Profile: Barry Robertson
By SignCraft Magazine
Posted on Monday, August 28th, 2017
500 sq. ft.
Two Graphtek plotters
Today we’re distressing some hand-lettered signs and making them into vintage signs—laying off after a busy week of commercial signs. It’s fun. We’ve been very busy and this is a nice break. We do a lot of signs using cut vinyl graphics, but we also do handcrafted signs.
My father, Brian, started the business in 1988, after 23 years in the trade. He has been a sign and coach painter since 1965. He’s 67 and semi-retired since last year, but still helps out a lot. His pastime is old lorries—vintage trucks.
Kara-Lee Moir, our apprentice, has worked with us for six years. She started with us at 15 years old. She’s a big help.
Our work is varied. We do a lot of work for the trucking, haulage and transportation industries thanks to my dad’s connections. Most of the trucks are done with vinyl lettering and some are partial wraps. We do some storefronts and flat signs, but not any high-end fabrication or electric signs. We do quite a few of vintage lorries, too.
As one might expect from a company that has been in business for nearly thirty years, most of our work comes from referrals. We’re fortunate in that regard.
I do a lot of logo design, too. It’s one of the things I feel I do well. I like to help the customer create an identity rather than just put some black Helvetica on their white van—which I will do, though, if that’s all they want. But they need to consider the advertising they could be getting.
I really enjoy creating logo designs, and I’m doing some marketing of that. It’s rewarding to help a customer get an effective design. It’s of the utmost importance for businesspeople to understand the power of good design. Some jobs merit this and some don’t. But when the benefit is there, I try to educate the customer.
Our shop is a paint shop—nothing fancy. We’ve been here for 26 years. It’s small—only about 200 square feet—and a little more gritty than a place with posh offices. If nothing else, it’s got character.
We were signwriters originally, then added the computer in 1997. We don’t have a digital printer but rather subcontract that work out. It works better for us to let others deal with the issues around printers and output. Dundee’s population is about 140,000. Within a 40-mile radius, we serve a population of about 250,000. The industry has been very good to us. We’ve been very busy and have good customers.
The biggest challenge is keeping the creativity alive. When you’re busy with everyday production you can get a little complacent.
It’s changing times for us. After nearly 20 years in the business, I have tried to focus more on what we want to do and what we do best. We can’t do every job, nor do we want to. I’m trying to lessen the number of “headache jobs” we get involved with.
We also want to do more handcrafted signs. In this area of the world, you can’t make a living doing just handcrafted signs. But the work is there if you want it, and you can do it alongside your computer-aided signs. I wouldn’t be standing here in this workshop, with employees and a steady flow of work, if it wasn’t for the computer.
But it’s just a tool. We can still market design and handcrafted signs along with that work. Handcrafted signs is a very niche market in Scotland, but there is a resurgence in interest in it. We want to get to the state where we can politely decline some of the routine work and focus on the design-oriented work. I’m not sure when that day will come, but that’s what we’re aiming for.
The handcrafted work is good for the soul, if you know what I mean. It keeps your mind active and it’s a good release for creativity— even if it’s just doing a sketch in the evening or talking with others who share the interest.
I think almost every industry has been affected by technology. It’s hard not to look through rose-tinted spectacles and wish for days gone by. But you’ve got to be pragmatic, because you’ve got to put food on the table as well.
If you want to market your design skills, you have to try to educate your customers about the advertising value of effective signage. It’s a dilemma that we all face. You must accommodate their needs and wishes without becoming complacent and just giving them what they ask for. We’ve fallen into that at times. It can happen when you get very busy or when there is a lot of price comparison going on. But then the joy just gets taken out of it, and you have to bring creative design back into your work.
I have a real passion for creating signs with a vintage look. I like the weathering, rusting and aging of a sign to create that authentic look. I enjoy learning new effects and techniques. SignCraft
articles like those on Rob Cooper’s work, how to do marbling, and Dan Sawatzky’s recent article on taking time to experiment with techniques have inspired me.
is a very valuable resource. I’m grateful for the magazine because it’s comforting to know it’s not just us—other sign people are trying to make creative, effective signs. There are others in your position, dealing with difficult customers and facing the problems that go with the business.
Sign making gets a hold of you—it gets a grip on you. It’s never the dull moment. There’s so much you can do to make an appealing sign. Before long, you go to sleep thinking about a design or how to age a wood border or make aluminum look like rusty steel.
We have no illusions about becoming millionaires in the sign business. We’ve got a passion for what we do, and we enjoy our work. That’s what really important.