Old Town, Maine
Posted on Wednesday, October 30th, 2019
Tony Sullivan grew up around his father’s auto repair shop. As a child, he remembers his father getting his trucks lettered by a local sign painter, which was something his father made sure he was a part of each time. It was an early influence on the career he would choose to pursue later in life.
After finishing college, he worked in an advertising agency for a bit, then got the opportunity to learn the sign business for himself from a local sign maker who was planning to move to Florida. He was 23 and it was the dawn of the computercut vinyl sign industry, so his timing was great. He developed relationships with some very good customers, and they have kept him busy ever since. Here he is today, 29 years later:
The work is on wheels
Graphix Signs & Design
1000 sq. ft. shop space plus 675 sq. ft. office
Two plus Tony
Roland XR640 and
On Facebook as
Graphix Signs & Design
Most of my work is vehicles. We have a big logging industry up here so there are plenty of trucks to do. That’s great, because besides being my bread and butter, vehicles are where I feel most comfortable—even though I do a great deal of corporate sign work as well.
Vehicle graphics design is a challenge because usually the vehicle will be moving and quite often so will the viewer. You’ve got to grab the viewer’s attention and deliver the important message about what the business is selling in just a few seconds.
Software and hardware
I’ve worked in SignLab for basic design and for production. I’ve used it since the early days when it was Cadlink. I prefer it over Illustrator because it is more comfortable to work in. For wrap design, I work in Photoshop.
We have Roland XR640 and VG540 printers. We also have a couple of Guardian laminators
and love them. They are well designed and have been bulletproof.
Splitting up the work
Like most small shops, I do most of the sales and design, plus a lot of production. I have the help of one full-time person, Brad, who handles a lot of production and the installation. My son Nick helps out from time to time, as well.
I tried bringing in another designer a time or two, but it just didn’t work out. Their work didn’t have the look that I wanted to put out there. So I decided it was best for me to do the designs and find others to help with the production. I needed control over the design because that’s a big part of what I’m selling.
I’m not set up to do dimensional signage, so I sub that out. That work tends to be very laborintensive, and it stays in the shop for a while— which is the opposite of vehicle work. I prefer to leave the dimensional sign production to a shop that specializes in that. It leaves us free to do what we do best.
The part I like the least has to be the bookwork, which is a necessary evil. It’s tedious, there’s really nothing creative about it, but it has to be done.
Staying ahead of the workload
I think the hardest part of the sign industry is keeping up with the work. It doesn’t take very much to get one or two people running behind. We’re constantly busy, so scheduling can be difficult.
My commercial customers’ vehicles are making money for them, so they can’t afford too much downtime. If they’re not on the road, they’re not making money. I understand that, so I prioritize them and stay on schedule. Those customers appreciate that.
But it’s not unusual to arrive here and find three brand-new vans in the parking lot. I may not even know who they are for, but they are all going to need graphics. We’re usually booked out a couple of weeks with work, so it’s hard to work something else in.
Some customers feel they can get work done immediately. I call it the fast food mentality. They don’t realize the time involved in the complete process and that so much of it is custom work.
We are typically working on 10 to 15 jobs a day, so it is difficult to explain to someone that it may be some time before I can get to the job. A walk-in customer can be especially difficult to help sometimes. However, they have come to me for our work, and I see and appreciate that, so I try to be upfront as well as I can with our schedule.
The logo work is just a natural part of the process. I ask potential customers if they have a logo. If they do, I take a look. If I believe the logo does not represent their company well, I’ll suggest we work on something new. Often they do not have a logo at all, which gives me a clean slate to work on.
I have to say that it is the trickiest part of the business, though. You have to try to read the customer and design it based on their input. Sometimes you hit the nail on the head, but there are times where you have to revisit it a number of times before you make the customer happy.
More design time
The design process is far more involved than it was before digital printing, which was virtually nonexistent around here until about 10 years ago. There was a big learning curve once I got into it. Working with raster files and using Photoshop is a whole new level of knowledge compared to what you needed before digital printing.
But necessity is what keeps a company in business, and I feel very comfortable working in that space now. It’s opened up a whole new creative area that just was not available before digital printing.
Reading the customer
In the sales process, I try to lead the customer in the direction of what I know will give them the best advertising. That often involves giving them some education while at the same time finding out what they like and don’t like.
You might have a customer who wants big and bold, and then the next one might be a corporate client who wants subtle and conservative. You have to be able to read them quickly and shift gears, so you don’t waste time on a design that won’t work for them.
Trucks and more trucks
When I started, I literally worked out of the trunk of my car— going from one auto dealership to another to get business. That was how I got into truck lettering, and it has been my primary work ever since.
The dealers in the area have been kind to us and provide a constant supply of new work. That is the residual effect of having a solid relationship with them. Many times, we do the work without even speaking to the actual owner of the truck. That’s how much confidence they have that we will do a good job for them.
I have been fortunate to work on thousands of vehicles over these years. The truck owners put in long hours and aren’t making their living unless they are behind the wheel, so I focus on their needs as well as I can. There’s always a truck in the shop.