AIGA gets laser-happy at Design Concepts

October 01, 2014

Design Concepts recently hosted a group of AIGA members for Laser-Rama ’14, a workshop demonstrating our Full SpectrumTM RetinaEngrave laser cutter. A big thanks to AIGA, the professional association for design, for joining us. It was inspiring to see a range of custom-cut lettering, hand-drawn type and illustration techniques generated especially for this event.

Laser cutting isn’t a widely available production method for 2D designers, but the technology is accessible if you do a little research. For most of our visitors this was a first chance to see the process in person. We discussed materials and methods not just for one-off pieces, but for multiple runs as well.

Laser cutter basics

Laser cutting machines plot in 2D much like a large format, flatbed printer. The bed can be raised and lowered to accommodate different objects, from footballs to small furniture, up to 24 inches high.

Methods include a full range between etching and cutting. Machine settings are adjusted based on materials, since different materials are differently affected by heat. It’s useful to record your settings in a log for future reference among groups.

Using registration jigs is the best way to do multiples, especially on separate runs. Rotary jigs are also available as attachments, to apply patterns to cylindrical surfaces.

Machines vary, but the materials list for our machine includes:

  • Wood (untreated). Chemicals used to treat wood can produce toxins (carbons, dioxins, etc.) when hit with the beam
  • Paper (uncoated)
  • Acrylic
  • Thin Mylar
  • Coroplast (corrugated plastic)
  • Non-chlorinated rubber, perfect for stampmaking
  • Magnetic sheeting
  • Plant or animal-based textiles such as cotton, wool and leather

Only certain grades of lasers can etch metal (our model can accomplish this with etching compound). Vinyl, a favorite for signage, unfortunately creates noxious fumes when heated. Thin Mylar is a good substitute.

Don’t work up a sweat trying to keep up with an X-ACTO Knife. You’re putting yourself in unnecessary danger. Machines are our friends.

Where can I access a laser cutter?

New maker sites such as Ponoko are geared toward larger runs for Etsy sellers and entrepreneurs. This unfortunately isn’t a great solution for designers that want to do small runs.

Small maker machines are purchasable for the invested and ambitious among us. VersaLaser is a popular brand for small-scale operations, but starting around $8k, cost is a barrier to experimentation and creation for the typical, singular user. To address this need in the marketplace our chosen brand, Full Spectrum, began their own Kickstarter to fabricate a smaller, more affordable model.

The UW-Madison Art Department, has the second-best printmaking program in the U.S. and houses laser cutting equipment. Enrolling in a degree program or even auditing certain printmaking and bookmaking classes provides access to their laser cutter. Contact or see for more information.


Monthly maker memberships are merely $50 for students, which is a great value for the prolific 2D maker. (Or $100 for professionals.)

Consult with each group ahead of time to make sure your project ideas align with their equipment.

We hope to see AIGA back again for more laser-mania. In the meantime, don’t work up a sweat trying to keep up with an X-ACTO Knife. You’re putting yourself in unnecessary danger. Machines are our friends.

— Written by Elizabeth Cavanaugh