Profile: Robert Lusk
Posted on Monday, August 28th, 2017
Old Town Sign Co.
750 sq. ft.
up to 4 at times
For twenty-seven years, I have honed my craft of design and fabrication of distinguished signage for my community here in Alexandria. Most of my work is in an area known as Old Town, which is the historical center of Alexandria.
Located just fifteen minutes from Washington, DC, Old Town is known for its bustling waterfront shops and restaurants, cobblestone streets and historic homes. I grew up there. I watched my grandfather, himself a small business owner, work tirelessly to provide for his family. I knew that selfemployment was not an easy path, but it was clear that it was a rewarding one.
As a high school student, I was drawn to art, engineering and architecture. My teachers encouraged me to enter a regional competition for a No Shoplifting sign campaign and my design took first prize, $100. My art had earned me money.
After graduating I took a job as a mechanic at an auto shop, but I continued my art on the side. I hand-painted storefront facades and display windows, getting a bit of a reputation around town. When business began to lag at the auto shop, I asked the owner if he’d like me to make them a new sign. When his business immediately picked up, I fully realized the power of good signage.
Learning the business
I joined Old Town Sign Co. as a production technician, the bottom rung on the ladder. I eventually worked my way up to be the sole owner. I was fortunate to work with some very talented sign people along the way. I accrued a wealth of knowledge—not only about design, fabrication and installation, but also how to weave my way through the delicate process of permitting, historical regulations and the board of architectural review.
The best lesson I learned was to sell good design and a quality product. Well-designed, well-made signs last a long time. They’re a real value for the client. One of my favorite quotes concerning signage is, “Signs make the unknown familiar.” I also appreciate the statistics from the Small Business Administration that quantify that over 50% of the bottom line profits of most businesses comes from their signage.
When I started, it was all hand lettering, cutting rubylith for silk screens by hand and building signs. It’s gone from an industry where everything was handmade to one where almost everything is produced with technology.
But it’s important to realize that technology isn’t the only tool you need. I love to have a brush in my hand. There are so many ways to make a sign—there’s so much to learn and put to use. You can use dimension, unique materials and shapes, different techniques to give your clients more powerful advertising.
Over the years, I’ve also seen the evolution of signs, both good and bad. The price tag and 24-hour turnaround time for a digitally printed sign may be tempting for a cash-strapped small business, but it rarely stands the test of time. There is no replacement for quality design, artistry and craftsmanship.
Value for business owners
As validating as it is to see my work dotted throughout the city, the true reward is in my constant interaction with small business owners. Whether they are brimming with the enthusiasm of someone just starting out, or a time-tested veteran who has seen the ups and downs with the economy, my job is the same: I am there to help make them money.
I make their business stand out and be seen and reflect the quality of what they are selling. I may be a dying breed in the digital age, but I still truly believe in forming relationships, working with my hands, honing my craft, and the power of a good sign.
At times, I’ve had as many as four employees. But I realized that it’s more of a challenge to manage people—I’d rather be doing the work and making the signs. Having employees also creates pressure to do more volume, and you need more space. My current shop is small, but I like it this way. It’s more of a studio than a conventional sign shop.
Sign people are hardworking people who want to do what they love doing, and hopefully make a living at it at the end of the day. I can’t think of any other business that would let me do what I love to do. Sign making gives you so many opportunities to be creative—from helping the clients determine what they need to doing the design work to producing the sign. It’s really satisfying—and it’s fun.