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.
It helps to develop a reputation over the years. If you can do that, it really makes your business run more smoothly. I like to develop an image for my customers and help them be more successful. Most of them seem to appreciate that.
I just turned 53, and that makes me one of the old-timers in the area. [Laughing.] I’ve done a lot of work here, and have always tried to keep the signs interesting and appealing.
When you work alone as I do, you need to get other companies to help with production if you want to keep your volume up. I outsource a lot of my panel and letter cutting work to a friend of mine who has a Shopbot router [www.shopbottools.com]. He can cut things in a matter of minutes. It’s not worth me getting the jigsaw out. I’ve got plenty of other work to keep me busy, so I let him do that part.
I send my digital printing to Signs365.com. It’s just more practical for me than having a printer in house. I don’t want to spend time handling that production when I can let someone else do it. They’re fast. I can sell a banner and have it here the next day. I send off a Photoshop file and then I’m back to work on something else. I get great results—I’ve had digital prints out seven or eight years that still look good.
I’ve always worked alone, and I prefer it that way. I like to stick with the work that I can handle myself. I have two teenage children who help me out when I need a hand, especially during the summer. My wife’s uncle also helps me on big installation and construction projects, but I don’t have any fulltime help.
I’m not really a boss—I’m the kind of person who has to have his hands on every aspect of the job. I have to know it’s all done right, because my next job depends on that one. If you put one bad job out there, a hundred good jobs won’t undo the harm it does. I look at every sign as my own sign—it’s advertising for me. That sign reflects on me as much as it does that business.