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Jeff Nicholson standing in front of lockers covered with promotional stickers

Jeff Nicholson, owner of Freely Creative, Inc. attempts to write weekly about stickers... news, design tips, resources, common questions and small business marketing.





What is the difference between a sticker and a decal?

Question mark on top of many stickers, decals and labels. What's the difference?

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.

 

By Jeff Nicholson

Posted on: 17 Comments
Jeff Nicholson

17 Responses

  1. Sue says:

    I am not actually needing to buy stickers, labels or decals but I just did a Google search for the definition of a decal because I was trying to buy a kitchen blackboard with the days pre-printed on it and found lots of them being described as decals. I have really enjoyed reading this Blog. Who needs text books or electronic games when such interesting and entertaining stuff can be found on the web? I have decided that my five-a-day will be five internet searches for spurious facts. Very good for the brain.

    • Thanks for stopping by and keep exercising that brain. 5-a-day is a great idea. Chalkboard decals are a great option for right on the fridge or wall in the kitchen. Though, I would call them “stickers” not “decals”. We only make custom ones in bulk, but I’m sure someone must sell pre-printed calendar versions. Have a great day!

  2. Joe Blow says:

    I’ve been cutting vinyl for over 20 years, vinyl cut Stickers & Decals are the exactly the same but you can charge more for a decal LOL

  3. Nash says:

    Thank you so much for your explanation.

  4. Mr. Decal says:

    Thank you for expressing your knowledge about decals. I founded and operated The Decal Factory for 30 years. I concur with your article. I have a blog written under Mr. Decal. The articles are mostly about decals, labels, screen-printing, flexography, and the technology of printing. If you would like to use my blog as a source, please feel free to do so, using my byline as the articles source.

    http://www.decalfactory.com/wp-index.php/

  5. d3 release says:

    I could have sworn I’ve been to this blog before but after browsing through some of the post I realized it’s new to me. Anyways, I’m definitely happy I found it and I’ll be book-marking and checking back!

  6. Graham says:

    I’m in a band and we would like to add a ‘sticker’ of sorts to our merch table. I notice that the vinyl stickers are about double the cost of paper stickers. Now we are left with the question of which to choose? In your opinion do you believe that the vinyl decal would be over kill or a wise choice because of the many different applications?

    • Jeff Nicholson jeffnich says:

      Without question I would always recommend vinyl stickers over paper for promotional purposes. They are way more desirable to fans and can be a merch item as well as giveaway. And the applications are much more extensive – guitar cases, equipment, skateboards, cars, bars… well worth the added price. Screen printed stickers are 3-5 years outdoors. This is your bands image you’re talking about, don’t go cheap! And make a cool design that further adds to desirability and spreads your identity. We’re happy to help if you need suggestions on improving design and making the sticker campaign as affordable as possible.

  7. printers london says:

    Great this thing let me know about it.what i had already idea that stickers are sticky and decals are more transparent. This post let me know the real thing.

  8. jack says:

    I watched Orange County Choppers last night and Paul Jr was installing a large Vinyl Cut Decal on his new truck. With the large truck graphics it looks like even a talented guy like him can struggle. They took their time and after a couple of tries they finally got it on. Sometime you might want to write about how to install the larger graphics.

  9. Stickerfly says:

    What an excellent, comprehensive article!

    The item about choosing your type of sticker based on what you want it to do is sage advice–and it applies, by extension to your design, as well. What do you want your sticker design to actually DO?

    A tiny URL on a bumpersticker won't be visable in traffic–a giant size won't inspire people to put your sticker on their laptop…these examples all seem pretty self-explanatory, I know, but it's amazing how many designers miss the boat!

  10. Macdougal says:

    I've been working on sticker designs for almost 3 years now but Im still not sure what's the difference between the two. thanks Websticker.com

  11. Brian says:

    I have noticed that there is a geographic trend that determines whether people use decal instead of sticker when describing outdoor stickers. It is definitely used the most to describe vinyl cut stickers. We have also heard the term 'Deckal', clarified as a real word and not a mispronunciation a few times.

  12. TruckieLoo Pet Photography says:

    Thanks for clarifying, Jeff. It can be confusing when everyone calls the same thing by a different name. It's nice to see how Websticker.com defines it's products so that everyone can communicate on the same level!

  13. john says:

    I think a sticker and decal are the same thing. A label or lapel sticker would be paper.

  14. Karen says:

    I am one of those people that pretty much calls everything a sticker. I was glad that when I contacted Websticker.com about promotional stickers I needed for a show they asked me what the sticker would be applied to and how it would be distributed. This saved me from buying paper labels that would not be the long lasting bumper stickers I needed.

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