The use of neon to create compelling advertising signage is decades old, but today we’re on the verge of a shift in sign technology. The rise of low cost LED lighting and the proliferation of large screen displays combine to put serious pressure on neon’s ability to compete.
Creating neon signage is a craft — it takes years of training in bending glass and deep understanding of how to use various techniques to create colors and animation. It takes time, planning and skill to make complex neon signs. Creating a complex neon sign can takes months. Creating a complex LED sign is a much simple process. Creating a complex display on a large screen monitor is even easier — and can be changed just as easily.
Given the competitive advantages of the new technologies, it’s easy to understand why neon is struggling to remain relevant. In North America, where neon is part of the cultural psyche, it remains both a source of fond associations and in demand. While market share is shrinking, neon is losing ground much more slowly in markets like North America. In Asia, neon seems to hold no special grip on the masses and, as a result, LED is taking the outdoor advertising world by storm.
Neon, with its warm glow, it’s soft curves, and its particular color palette, is a completely different experience from LED composite signs. LED signs tend to be brighter, more colorful, more suitable to animation, and capable of more precise rendering of images and text. Is one better than the other? This is a question of subjective preference; they are most certainly different experiences. I, for one, know where my preferences lie, but I fear my nostalgic urges alone are insufficient to save neon art in the face of brutal economics in Asia.
In many places, it’s already too late for neon — the heyday has past. Patpong, in Bangkok, was once the home to numerous amazing neon signs. Today many of those signs have gone quiet. Some of the classic signs — Kings Castle, Queen’s Castle, and more — can still be found mounted on the building exteriors, but they are, sadly, dark. As signs have fallen into disrepair, they have been abandoned and replaced with the new technologies.