Posted on Wednesday, May 1st, 2019
In high school, Tom Bowen found a job in a department store. Before long, he worked his way into the display department, doing the window signs on a small press and using transfer lettering. He was fascinated by lettering, and the woman who designed the newspaper ads shared what she knew about the use of lettering and type. At the time, the company was expanding into the malls going up around Chicago, so there was plenty of display work to do.
When the boss sent him to pick up a delivery truck that had been lettered at a sign shop, he found himself intrigued by the sign shop and amazed as he watched the sign painter. “His name was Wayne Majeri,” Tom says. “He did terrific work and he’s retired now. I have a few of his old signs in my shop. They’re beautiful.”
But rather than switching to sign work, Tom went on to the University of Illinois. His first thought was to major in art, but he decided on advertising instead. After college, he worked in his dad’s bakery for a couple years then landed a job as a beer salesman. We’ll let Tom take over from here:
One day I needed some banners for a promotion so I stopped in to see a sign painter—John Blazekovich at Blaze Signs. As I looked around his shop and watched him working, I fell in love with it right on the spot.
John passed away a couple years ago, but he was a real artist. I was trying to learn calligraphy, and he showed me how. Eventually I learned to hand letter and in 1985, opened my own shop. I went on to meet a lot of other local sign people. There is a lot of great talent around here—folks like Pat Finley and Bob Behounek.
Signs for small businesses:
Like most sign shops, most of our customers are local small businesses. We do the usual mix of work—vehicles, windows, flat signs—and also a lot of sandblasted signs. I do vehicle wraps reluctantly, mostly because I prefer a clean legible look. Wraps tend to get cluttered and hard to read. In fact, I do more partial wraps for that reason.
Power of teamwork:
Initially I was going to just be a one-man shop, but I eventually added another sign painter. Over the years, I’ve had three very good people who worked with me. Today, Colt Pelka does design and production, Mark Shoukletivich handles the maintenance, and Wayne Erber works with us part-time, doing carving and fabrication. Sue, my wife, does the books and manages the office.
Last year, I got pretty sick and ended up needing a double lung transplant. It took some time for me to get over all that, but everyone stepped up and kept us afloat. It’s good to have a team like this.
Knowing your shop rate:
I think that one of the most important things about the sign business is knowing your shop rate. That has to be accurate or your estimates will be off and that will affect the success of your business. You’ve got to know what your overhead is. You can’t go by what you hear other shops are charging or by what feels right to you. You also have to adjust your prices up every year as the cost of living increases every year, and materials and overhead go up, too.
All about layout:
I have always preferred clean, simple layouts. I don’t like gaudy or busy signs. It just slows the reader down, and your goal is really to make the reader’s job easy. It’s hard to keep it simple and still have the layout be appealing, but you can do it if you work at it. If you look around, you’ll see plenty of examples of simplicity at work in advertising and sign design.
I think sign work really comes down to the layouts. It doesn’t matter how well you can paint or make the letters—if you can do a cool layout, you’re ahead of most everyone.
Less is more:
I like to give the copy a lot of room to breathe—plenty of space around it. That space makes your lettering more powerful. I think I learned that back when I was doing display work. My boss sent me to a Crate & Barrel store to look at their signs because that was the look he wanted. As I walked through the store, I saw all this very clean sign design. They would have 2-by-2-ft. hanging signs with two words in the lower right corner. The signs were beautiful. I realized that most of the sign panel was actually blank, but it gave the lettering a lot of impact.
I was 17 years old, and that really stuck with me. I’ve used the less-is-more approach for my sign designs ever since. Of course, I made plenty of mistakes learning how to do that, but I’ve tried to learn from them.
I love lettering, but I like to reduce the amount of copy on the sign so that the lettering gets read. Mike Stevens [author of Mastering Layout, available from SignCraft.com] knew how to do this. He knew how to make the lettering flow, and he used negative space to make the lettering more powerful.
34 years and counting:
This has been a good business. Sue and I put three kids through college, and we’ve done plenty of interesting sign work along the way.
I’m back to working full days, and really enjoying it. It’s more fun to come to work now. I don’t feel the need to take every job. If the customer seems difficult or if I know it’s going to look bad, I don’t want to do it and to have our name on it. There’s plenty of work to be done that will reflect well on the shop. I’m doing more fun things now, too, like residential signs and interior signs.
I’ve had a great life, and I’ve been in business for 34 years. I’m 62 and I’m not ready to retire. When my health got bad, though, I was afraid I might have to. But since the surgery, I feel great and have a whole new outlook. An experience like that changes your perspective and your priorities. I seem to have a new passion for the business. I think I’m more creative than ever.