Achieve a Modern Look with Dead Front Display

February 18, 2021

Updated May, 2023

For years, custom graphic overlays have been an industry standard—used by top brands to create an impression and communicate essential information. But the downside of graphic overlays is that they’ve been used for decades, and there are now more options than ever (believe us...we’ve been in business since 1979) to achieve an elegant and functional product display.

In contrast to the static graphic options of the past, dead front overlays give the benefit of a clean, flat aesthetic while an electronic product or function is turned off. When illuminated, however, the display lights up and draws attention to the icons or alphanumeric indicators that are enabled.

Dead front is becoming more and more visible in the market. Don’t get left behind! If your product requires clean lines and uncluttered aesthetics, dead fronting can be an excellent choice for achieving a streamlined and modern appeal.

What is Dead Front?

The term “dead fronting” in the printing industry refers to an icon or feature that is typically hidden from view, but is visible under certain circumstances. When the light source is on, the hidden graphics are revealed. When off, the graphics are hidden behind a flat, clean surface. The main idea is to only illuminate the graphics or symbols you want the customer to see at any one time.

When a designer is developing a user interface, it’s important to consider what the user needs to see when interacting with the product. For certain applications, calling attention to a warning light while keeping others hidden can be crucial. For other less critical applications, you still may want to highlight certain functionalities while keeping others invisible in the background.

For example, think of situations where eliminating distractions and emphasizing certain switches or indicators is necessary. This can be an automotive dashboard, an appliance control panel, or even passenger warning lights on an airplane.

In order to truly be considered “dead fronting” there are a couple of requirements that should be met:
  1. The icons or characters should be near-invisible when not lit.
  2. When illuminated, the icons should be as evenly lit as possible, with no shadows or bleeding.
backlit dead front display

Different Terms for Dead Front

As dead fronting is still a fairly new art in the field graphic displays (we printed our very first dead front panel in 2008), you may see and refer to the printing process in other terms:

  • Dead Front Printing

  • Dead Front Lighting

  • Dead Front Panels or Covers

  • Backlit User Interfaces

  • Backlit Graphics

  • Backlit Printing

Whichever terminology you and your manufacturer choose to use, it’s important to clarify the look you’re trying to achieve, and the methods your printer will use to attain your desired effect.

Want to start the conversation? Contact our team to learn about options for dead fronting your product’s display.

dead front appliance display

How Dead Front Can Be Used to Achieve a Modern Look

Dead fronting can be used to create dramatic visual effects, especially in low-light environments. Without the need for three-dimensional dials and buttons, a device can more easily blend into its surroundings and help maintain a clean aesthetic.

Dead front printing can also help to avoid the potential wear and tear that occurs in high-touch, highly-exposed environments. Since the black-lit icons lay under a flat surface, the risks of rubbing and fading are exceedingly reduced.

Lastly, dead fronting is synonymous with precision. When a product’s indicators are accurately backlit (without bleeding or flaws), the visual effect helps to communicate your product’s high level of quality and commitment to excellence.

A Brief History of Dead Front Capabilities

Since dead front is a fairly new technology in the world of IML and plastics design, use cases have been simple. One main color (usually black) with a dark color for the widow display. However, recent trends and capabilities have brought about color variations (white, silver, blue) and patterns like wood grain and marble.

Dead front is no longer synonymous with flat back, and the possibilities are truly endless when you consider the options for melding with other techniques:

  • Fine expression silk printing (FESP) can be used to add finely detailed patterns to the face of a part. Think rich wood grain with illuminated icons that show only when backlit.

  • Secondary patterns or hidden patterns are possible with dead front technology. Perhaps a piece looks metallic, and then shows complex checkered patterns when lighting behind the part is on.

  • First surface patterns and finishes are also possible, such as a touchable or matte finish. This can cut gloss and reflection, lending a modern and refined look.

wood grain dead front

Examples of How Dead Fronting Can Be Used

Your car dashboard is probably the most common application you’ve seen dead front overlays, though home appliances and consumer electronics are quickly following suit as well. More and more industries are finding ways to modernize their products and effectively communicate with dead front printing technology.

Often, icons are used to highlight important messages one at a time. For instance, you might only see the seat belt indicator light in your car if your belt isn’t fastened, or the airbag warning light if weight is detected in the front seat. Likewise, you might see a backlit message on an appliance only when an issue arises, like the indication to replace a filter or set a new timer.

Other examples of dead front applications include:

Frequently Asked Questions About Dead Front Displays

How light or dark can a part be?

At Sanwa, we can adjust the color as needed. If more light is needed to shine though, a lighter dead front color can be designed. If the LED is too bright, we can adjust the color to be darker. We test and test until the right illumination is achieved.

Is color matching possible?

Yes, if a color chip or color target is provided, we can match both the base color and the dead front color.

different colors dead front

Can the dead front color be different from the base color?

Slightly different colors are possible. Think brown to tan, black to silver, or navy to light blue.

Can different icons light up with different colors?

Depending on the color targets, it may be possible to have slightly different colors. Let's talk about your ideas!

Can dead front fix my light bleeding problems?

Yes, it is possible to print a dead front part that will only allow what is intended to show, and what is not intended can be hidden. Let's talk about your design, challenges and needs.

Is mirror-like dead front possible?

Yes, we have an option called “half mirror.” It looks like a mirror when off, but shows icons or text when the backlight is on.

Contact Us to Start the Conversation

Our technical team has years of experience using dead front printing for a wide variety of products on the market today. When you have questions about color options, applications, or bringing a certain look to life, we can walk you through the possibilities with Sanwa.

If you’re ready to deliver safety and quality (and even surprise) to your customers via electronic display, we have the experience and knowledge to steer you in the right direction. Plus, our one-stop service means you’re communicating with one team every step of the way.

Visit our contact page, or call (847) 519-2223 to talk with our experts about printing options, timelines, capabilities, customer reviews and more.