Quality design is no secret

By Raymond Chapman

Posted on Friday, April 15th, 2022

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Mark Yearwood, Yearwood Signs & Graphics, Weatherford, Oklahoma

We all know someone who seems to have been born with a “silver spoon in their mouth.” Everything they touch turns to gold. Nothing appears to go wrong for them. While the rest of us stumble along from day to day just trying to get by, they excel at every turn.

Our usual explanation for the vast difference between their lifestyle and ours is the excuse that they are “just lucky.” They were either born into the right family, or they live in an area that is naturally affluent, or they “knew someone” who gave them special favors. These things just never happen to  the rest of us—the unlucky majority.

My reason for writing this is to examine this paradigm and determine if this theory has validity. These thoughts are a collection of observations over the past 60 years of my life. You may not agree with my conclusions (and that’s okay), but I ask that you consider my ramblings with an open mind.

One time a famous violinist was meeting a select group of admirers after a sold-out concert. One young fan approached the old master and said, “I would give my life to be able to play like you.” The wise gentleman replied, “That is exactly what it cost me.”

Now, you may argue that there are some who are simply born with an extra measure of talent. They have a head start on everyone else. Some simply shake their sleeve and success comes falling out.

We admire those who excel. Whether it is in athletics, entertainment or the business world, we find ourselves wishing (come on now, you know you do) that we could trade places and enjoy that abundant, easy life. Within our profession there are men and women who produce masterpiece after masterpiece. They seem to have found some “secret” that propels them to the forefront and success comes easily, if not naturally.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could be like them?

So, what is the secret?

In my opinion, what my heroes possess is not a secret. They openly share their abilities, procedures and information with anyone who has a genuine interest. What they know about this craft they learned from someone else, and they are willing to pass along that knowledge to anyone without reservation. There was a time (even within my lifetime) when many of the old-timers were tight-lipped and went to their graves without sharing anything they knew. Gladly, that is not true today.

If we were to interview these heroes of ours, we would discover the “secret” that puts them in the top 10 percent of our craft, above the rest of us, continually producing works that put the other 90 percent in the shade. I’ve done that interview. Over the years I’ve been fortunate enough to sit with many of those who I greatly admire. While a formal interview never took place, I stored away little gems of inspiration. Some of my hero interviewees were older than me (some now gone), but most are much younger but still are willing to teach an old dog a few tricks.

The secret is not an inborn talent, or some special muscular dexterity, or even an outstanding mental capacity. It’s an attitude. Possibly, even a way of life. The word “paradigm” is a contemporary word that may best describe this phenomenon. Our way of life, our attitude towards life is often called our “life paradigm.” In my opinion, this secret to excellence is passion.

Passion is the key

Passions drive people in different directions: one for excellence in craftsmanship, another for advancement in economic endeavors and some even to illegal or immoral adventures. Whatever, there is an inner force that compels, that is not easily satisfied nor ignored. For those people who live by passion, their focus is trained upon one single goal and there is no comfort until that goal is achieved or accomplished.

Those passion-driven individuals are not easily understood by the rest of us. Their behavior is often extreme. To say that they march to the beat of a different drummer would be an understatement. While their actions and the motives for those activities seem a little “over the edge” to the rest of us, to them it is a perfectly normal procedure.

Lance Armstrong didn’t let cancer kill a positive attitude, and with persistence won the torturous Tour de France for a record six times. (He just happens to be a fellow Texan, too.) It would be ludicrous to think that Lance just jumped on a bike one day and started racing through the mountains. (In fact, he couldn’t have done that in his hometown of Austin, Texas, because there are no mountains.)

It took grueling hours of practice and conditioning before he made the trip to Europe. I’m sure that to the folks around him he must have appeared as something of an oddity. Certainly, he did not accomplish his goals by sitting in front of a TV and feeling sorry for himself.

The men and women who possess this passion trait just keep on keeping on. Everything doesn’t go smoothly for them, yet they look beyond the potholes and stretch forward to achieve more and more. Thomas Edison was once interviewed about the process of discovering the proper filament for use in his electric light bulb. When asked if it wasn’t discouraging to have had over 600 failures before coming across tungsten, he replied, “I didn’t have any failures; I only discovered 600 things that didn’t work.”

Smarter, not harder

Passion is more than working longer hours, although investment of time is an important factor. It is an involvement of time that is aimed at consistent improvement by learning new methods, keeping up with current trends and associating with positive, fellow craftspeople. When I was younger, I would complain to my dad about not getting everything done that I wanted. His advice was always the same: “Just get up a little earlier.” He was not advocating just putting in more time but applying myself more diligently to the job at hand.

Some people die long before their funeral comes around. They simply allow their passion for life to slip away. Those individuals who seemingly have more than 24 hours in their day are living until they die. They use time wisely, packing 60 minutes into every hour. To them, life is not a spectator sport, but an adventure not to be missed.

