Good ideas never go bad. Samples sell!

By Dan Sawatzky

Posted on Saturday, January 27th, 2024

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Over ten years ago I helped teach at a workshop in Indiana. One of my fellow instructors was a creative fellow named Jamie Oxenham of Oxenham Design who specialized in creating props for the movie industry. At one of the meal breaks, I was looking through his very impressive portfolio and came across a photo of a sign that really caught my eye. It featured a submarine/fish sculpture and the words “Institute for the Study of Mechanical Marine Life”.

Jamie noticed my ardent study of his piece and jokingly quipped, “Think you could do better?” The challenge was instantly on. Other creative types sitting at the table quickly joined the fun and before lunch was over we had defined the rules for “the competition.” We each had one year to fabricate a similarly themed piece of our own design. The stated purpose of our efforts was to create a wonderful portfolio/display piece that we would display in our studios to showcase our skills to prospective customers.

That same day, between my teaching sessions, I worked up some ideas and came up with a rough sketch which would form the basis of my creation. As soon as I got back to my studio I began sculpting and chronicled my progress on our journal and on the forum. Others from around the world joined in. Interest was huge in the industry, and I heard there were about twenty similarly themed pieces started in all.

For years afterwards, at every sign gathering, people asked who had won our little “contest.” My joking answer was always the same: ME. I entered my creative piece in various trade competitions, and it garnered one first-place international award (Signs of the Times) and one first-place national award (Signs Canada). Much more important than those awards, the display piece attracted immeasurable attention in our studio from every client who visited. It and the other 150 pieces on display proved our creative abilities beyond doubt to prospective customers.

But I wasn’t yet content with my efforts. Good ideas don’t go bad, and I was confident that I could eventually sell it to the right customer as a full-sized piece. I pitched the ideas multiple times through the years without success. That day finally arrived this past year. Our client asked us to design and build three six-hole, indoor mini-golfs, each with a different theme. One of the ideas that instantly came to mind was the fish/submarine. I drew up a presentation, and the customer instantly fell in love with it!

It took our creative team a little more than six months of studio work to build the features and signs for the mini-golfs. In the early fall of 2023, we delivered the features to our customer. This entry feature, along with the many other elements of the mini-golfs, filled four semi-trailers. I flew out to assist our customer in their assembly inside a large indoor theme park facility.

Even after more than ten years this ongoing creative effort still makes me smile! The mini-golf at NEB’s Fun World in Oshawa, Ontario, is going to open in the next few weeks.


Dan Sawatzky's shop, Sawatzky's Imagination Corporation, is in Chilliwack, British Columbia, Canada. Dan shares his experience in his Sign Magic Workshops on 3-D sign making, and his Sculpting Workshop.