Posted on Tuesday, June 30th, 2020
Colorado’s San Luis Valley is the highest valley on earth. The valley covers 8,000 square miles and is sparsely populated, dotted by a few small towns. The population of the six counties that make up most of the valley have a total population of just under 50,000.
It is home to the headwaters of the Rio Grande River—and Matt Beckner’s Ion Graphics in the town of Alamosa. Like many small-town sign makers, Matt does a wide variety of work and serves a number of surrounding communities. SignCraft caught up with him on a busy afternoon after he returned from a pinstriping job.
Learning the ropes:
I started off doing graphic design in 1997—logos, brochures, photography and so on. In 2012, though, I met up with a sign painter by the name of Bill Hilbert who had Suncoast Signs here. I had done some graphic design for a travel agency and Bill was doing the signs. He also wanted to get out of the business, and I had always been fascinated by sign making. It involves design while working with wood and metal, which I have always enjoyed, and includes working outside. I have always been into hot rods, so that was another connection.
was my very first sign project—a big sign with an LED message board. I did that with Bill. It led to me purchasing his business, which I merged with my graphic design business. Bill went on to teach me to hand letter and how to make all types of signs.
The market and the crisis
The valley is huge. We serve Alamosa and many small towns in an area roughly the size of Rhode Island. Things are really spread out, and there’s no major city nearby to rely on for most of your work.
Business had been good this year, right up to the COVID-19 crisis. That has hit us hard, because we do work for quite a few restaurants, breweries and bars. All that is on hold right now. Until that, it was looking like a pretty good year.
For my first seven years in the business, I had worked out of an 1100-sq.-ft. rented shop. Then we purchased a cool Main Street building in Alamosa. It had been an old frame and axle shop, and it was huge—50 by 150 feet. I went from 1100 to 7500 feet overnight!
But a couple years ago, the market tanked here. Our sign business dried up. It was the coolest shop we ever had, but we ended up selling it last year. My grandfather had died, so now I do my production work out of what had been his 40-by-60-ft. wood shop. My computer, digital printer and plotters are in my studio at our home.
I’m thankful that we sold the building when we did. Had we not, this COVID-19 downturn would have been even worse for us. If things start to pick up soon, though, we will be okay.
The value of effective signs
I think the toughest part of the sign business is educating people about the value of a quality sign as opposed to getting a sign in a hurry for a low cost. This is a low-income area, and often people are primarily concerned about price and quick turnaround. I spend a lot of time explaining the importance of creating a good image for their business.
I’ve been able to bring our town back to a traditional look with our signs. There are a lot of historic buildings downtown, and many of the signs were inappropriate. I’ve had the opportunity to replace many of those with signs that are more historically accurate. That’s been really gratifying to me.
I tend to avoid typefaces for primary copy. I like to talk people into using custom-designed lettering for their logo. It gives them something totally unique for the identity for their business. They are assured that no one will have something similar to the lettering on their sign or logo.
Lettering and striping Hand lettering and pinstriping work is my favorite. Seeing Todd Hanson’s pinstriping in SignCraft got me into striping. I remember seeing that article of Todd striping this ’40s Chevy, and I knew I wanted to learn how to do that. I always loved hot rods and that was so cool to see. There was no one around me doing striping, so it was a good market for me.
I was so fortunate to have had the opportunity to meet and work with Todd. Back in 2014, I invited him to a panel jam we hosted. Todd and I clicked, and he’s been out here every year since then. I have learned so much from that guy! He taught me how to be unafraid to step away from my computer and draw something new and original.
Today I’m wrapping a funny car, and I’ll be hand lettering the graphics over that. We handle a pretty big gamut of work. We do hand lettering and 3-D signs, sandblasted signs, vehicle graphics, label designs, packaging and logos.
It’s just me and Brandi, my wife. She does all the bookkeeping and the numbers, and keeps me on track. She says she doesn’t do design, but she has a good eye for it. I can always count on her feedback.
We fabricate almost everything in-house and without CNC equipment. It’s a little archaic and a little up-to-date at the same time. [Laughing] We get into some pretty interesting projects, though, and we like what we do.