Posted on Monday, February 5th, 2024
Roger Cox waded into the sign business right out of college in 1988, a graduate from Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design. He started selling sign projects on the side while working a full-time restaurant job and aspiring to become a firefighter. Eventually he had to decide on which direction to pursue and Roger chose to open a custom sign company. Over the next 29 years, his House of Signs entity became nationally known for his distinctive brand of custom 3D signs.
Shop name: VIM Creative Studio
Location: Hanalei, Hawaii, and Helena, Montana
“I had moved from Denver, Colorado, to the high country and ski resort mecca in 1988,” says Roger. “It was an exciting time, fresh out of college. I met Julie a year later and we raised our twin daughters there. Our professional lives were thriving, our kids were doing great, we loved the outdoor recreation in the heart of the Rocky Mountains.
“But honestly, after 31 winters at 9200 feet in elevation, we were burned out on the harsh climate. The long cold winters and only 30 frost-free days per year take a toll. At every chance, we would go to a warm tropical place. In the late 1990s we discovered Kauai in the Hawaiian islands. It became our annual vacation spot and second home of sorts.”
Over time they started wishing they could live there, but it would involve selling their home and two sign companies. House of Signs specialized in high-end 3D signs and branding. In 2013, Roger founded SignTech which was modeled after Dan Antonelli’s KickCharge Creative (Graphic D-Signs at the time). SignTech was a modern, high-end boutique agency specializing in logo/brand development and in-house production of digital printing, vehicle graphics and wraps and was located about a mile from House of Signs.
“Executing a big life change like that is daunting,” Roger says, “but eventually we strategized our exit plan and decided to go for it. Otherwise, burnout leads to not feeling fulfilled and that affects everything—your family life, your work, everything. The process was a lot of work, and it was a humbling experience.
“I had a great staff and dedicated clients, but I had no idea how much was involved in putting your business out there to sell. I worked with an exceptional business broker—who has since become a close friend—to get the companies ready to sell and attract the new owners. We owned the buildings that House of Signs and SignTech were in, and we kept those properties as commercial rentals.”
After relocating to Hawaii in 2019, the plan was to take a sabbatical and use the time to explore new options. In 2020, though, COVID extended that sabbatical, almost completely shutting down the island’s tourism-based economy.
“There was no one here,” says Roger. “The island essentially closed its doors to tourism, and Kauai became like a private island. It was beautiful and eerie at the same time.”
Helping others grow
As Roger embarked on a complete renovation on their island home, he started thinking about getting back into creative work and what direction to pursue. In between the construction, he did some specialty consulting for other custom sign company owners who wanted to grow their business, helping them find ways to improve and streamline their operation and efficiencies, develop their smartest strategies and to drive profits.
“I found several clients right away,” he says, “and worked with them with very positive results. It was really rewarding. They were shops with 10 or less employees and were willing to make changes. Their quality went up and their profits did, too, ultimately boosting their motivation and success.
“After a while, though, I really missed doing creative work. I knew that I loved the entire process of making signs and was still passionate about the sign industry. I decided to get back into the business. By late 2022 I had a plan, and I spent 2023 putting all the pieces together.
“I worked with Jayce Fox [Jayce Fox/Shane Durnford Studios] on my brand strategy and website. It was a big help. We work well together, and I absorbed a lot of his approach to the business.”
Back to making signs
Before long Roger was making signs once more. He works from his home-based studio and as much outdoor space as needed, thanks to Hawaii’s mild weather. When necessary, he puts up a few event tents in the driveway and does his fabrication there. Hand lettering, paint finishing and gold leaf are all done inside.
“It took me back to my roots,” he says. “I’m doing a lot of work by hand and being resourceful. It feels really good to be hands-on again.”
