Profile: Danny Dean
Rice Lake, Wisconsin
Posted on Friday, August 31st, 2018
Dynamic Signs Design
1200 sq. ft.
Danny and Sherry Dean
Graphtec FC-5100 cutter
ULTRA-Flex Cloud-based sign making software
On Facebook as Dynamic Signs Design
Back in 1980, Danny Dean picked up a lettering brush and “realized I had found a job no one could take away from me.” He was living in the Cedar Rapids, Iowa, area, where he learned the trade from a sign painter named Tom Carter.
In 1998, he and Sherry, his wife, took a vacation to Wisconsin and were taken by the beauty of the Northwoods region. It seemed like a great place to live and work, so they made the move. They’ve spent over two decades growing their business and making signs for the small businesses, resorts and farms there. On a busy summer afternoon SignCraft asked Danny about his work and his shop:
The shop and the market:
I’ve been at my current location for about 20 years. Like everyone, I’ve had to grow and change with the times. Originally I was a sign painter and did everything by hand. I still do hand lettering and pinstriping, but it’s more of a treat than an everyday way of doing things. Today, most things need to be done quickly and effectively to be profitable.
Most of the time, it’s just Sherry, my wife, and me in the shop. Sometimes I hire a little help when it gets really busy or for larger projects. Our shop is about 30-by-30-ft. plus the office, which is where the computer and vinyl cutter are. It’s a humble little place, nothing special, but it works for us.
I have a wood shop and a vinyl cutter, but don’t have a digital printer. For me, it’s easier to outsource my printing and do the rest of the production myself. The printer is a big expense, and you would have to keep looking at ways to keep the printer busy.
Rice Lake is a town of about 8000—it’s not a big town. Most of my work is within a 50-mile radius of the shop. It’s a vacation area with a lot of outdoor activities.
There are a lot of lakefront resorts here, and when I moved here I thought that would be a great market. I’m doing more of that now, but I never really got as much work out of that market as I thought I would. Most of my customers are small business owners around the area.
In a small town, it takes time to gain people’s trust. But once you do, and they realize that you’re trustworthy and reliable and concerned about doing a good job for them, you’ve won them over.
I’ve found that how you talk with your customers really matters. If you take the time to explain your design approach and the materials you use in a sensible, knowledgeable way, you will gain their trust, and the rest is history. They become very loyal customers.
I do a lot of signs, a few showcards, a little restoration work and some pinstriping. I also design billboard wraps in Photoshop and do some walls and other large projects.
In a small shop, you have to keep your prices up there and adjust them constantly for the rising costs. If not, you’ll be out of business before long. All of your work should be profitable. There’s not much future for someone whose only selling point is how cheap he or she is. The cheap guys don’t do the good work, and good work is not cheap. That’s a gem I got from my mentor, Tom Carter.
The increased costs of materials and services make it hard sometimes to keep custom work affordable for most customers. You have to work at being efficient. And things change so fast in today’s world that you really have to stay current. I make sure that my software is updated to the latest version and that I’m up-to-date on all the computer stuff.
I use the same principles now that I used back when I laid out every job by hand. I want to use the space well, choose the right fonts, colors and artwork. Those are the things that come together to make unique, effective signs. I took the computer technology and just added it to my bag of tools. I haven’t given up anything—I just added those capabilities.
I do a lot of 3D signs. I carve, cut a lot of things by hand, lay gold leaf and do scroll work. I’ve managed to build a market for custom and 3D signs by showing how an attractive sign brings in customers.
If you market yourself as a sign shop, you’ll always attract the mainstream sign work. Most of that is practical work that usually doesn’t let you be too creative. But if you want to do custom work, you have to go after it. Whatever you focus on will bring you more of that type of work.
So if you want to do interesting 3D signs, make sure you have them on your website. Be sure that you have good, detailed descriptions for the search engines to find you. You never know what someone might be searching for that could lead them to your site. It might be the word “dimensional” or “carved” or “high density urethane board.”
The website is critical:
I think the website is the most important aspect of my marketing, and that it probably is for most every custom sign shop. That’s how people find me. I make sure I have interesting work on the site—the jobs that include some art and design. That’s what I want them to see, because that’s what I want to do.
Keeping it fun:
I like to do work that’s creative and interesting. We like to keep it fun and do work that helps our customer stand out. You don’t want to get in a rut or you won’t enjoy your work. That shows.
SignCraft has always been an inspiration to me—especially in those early days. I saw those blazing fluorescent windows on car dealerships and knew I had to do some of those. Doing a layout with the Stabilo pencil, laying down the white base with a foam roller and then the florescent colors over that, then adding a wide black outline with a big flat on a car lot was fun. Those were the days!