Design is the difference

By Raymond Chapman

Posted on Saturday, July 1st, 2023

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It’s not really that difficult to get into the sign business today. Anyone with a credit card can get a computer, software and a few rolls of vinyl and be up and running within days. Of course, just getting a phone and opening the door does not make anyone a successful sign maker.

But today is no different than several generations ago when anyone could buy a can of paint, a brush, pick up a free yardstick at the lumber yard and go to work painting signs. Those items did not make a person a sign maker any more than a fast computer and the latest software does today.

In any generation, in any location, there have been those individuals who consistently were busy doing work that was uniquely different from other work in their area. Even in tough times, they somehow had enough jobs to get over the slow periods. Normally, their prices were among the highest in the area.

What did these sign artists have that separated them from their competitors? Did they have some magic pens, brushes or paint? Were they gifted with DNA that provided all the necessary characteristics to transfer one great layout after another from their mind to the tips of their fingers?

What could be different today than those previous generations? Just as there was nothing magical about the great sign men of previous years, today there is no off-the-shelf software package that is going to transform us into the ultimate sign producer.

Design sets your work apart

In years past it was not difficult when traveling around the country to find the person who was doing the best signs in town. Their signature did not have to be at the bottom for you to know that one individual was doing all this exceptional sign work. There was a “style” that was readily apparent. The layouts jumped off the substrates and demanded your attention.

Today, the same is true. In a maze of look-a-like signs, there will be some that set themselves apart from the rest. Their signs are easily read and quickly portray a positive image.

What is the ingredient that some sign makers have, but the vast majority do not? Certainly, I don’t believe that it is design software, since we all use basically the same products. The names may be different, and the prices may vary, but we all have access to the same software as our competitors. The market is flooded with plotters and printers that can be acquired with little more than a signature. The same is true for fonts, clip art and more do-dads than you can think of to aid us in making signs.

Since we are all using basically the same hardware, software and aids, why are some signs so attractive and some so hideous? Aren’t computers supposed to make our life easier? Why are there so many sign folks around the country struggling to make a living, using the same materials as their competitors, and yet never really achieving any success?

What’s the difference?

The answer seems obvious. It has nothing to do with computers, software, printers or plotters. The difference is design. What separates the true sign professional from all the other computer owners is the ability to lay out a sign attractively and enhance the image of the client. This ability is not inherited. It does not show up in our DNA. While some sign makers around the world seem to naturally produce award-winning designs by blinking their eyes, nothing could be further from the truth. If you traced back the career of these heroes of ours, you would find humble beginnings filled with frustration and the same hurdles that plague all of us.

So, what made them such outstanding designers while the rest of us plod along with mediocrity? Passion is a word that is often misused today. It is used to apply to a great many various emotions. In our context it applies to an inner fire that controls our goals, our dreams, and our use of time and energy. It is the inner voice that tells you to keep going when everything, and possibly everyone else, tells you to quit. So many times in the realm of athletics it is not the largest or the fastest that excels, but the one with the larger heart.

Passion, heart, drive or whatever you may want to call it separates a small minority of great sign folks from the multitude of those who somehow believe that just opening the door of a building is going to produce effective signage.

Design is a learned process

It is accessible to anyone who desires it enough to make the necessary effort to achieve it. And that is where passion comes in. Over the years I have been privileged to associate with some of the finest designers in our craft. Besides the enviable trait of being truly humble men and women, they all are people who give every effort to learning more. While most of us are content with putting in our “nine-to-five” effort, cashing the check and making plans for the weekend, these passion-driven artists are anticipating the adrenalin rush of exploring some new arrangement of text and graphics, spiced with just the right colors.

Design is the fuel that propels those we admire to the top of the heap. This group of outstanding individuals is constantly observing. They notice the contrast of values and color in the most simple of places. Even while watching TV or strolling the mall, they are aware of the arrangement of darks and lights, and immediately see visual conflicts in their surroundings. They will buy a box of cereal, even though they don’t intend to eat any, because of the design on the box. Bookstores are a gold mine; both for the wide array of books to buy and also for the visual eye candy of intense observation.

In the early years of my marriage, my family would almost refuse to let me drive as we traveled. I was always running off the road, looking at a billboard or some business identification. To me, a great vacation was not complete unless I had visited several sign shops in the area. Normally, this meant most of the day was ruined for the rest of the family. Luckily, I had an understanding wife—she is still my partner after over forty years.

The secret to success

What does all this mean for the newcomer to our craft? In our society of instant gratification, there is a tendency for everything to come prepackaged and available at the click of a button. Or, at least, we expect it to be. While today’s novice to the sign business has a tremendous number of tools available that makes sign work much easier, there is no magic fairy dust that is sprinkled at the drawing board and suddenly an award-winning design appears. Time and hard work still remain one of the most valuable assets to success.

In answer to the question, “What is the secret to success?” I once heard a very simple answer: “You must be willing to do what unsuccessful people refuse to do.” Competition drops off rapidly at quitting time. Those in this business whom I consider to be the finest designers are also those who have spent countless hours observing, reading, asking questions, and designing signs that were less than attractive. But they were never content to allow mediocrity to be their standard. Every sign that goes out the door is scrutinized with a critical eye, and an internal voice promises that the next one will be better.

Many in our business view these folks with criticism. Words such as picky, extreme and unrealistic are often used to put down the person who is a fanatic about good design and a quality presentation. Even while being critical, these sign persons will acknowledge the obvious difference between their work and the visual treats produced by their competition. The statement “I wish I could do work like that” is often heard, even in the same breath of saying that those types of signs are unrealistic.

Design is that key ingredient that propels the mediocre sign producer to a higher level of success. The ingredients of good design are available to everyone. Whether they will become a vital part of your business or not is entirely up to you.

Raymond Chapman, Temple, Texas, has spent over 60 years making signs, with over half of those running his own sign business, Chapman Sign Studio.

This appeared in the May/June 2004 issue of SignCraft.

Hand lettered by Paul Martin, Martin Signs & Lines, McHenry, Illinois

Double-blasted gold leaf lettering on sandblasted 50-by-144-in. cedar panel, finished with acrylic latex paint. The hand-carved pheasant is SignFoam high-density urethane board. Dave Beatty, Sign Artist Extraordinaire, Sarnia, Ontario, Canada

Hand-lettered banner with a yellow to white fade; fonts are from Letterhead Fonts. Mike Meyer, Meyer Signs, Mazeppa, Minnesota

1Shot lettering enamel on 4-by-4-ft. panel of 1⁄2-in. overlaid plywood, finished with bulletin colors. David Showalter, David Design, Bryan, Ohio

Vinyl film; fonts are from Letterhead Fonts. Mike Meyer, Meyer Signs, Mazeppa, Minnesota

Hand lettered on 4-by-8-ft. overlaid plywood panel. Curt Stenz, Curt Stenz Graphics, Schofield, Wisconsin

High-performance vinyl film. Dave Correll, Brushwork, Faribault, Minnesota

Paint and vinyl film on 3-by-16-ft. aluminum composite material. Mark Yearwood, Yearwood Signs & Graphics, Weatherford, Oklahoma

Vinyl film. John Deaton, John Deaton Design, Harlan, Kentucky

Hand-carved 4-by-5-ft. panel of high-density urethane board, finished with Matthews acrylic polyurethane paint. “The customer let me design this one,” says John Parker, Parker Signs & Graphics, Inc., Indianola, Iowa.