For those of you old enough to remember the song by The Buggles, you’ll be familiar with
the maxim that newer is better, modern trumps traditional and that progress is always positive.
But video didn’t kill the radio star, did it? Just as the movies didn’t kill theatre, TV didn’t
kill movies either. Today they coexist, each performing a particular function and serving its own purpose.
Sure, some legacies don’t survive – particularly where technology is concerned – but
those that are adaptable enough to evolve and renegotiate their niche can go on to great
things. The pressure of competition actually helps to refine them into a better form.
Such is the case for neon.
Ever since the birth of modern LEDs back in the 90’s, these new kids on the block have
dazzled the world and have quickly become the norm in offices, shops, transport and our
homes. They’re cheap to run, energy-efficient and easy to manufacture.
So they’re the silver bullet for lighting. Aren’t they?
Well, that rather depends on what you want to do with them.
Just as margarine isn’t really a direct replacement for butter, and a synthesiser isn’t a
direct replacement for an orchestra, LED isn’t analogous with neon.
Neon lights have been the poster child for stylish, funky and downright ‘cool’ lighting
since back in the (19)20’s, and to this day add a hazy hint of nostalgia that LED just
cannot replicate. There’s just something a bit more noble about neon.
Using excited inert gases and smart, handcrafted glass tubes, neon lights provide fluid,
soft colours that have been used for signs from Times Square to Piccadilly Circus, Las
Vegas to, well, everywhere.
But that hasn’t stopped LED from trying to outshine neon, although early endeavours to
use LEDs as a replacement for neon signs were somewhat weak. The separate placement
of individual LEDs lead to words looked primitive, and attempts to create designs were
clunky and, frankly, unattractive.
A relatively fresh development comes in the form of LED strips, and flexible LED tubes.
While using the same technology as standard, individual LEDs, these new forms use
flexible circuit boards to allow for manipulation of the strip’s shape.
And certainly, when looking at cost, there’s almost no comparison.
But LEDs are cheaper for a reason – the standard of care and attention to detail in the
product is machine controlled, rather than the hands-and-eyes expertise of the craftsman
creating a neon installation.
This is the perspective that really sums up the entire LED vs neon debate in its entirety:
You would expect LED to ‘win’ the financial fight, particularly as the technology behind
neon is close to being a century old. Anything that’s been around for as long as neon
lighting is, surely, due to be switched off? Right?
If your decision is made by your wallet, then you’ll likely choose LED every time.
But that’s not what’s happening. Neon signs are still around, and there’s a clear reason
why: because LEDs just can’t get it quite the vintage, nostalgic, romantic thing right, for
all their other positives.
Neon has its niche, and LED isn’t killing it off any time soon.