He began by doing a few projects in Hawaii, one of which led to a current project for a restaurant in Key West, Florida. While he is known for his boutique 3D signs, he also enjoys working outside of that in modern or traditional designs. His projects in Hawaii have had what he describes as “the coastal vibe and a vintage Hawaii look.” In Key West, there were strict historical regulations and architectural requirements to deal with, which he says, “is right up my alley”.
“I am extremely passionate about design,” he says. “It fuels my creative-inner, and each project I touch is designed and choreographed to tell a story and breathe soul into public and private places. That’s what’s so cool about this business of ours. There is so much you can do with a project and so much impact you can have on the success of a business.”
For some of the production, he has partnered with a custom shop in Washington State, Gibbs Graphics in Leavenworth, Washington. Roger sends them the design and production files, then they either build the sign to his specs or ship him the components for him to assemble and finish.
“They’re fabulous,” Roger says. “We work really well together. If they are building the sign, they even let me more-or-less art direct the job as we go along. I choose the colors, and they send me process photos so that I can make changes as it comes together. On some jobs they ship the sign to the location, then I fly in to do the installation. Osake Steak and Sushi was an example of that.”
One foot back on the mainland
In 2022, Roger and Julie decided to move back to the mainland for their daughter’s final year of high school. Julie’s sister and their kids live in Helena, Montana, and they had visited there but never had a chance to fully explore Montana. They recently purchased a home there but kept their home in Hawaii. Going forward they are in the process of acquiring commercial property in Helena and building a new state-of-the-art workshop slated to open later this year.
“I’ve done a lot of back and forth to Hawaii this past year,” Roger says, “but we love living between the two places. It really gives us the best of both worlds. If I need design inspiration, spending a few weeks in Hawaii gives me an incredible creative boost. The sun, salt water, tropical air, it’s incredibly inspiring and rejuvenating.”
On returning to the business
In a conversation about sign making with Roger, the word “passion” keeps coming up. The enthusiasm for making memorable signs that got him started in the business has grown over his three decades of making signs. He’s excited about this next phase of his career.
“It’s really good to be moving forward,” Roger says. “I’ve got a lot of new energy for the work. When you’re overwhelmed, overstressed and overworked, it suppresses your creativity. Now that I’ve had a break, I’m brimming with energy and enthusiasm, which is the true definition of VIM and describes my spirit perfectly.”
The five years away from the sign industry, he says “have given me an even greater appreciation of the significance of well-executed and authentic visual communications, and how it positively affects the marketplace and guest experience. I couldn’t be more excited to bring new ideas to life.
“Looking back over the years, I’m so glad that I listened to my mentors who said that design is what matters. That’s really what you have to offer your clients. We are designers first—then sign experts of premium signage.
“Gary Anderson, Mike Jackson, Noella Cotnam, Larry Whan, David McDonald, Noel Weber—the commonality in their work was that every piece that came through SignCraft magazine was beautiful and told the story of the business so well. I found myself dissecting the designs to see why it was so effective and appealing. I wanted to create signs like that.
“Focusing on design and staying with your vision pays off. You need a vision to guide the type of work you want to do and the nature of your business. And that fuels the passion for your work.
“One of the reasons I’ve circled back to the sign industry is that I enjoy being a part of the sign family and wonderful clients I get to work with. When you get to a certain level of skill, it opens up a lot of opportunities. I couldn’t be more grateful for the past, present and future opportunities.”
Here’s how the Thai Bistro storefront looked before Roger’s new graphics…
…and here’s how it looked after the makeover.
Here’s another before-and-after with the concept drawing of the sign that is in the works.
“Thrashin’ Axes is the new tenant in my building in Frisco, now that House of Signs has moved to a new space. It’s fun to see another completely different concept on the storefront, replacing the House of Signs sign [below] that had been here for over a dozen years. I created all the branding and sent the design and fabrication files to the new owners of House of Signs, and they built and installed it. I kept in close communication throughout the process to make sure it was fabricated the way I envisioned.”
The photos below are work that Roger designed as he was transitioning out of House of Signs: