Profile: Jeff Miller
Posted on Monday, January 4th, 2016
Red Dwarf Graphx
700 sq. ft.
Epson SureColor S30670 printer
Like a lot of sign people, my roots are in graphic design. I went to the Art Institute of Seattle for commercial graphic design and graduated in 1989. A position was available in a sign shop, and it just sort of evolved from there. I worked in a half dozen sign shops in Seattle and had a shop of my own there before moving here to Astoria ten years ago.
Graphic design, of course, is primarily done with the computer now, but signs allow you to design and build things as well. Along with the opportunity to design, you can paint, dig post holes, use cranes, engineer things, fabricate all sorts of stuff. I like to work with wood and build things, so it has always seemed like a good fit. You get to start with a concept then build it, and that’s fun.
Astoria is a small town of about 10,000. It sits right at the mouth of the Columbia River, which separates Washington and Oregon. Portland is about two hours to the east, and Seattle is about three hours to the north.
In a small town, you have to do a lot of different things. I do graphic design, vehicle signs, fabrication of all types of signs, plus print media of all kinds. I often do a design for a client, then do everything they need— business cards, signs, flyers, ads, vehicles. Most clients like that—I can take care of all of it for them.
Working from home
I run my business from my home. My studio is in the house; the tools and workshop are in the garage out back. My Epson SureColor printer, laminator and cutter are all in the studio, and all the building and painting gets done in the shop.
I’ve been really happy with the printer. It’s a 54-inch printer, and it was Epson’s entry level printer when I bought it a couple years ago. I looked around and it made sense to me to buy their printer. They had just launched this new ceramic printhead which minimizes maintenance. I didn’t want to be bothered with a lot of maintenance, and the printer has been incredible.
The prints are beautiful, too. It’s a four-color printer and that’s adequate for my work. I wouldn’t mind having the five- or six-color model, but I still get great results. That’s what matters to me.
I have a Seal laminator and a Graphtec plotter, which are both really dependable. I’ve always found it best to buy quality—it really pays off in the long run. There are enough hassles in the business without equipment problems.
Eventually I wouldn’t mind having a commercial location, but that would probably mean adding some help. That’s something I’m not sure I want to do. It’s hard to find someone with all the different skill sets you need in a sign shop. You need someone who understands design, knows how to build things, use tools and install signs. They have to wear a lot of hats, just like I do. It’s not easy to find someone who handles all that, or wants to learn to.
Managing the workload
I get a little behind in busy times, but I find if you stay in touch with people, most of them understand. Some projects have deadlines that have to be met; others you have some flexibility with. Most customers understand that I work alone and that I sometimes have to ask for a little patience.
It’s frustrating for me, too, because I like to get the jobs out quickly. That can be difficult when you work alone, and sometimes you’re just overwhelmed. But in the end, there’s that satisfaction of getting the jobs out and pleasing your clients.
Astoria is a seaport town. A lot of the grain grown in the US is shipped out through here, and a lot of cars arrive here from overseas. There are a lot of small businesses, and that’s good for a sign shop. In a small community, word gets around if you do what you promise and treat people fairly.
Astoria is a blue collar town, and sign budgets are smaller than in larger cities. I don’t get the opportunity to do the real fancy stuff that I’d like to do. Often I’d really like to do something a little more complex, a little more designed, but the budget just isn’t there. I know it would add a lot of appeal to their sign, but folks just won’t spend the extra money.
Likewise, wraps can let you create a lot of visual impact, but the budget has to be there. Being a sign person is a pretty unique profession. As a one-man band, you wear a lot of different hats. You’re creative—coming up with designs and engineering signs. And you’re active—there’s a lot of building, digging, loading and climbing.
Granted, it’s frustrating at times, but the sign business is also very rewarding. It’s full of challenges. I like what I do—and that’s a pretty good place to be.