Posted on Saturday, October 9th, 2021
Twenty years ago this month Danthonia Designs sold their first handcrafted signs in Australia. In those early years, SignCraft featured articles with photos of their impressive hand-carved signs, along with several articles by Joe McKernan on sales, design and production of custom 3D signage. You can read that first feature on Danthonia Designs here.
Danthonia Designs has grown into a large-scale full service sign company, and Joe is still busy making signs there. SignCraft recently had a chance to talk with him as Danthonia Designs turns 20 years old.
SIGNCRAFT: What prompted you and a few others to start Danthonia Designs?
JM: My wife and I are members of The Bruderhof, a network of several dozen Christian communities found in Europe, the Americas, and Australasia. We were invited to Australia with our four teenagers, to help launch a business capable of supporting ‘Danthonia’—a new community that we were growing in rural New South Wales. Our members had explored a number of business ideas, but we settled on artistic dimensional signage for a number of reasons.
Australia had recently hosted the 2000 Olympics and were very focused on growing tourism. I’d had some experience in the North American sign market and knew how important handcrafted signs were to tourist destinations. Very few, if any, Aussie sign makers were carving signs at that time, so we thought we could make a unique contribution. We had the theory that a good tourism tool in North America might also be a good tourism tool in Australia.
We had several artists and artisans in our fledgling community, and saw the sign business as a way to harness some of those abilities. Working together with customers, to create beautiful and successful signage, was also great way to earn respect and make friends in a new country.
Over time not only tourism managers, but also many others who wanted to make a quality statement about their town, small business, or school, began seeing our handcrafted signs as a good way to do this. The concept caught on and orders followed.
After a year or two, Danthonia began winning local and regional business awards. With the growth of the internet, we were able to sell signage far beyond our locality. Our approach turned heads since we were operating an international business out of a weathered woolshed, many hours away from any major city.
As far as I know, Danthonia was the first dimensional sign company to do virtual site visits via Google street view. We would email design ideas to land the job, and email final product photos for customer approval before shipping. This approach might sound ho-hum in 2021, but twenty years ago it was cutting edge for the Aussie bush.
SIGNCRAFT: Small family businesses are common in the dimensional sign trade. But can you explain the challenges of growing a “community business” that needed to financially support hundreds of people?
JM: In the first few months, Danthonia Designs had some similarities to a family business. My family, for example, put a lot of passion and many long hours into the start up. But as the community grew, more people joined the business effort, bringing in talents and abilities way beyond anything that any one family was capable of. This was crucial when we reached the stage of expanding our product line.
Some background: A Bruderhof community business has two purposes, work and income. Our members like to work together on our own land rather than commute to various individual jobs. Shared work helps to illustrate a life of sharing, under God who ultimately provides our ‘daily bread.’. We look for work that is environmentally safe, with a schedule flexible enough to allow for spontaneity. Minimal travel allows more family time and a bias for physical work over office work helps to keep our muscles active and our hand skills alive.
In our Bruderhof communities, meaningful work must be available for men, women, old, young, members, visitors, skilled, unskilled, healthy, disabled—anyone who wants to help. Good communal work should allow everyone to contribute in some way that brings both the group and the individual a sense of fulfilment.
There are dozens of steps to making a sign. Cutting, painting, carving, sculpting, artwork, welding, spraying, packing, shipping…. Nobody here is an expert at every step, but almost everyone knows how to do something.
When orders overwhelm our daytime crew, we can organize a work push where 50 or 60 additional community members show up for an evening to help make deadlines. We typically end the extra shift about 8:30 pm to share a communal snack of home brew and fried chicken! So working together can be a happy part of our communal experience.
SIGNCRAFT: You mentioned work and income? How did you grow Danthonia Designs to keep up with financial needs as your community grew? When did Danthonia move into markets beyond hand-carved signs?
JM: Over the years, Danthonia has grown to about 200 people. Our community model does not simply pay people a wage and send them home to make ends meet. For us a “community life” means inner and outer care from the youngest child to the oldest grandparent. This includes food, housing, clothing, education, medical, dental, pastoral and many other forms of care for everyone who lives at Danthonia. This includes sign makers and all the others who work in our farms, schools, day-care centers, kitchen, laundry, etc.
As this video shows, we do still make dimensional signs, but we have needed to expand into wider markets and product lines, which now comprise over 90% of our overall business.
In the early days we sold one sign at a time direct to the end-user. Our custom design and sales process may have involved 10 to 50 emails or phone calls per sign in order to guide everything from concept to completion. Now we do more work for companies or project managers. They are rolling out large architecturally designed sign systems for shopping malls, state-wide medical facilities, or nationwide aged-care facilities.
For example, after COVID hit we were awarded a contract to produce a new sign system for every pathology lab in our state. The order involved over 1200 aluminum signs, some of them very large. I enjoyed that job because it involved silk-screening a two-color logo onto most of the signs. Silk-screening is something I learned 50 years ago in art school, so it was fun to dust off some old skills and put them to good use again.
In order to expand our market, we have had to vastly expand our capacity, product line, and equipment. To give an idea, the workspace in our original woolshed was less than 4,000 square feet. When we cut the ribbon on our new shop in the next few months, it will total over 40,000 square feet of working area under one roof.
They say that a picture is worth a thousand words so maybe the best way to wrap up this article is with some photos and captions comparing some of our original work with the kind of products and projects we are doing now. Some of your old time readers might also enjoy listening to this sign painter’s song written and recorded by my son Donal and his wife Cornelia. Enjoy.