Posted on Thursday, April 30th, 2020
Finding his way from fine art to graphic arts to sign making, Jason Nale has built a designdriven sign business in a small town in the northeast corner of Pennsylvania. A mix of local signage and online design customers are keeping him busy. SignCraft asked him how it came to be and how it all works:
I’ve been an artist all my life and I got my college degree in painting and drawing. My parents are both fine artists as well, so it’s sort of in the family. That was really all I knew growing up, so it was natural to go to school for that. At that point, though, I didn’t know anything about sign design or the digital side of graphic design.
About that time, I taught myself a little bit about using the computer for graphic design and started looking for a job. In 2001, I landed a job at a franchise sign shop and worked there for about three years. I got completely caught up with lettering on signs and vehicle graphics. I had never thought about going into that line of work, but it worked out great.
Once I started doing graphics on the computer, I really fell in love with it. My background in fine art has been a big help in designing digitally, especially with color and the fundamentals.
Storefront sign studio
I went on to open my shop in 2005. I had a fairly large commercial shop for several years, then downsized and moved it home. Since 2017, I’ve had a small storefront on a busy corner in Nazareth. It’s a great location.
There, it’s me, my computer, my cutter and a 4×8 worktable. I had a digital printer for years but when it was taken out by a lightning strike in 2011, I never replaced it. I started outsourcing my printing then, and found it really worked better for me. I don’t have to worry about printer maintenance, my inventory of vinyl or issues with the output. I send my file to Signs365.com then go on to the next design. The printed graphics show up a couple days later printed on whatever material I need. They do a great job.
At 15-by-24-ft., the shop is a little on the small side but I like it a lot. I’m starting to outgrow it a little, but it still works for me.
Local work and online sales
I like to work with small businesses, doing their logo signs and business cards and whatnot. They make up
about 60% of my total volume. The rest is for customers outside my area. I use a lot of fonts from LetterheadFonts.com in my work, and I have a lot of my work posted on their gallery. I’ve picked up a lot of work from that.
All my work seems to come from word-of-mouth and people who find me online. I have a business page on Facebook and I use Instagram, which I like a lot.
Working for clients who are outside of my local area is different in that the customers are contacting me because they know my style. I also don’t have to produce the actual sign—I just put the design together for them. I like doing this type of design work.
Believe it or not, I do a lot of work for other sign shops. I’ve designed logos for sign shops all over—the Northeast, California, even Australia and England. It’s always hard to design your own logo, so I can do that for them. I also do design work for other sign shops.
Burn out and designer’s block
It’s hard to be creative every day. Every once in a while I get burned out. When that happens I just have to step away for a while. Somehow, it starts flowing again—fortunately. I don’t know how that works but it does. Unfortunately, though, it doesn’t help you meet deadlines. When I get designer’s block and have deadlines hanging over me, it’s not good.
Although some of my work gets pretty complex, I try to work in a style with plenty of pop. I like to do a clean design with plenty of contrast, especially for vehicles and commercial signs.
I build my designs as vector files in Illustrator. Even on the more complicated designs, I use no filters. Every shadow and effect is done by me. It may sound crazy, but I still work in Adobe CS3 and with the mouse. I don’t have a tablet. I can do everything I need to do in CS3, so I haven’t upgraded. To me, the software is just a tool—I don’t need the latest version.
I rarely use Photoshop—just to deal with an image now and then. I have Flexisign signmaking software and use that for output to my cutter, but that’s about it.
I know sign people who do all their design work in their sign-making software, but I’ve always used Illustrator. One thing about working in sign-making software is that it tends to keep the designs a little less complex. That’s good, because you can go overboard in Illustrator. It lets you do a lot of complex stuff if you want, so you have to watch and not overdo it. You see a lot of overdone designs today—way too many Photoshop effects, which can really hurt a design, especially the legibility.
Customers who want to design
The most frustrating thing about the sign business to me is that some customers—not all—do not allow me to do my best work for them. At this point in my career I feel that I have enough experience to know what I’m doing. I want to give people a very high quality, very effective product.
Yet customers often have their own ideas about what they want and often they are things that won’t work well for their business. I may have a design in mind that would really deliver a great image for their business, but they have these other crazy ideas in their head. They tie your hands with some clipart that they found or something they saw on Etsy. It’s a shame. This problem is more common with local businesspeople than those who find me online.
The online customers tend to be more willing to trust me to do something nice that will work well. That’s the work I can get really excited about. The focus is all about creating an image instead of trying to squeeze the customer’s ideas in there. It’s a lot more fun and the results are more effective—and that’s where it’s at.