I just got an e-mail asking what the difference is between a sticker and a decal. We often get this question at Websticker.com and I thought it was about time I tried to address it. There is no absolute answer as different people will often use the terms interchangeably to describe similar products.
Looking for a definitive answer over at Yahoo Answers won’t help clarify differences: “decal is a more professional word for sticker”… No; “I would think of a sticker as say a white label and a decal as clear”… No; “Usually a sticker is paper, example an Avery label and not durable and a decal has a permanent adhesive and is more durable”… No, no, no!
Let’s go to the New Oxford Dictionary and try to break it down. Then, I’ll let you know how we at Websticker.com (seller of custom stickers, decals, and labels) tend to define these product categories.
sticker n. an adhesive label or notice, generally printed or illustrated.
label n. a small piece of paper, fabric, plastic, or similar material attached to an object and giving information about it.
decal n. a design prepared on special paper for transfer onto another surface such as glass, porcelain, or metal.
As you can see, it’s fairly obvious why we also get asked the question; “what is the difference between a label and a sticker?” A sticker can be a type of label… and labels with an adhesive are also stickers. At Websticker.com we use the term “sticker”, as in “bumper sticker”, “die cut sticker”, “window sticker”, etc., to define more heavy-duty labels/stickers that can be used outdoors and hold up to the elements over an extended period of time. These are printed on a vinyl or polyester material with durable outdoor inks.
We generally use the term “label” to describe adhesive products printed on papers or foils with inks not suitable for outdoors. “Address labels”, “shipping labels”, “lapel labels”, “foil seals”, etc., these tend to be supplied on rolls or sheets for use (indoors) on packaging, paperwork, clothing, products, etc.
The term, “decals” on the other hand, is often used interchangeably with other outdoor sticker products. But, as you can see in the New Oxford definition, “decals” are more associated with a “transfer” from one medium to another. “Decal” is short for “decalcomania” and usually is a more decorative type design. Thus “slide-on transfer decals” in the model building world, or water-slide ceramic decals (Transfers) for tile and ceramic uses are an accurate use of the decal term.
Where the decal-or-sticker confusion usually lies stems from vinyl cut lettering and graphics. These are for long term outdoor use and are supplied with a pre-masking sheet, so upon application are transferred from one sheet/medium to another. Unlike a traditional “sticker” which is removed from it’s backing paper and stuck where-ever, these vinyl decals are being transferred (often in multiple pieces) from the masking sheet to a smooth surface. So, at Websticker (and many other companies) vinyl cut lettering and graphics are referred to as “decals” and all other one-piece, outdoor printed vinyl or clear polyester as “stickers”. Decals are a type of sticker, however, so you’ll hear and see the term “vinyl cut stickers” as well (like in this informative video on how vinyl cut decals are made).
I hope that drawn out answer helps. It is always best, regardless of the terms you use, to tell a manufacturer exactly what you are trying to accomplish with this sticky medium and where you want the sticker/decal ultimately to be applied/stuck. What ever you are trying to label, decorate, or promote, if you want your name (or message, or graphic) to stick, Websticker.com can help clarify and design the best custom product to meet your needs.
Author Update: This post has now been up for over 5 years and is one of the most visited pages on our website. Yet, I have no idea who is interested in this question or what leads them to seek answers on a search engine to clarify sticker, decal and label meanings. If you could comment briefly on why this question is of interest to you I’d really appreciate the insight. Comment below.