Attitude matters

The way we think is the way we will act. Now, that is not a new statement—it has been around for thousands of years, and yet few apply it to their own lives. Those on my list of heroes seem to always have a positive attitude, even when they are up to their knees in alligators. They simply believe they can do anything and then proceed to find a way to do it. The process is not always easy, but they find great joy in overcoming the obstacles that pop up in the road.

Dan Sawatzky [Sawatzky’s Imagination Corporation, Chilliwack, BC, Canada] could be the poster child for positive, passionate thinking. You can’t be around Dan very long before you realize that he definitely thinks outside the box. Like so many others in our craft, he is constantly seeking new ways to do the ordinary, and then extending the possibilities beyond the imagination. Positive attitude?

That doesn’t even begin to describe Dan. By consistently seeing the glass as half full (overflowing is a better term), he looks for the best in every situation.

Does everything just naturally go right for Dan? Certainly not. If pressed, he could tell you of some very rough times and poor choices, but he will not dwell on those situations. To him, those circumstances were great teachers to prepare him for better times.

Gary Anderson is known by everyone in our profession (or, at least, should be) because of his great ability. He is admired for the consistently great designs that come from his studio in Bloomington, Indiana. In fact, the name “Anderson” has become synonymous with unique shapes, color combinations and quality craftsmanship.

How did Gary come by this almost magical ability? If you ever have the opportunity, sit down with him and let his passion for this craft spill all over you. In the process of having the privilege to spend some time with this major hero of mine, I found that what appears to be almost effortless is actually a tremendous work ethic. In my opinion, not many in our craft epitomize the term “passion” more than Gary Anderson.

Even he has difficulty putting into words what drives him to want to learn more and more. His interests lie in a wide range of activities. He is a great student of the art-deco era and is a fanatic about Frank Lloyd Wright architecture. In addition, he is a tremendous chef and avid golfer. Over the years he has endeavored to educate me on the subtleties of wine. (It all tastes like vinegar to me.)

Inside of Gary there is a fire burning. It’s called passion. And it will not be put out. It compels him to want to know more and more, to accomplish more and more, and to not rest until that desire inside is satisfied.

Was Gary Anderson born with an innate artistic ability? In my opinion, no. What might possibly have been wrapped up in that DNA was the elusive trait of passion. That trait is manifested in some by musical excellence, in others by great business achievements, and in some by producing wonders with their hands. What is not readily seen by us is the long, lonely hours of study, the monotonous repetition of practice, practice, and more practice and the weariness of plain, hard work. Add to that the psychological complex of being considered “odd” by those around you, and you begin to see the price that is paid by those who seem to be so “lucky.”

It’s not for sale

Passion cannot be purchased. It does not come in a box or a pill. But it can be caught from those that possess it. Over 25 years ago, seven young men wanted to learn more about the craft that we all enjoy. Their passion for learning sparked the Letterheads movement.

Today, thousands have benefited from those early artisans who had a flame inside that compelled them to excel. Money was not the objective; it was something that even today very few of them can articulate.

I’ve mentioned just a few of the dozens of people that I greatly admire in this business. One time I sat next to Mike Jackson on an airplane and could sense the wheels turning in his head as he foresaw the future of the Letterheads and his own business. I’ve watched the light dance in Nancy Beaudette’s eyes as she explained some new discovery.

To be around David Butler is to be surrounded by an aura of creativity. If you have the opportunity, someday allow Noel Weber or Mark Oatis to light the fire of passion in you by listening to their enthusiasm for  this profession. The list goes on and on.

It is heartwarming to see both the veterans of our craft and the new beginners engaged in learning from each other. There will always be those who complain about their situation and that they can never get a break in life. It is always the fault of someone else that they have not progressed. To them, those that achieve are just lucky. But there will also be that minority of folks with a “can-do” passion that will not be stilled until they reach their goal. Which one will you be? •SC


Raymond Chapman’s shop, Chapman Sign Studio, is in Temple, Texas.

Gary Anderson, Bloomington Design, Bloomington, Indiana

John Deaton, Deaton Design, Harlan, Kentucky

Mark Yearwood, Yearwood Signs & Graphics, Weatherford, Oklahoma

David Kynaston, David Kynaston Signs, Garth, Llangollen, North Wales, United Kingdom

Danthonia Designs, Inverell, New South Wales, Australia

Dave Correll, Brushwork, Faribault, Minnesota

David Showalter, David Design, Bryan, Ohio

Jack Keith, Keith Signs & Graphics, Cabool, Missouri

Shane Durnford, Shane Durnford Design, Creemore, Ontario, Canada

Mike Meyer, Meyer Signs, Mazeppa, Minnesota


Jack Keith, Keith Signs & Graphics, Cabool, Missouri

Gary Anderson, Bloomington Design, Bloomington, Indiana