

    • Julian says:

      There is inspiration here. If I had any interest in that I would look into flexible printed circuits for the stickers. They would be thin enough, the copper layer would make it perfectly opaque, there are probably some varieties that are adhesive, there are certainly green colored substrates in existence (and that would be the right green whatever green it is, because it would be electronics green), the copper below the green substrate would give a nice dark metallic shine, the ring would glow green, and maybe there are manufacturers that would be able to silk screen stuff on top of that. And they may even come out not that expensive when ordered in quantities. One can dream.

      • reboots says:

        This is a terrific idea. Standard PCB manufacturing can reproduce every visual aspect of that sticker, with true opacity, fairly cheaply.

        * The fiberglass PCB substrate isn't actually green, generally speaking. It's more of an unpleasant, translucent greenish white. It can be very thin (think translucent card stock).

        * The copper layer is completely opaque.

        * The green color you typically see is solder mask--special ink silkscreened onto the substrate. It can easily be applied selectively as a high-resolution graphic, and it can be any primary color.

        * PCBs typically have graphics in a contrasting color silk-screened on top of the solder mask.

        PCB pricing starts expensive ($1+ per square inch) for one-off prototypes, but drops precipitously with quantity. You don't want to mess around with defining all the copper and silkscreen layers correctly in some obtuse piece of CAD software and interfacing with chinese board manufacturers--find somebody in the Bay Area who designs circuit boards for a living. DNA Lounge's cachet as a famous goth club can only help here. I don't know about self-adhesive PCBs. Laminate some double-stick film? I'm sorry to report I've never seen one glow in the dark either.

        For some gauche but interesting examples of commercial-PCB-as-art, Google image search 'defcon badge'.

        • hattifattener says:

          Flexible PCB substrate (pyralux and the like) might be even closer; they're usually that distinctive orange color but I've seen them other colors as well. Unfortunately I think the glue used for multilayer PCB laminates requires heat and a press, so you'd need to get someone to put on a more sticker-like adhesive. I think this probably places it back in Too Much Trouble territory.

        • Ewen McNeill says:

          Mitch Altman of Cornfield Electronics (makers of TV-B-Gone, and who assisted with designing/manufacturing things like the active badges for the 2600 conference in 2010) might be a good choice in that respect. He's based in the SF Bay area (at least when not travelling), and a hardware hacker that might be interested in the project. And he has experience with manufacturing in quantity (TV-B-Gone sold many many thousands).


  9. Brian Enigma says:

    It does not help your sticker situation, but with regard to the business cards, have you put any thought into the "invisible ink" that fluoresces under blacklight? I have seen it put to good use for various Alternate Reality Game puzzles (I think first seen on a puzzle trading card). Under regular light, it's almost undetectable -- no texture and you can only see the ink if you look at it at just the right angle under regular light. Under blacklight, it glows very nicely. You could get a layer of that printed over the logo. I honestly have no memory what color it glows (green, yellow, white) or whether multiple colors are available. And you'd need to be in an environment with blacklights around (like a club, no?) for it to work. But it's a proven path that others have been down before.

  10. bottyguy says:

    I think to be light opaque you would need to print these on foil, most vinyl will leak some photons through.

    If you just want to make it work once you can use adhesive backed aluminum foil sheets, attach your sticker the the sheet, cut the sheet, attach to the mac. These are used for EMI shielding electronics. Its probably easiest to use the ones they sell for shielding guitars, there are thinner ones but you'd have to find a manufacturers distributor, plus the thinner ones are harder to work with (they kink easily).

    • bottyguy says:

      Doh, and to get your logo to glow you need to cut out a circle in the aluminum, and fill it with something that is the same thinkness to get the sticker to lay flat. Hmm, way too much work

  11. I can create the decals you are looking for. However, it would have to made out of solid vinyl color layers, thus the cost will be around $15.00-$20.00 per decal. So it may be too pricy. But, if you really want it, I can do it, so feel free to contact me.
    I'm the original artist that created most of the popular macbook decals you see that were copied from my old Esty store and are now are all over the net.

    My store doesn't have one tenth of all my originally created decals up but you can check it out here:

    • jwz says:

      That is unfortunately too pricey, since I was hoping to sell these for a couple of bucks each, but thanks for the offer!

      So, if your stickers are able to opaquely cover the glowing Apple, what's the difference between the vinyl you're using and the vinyl everyone else is using? Is it just way thicker, or is it a different composition?

      • Ah, you want know the secrets of the trade, well... its not that secret, actually most solid black vinyl does not let light leak through (unlike what people are assuming.) If you use white vinyl, and print the black color on to it, then the light will seep through, however if your using solid black vinyl, then you will see no light (but you can't print color on solid black vinyl, thus you will have to layer the vinyl. And its the only way to create this decal.) Also if you use what is called "calendar vinyl" it is a much thinner gauge vinyl, thus in some products you might get some light seeping. But I use a high quality "cast vinyl" which is always thicker and can easily black out any light (its the same type of vinyl used to make vehicle tale light designs.) Really the main cost in producing the decal is in the labor cost due to the layering of the green over the black base. If you wanted to buy this design in bulk as two parts that people manually overlay, then I may be able to make them at a much lower price (around $4.00 or $5.00 dollars a piece.)
        Let me know if this interest you,