By SignCraft Magazine
Posted on Wednesday, February 28th, 2018
The September/October 1994 issue of SignCraft included a profile on Russ Mills. He was about four years into having his own shop, and was busy making signs in a small town in the southeast corner of Kentucky. Twenty-four years later, he’s still at it, despite the area’s economic ups and downs.
Russ Mills Signs
1300 sq. ft.
30-in. Summa plotter
On Facebook at russmills.signs
I moved back into my home studio in 2013. I started out there, then for 18 years I rented a shop. When the economy kept going downhill, I decided to cut the overhead and move back to the house.
Government regulations on the coal industry around here also really changed the economy. The coal business had accounted for about 30% of my business, and that mostly went away. A lot of my work had been coal-related, whether it was trucks or signs. We went from having a couple dozen coal operators here to two or three.
My shop occupies the whole basement in our home. I’ve been planning on building a separate shop behind the house, but I’ve really been too busy to concentrate on doing that. That may be a good project for this year, though.
I still do a lot of signs with vinyl on overlaid plywood with some hand-painted work on them, a lot of contractor vehicles. I don’t do as many trucks as I used to. Back when I started, it was all hand lettering and I did more trucks than anything else. But most of the independent coal truck owners have had to go work for big companies.
I had started promoting my artwork online a couple years before, and I’ve been blessed that that has been growing. I sell caricatures out there, and I sell a few every month. It’s a nice break from signs, too.
I do a little bit of pinstriping—a few motorcycles and a few hot rods. I used to do more back when everything was hand lettered, and I still enjoy it.
I’m a student of the late Mike Stevens and of Gary Anderson from Bloomington, Indiana. That’s how I learned to design signs. I got Mike’s book, Mastering Layout
, and tried to apply those principles to my own work. I’m a fan of Dan Antonelli’s wrap designs for the same reason—they’re legible and interesting to look at. You see a lot of wraps that are just too cluttered to read on the road.
When possible, I like to give the sign panel itself an interesting shape. There are so many rectangular sign panels out there, and a panel design can make a sign more interesting. Some of the shapes are stock shapes from VectorArt. com or Golden Era Studios, and others I design based on the layout.
I usually use the Gary Anderson approach: I design the text then create a shape around it. It gives you better results than trying to do the opposite, which is to choose a shape and then try to make the layout work within it. Usually that just doesn’t work too well. Very rarely are two shapes alike, and that keeps things unique and interesting. If you get a cookie-cutter look going, it’s a bad deal—especially in a small town.