Building Impressions: A Welcome Sight

Gateway signs build impressions for communities and for you

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Some projects take a while to get from conception to completion. But you know what they say, whoever they is, which is something I’ve often wondered; “Be patient because good things take time.” Or, as Theodore Roosevelt put it; “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain and difficulty.”

I don’t know about you, but I find my experiences from the past 25 years in the sign, graphics and branding business to align closely with both of these statements. On one hand, many of my projects, especially the larger, complicated or sophisticated ones, have indeed involved a great amount of effort and caused a lot of headaches and heartburn. But, again, as they say, I’ve also found that being patient and persistent through the process has often lead to great and rewarding results-for me and my clients.       

An example of this is a multi-location, city-wide “welcome to” gateway signage program that I developed for the city and county of Elkhart, Indiana. The signs were recently installed by a collaboration between my sign division and another sign company, with both of us providing parts of the overall project for the city and county.

Making and installing the signs, though very custom, was the easy part. They involved the standard processes of approvals, permits, design specs, marking, utility locates, foundations, masonry, fabrication and installation, all within a very typical sign shop’s timeline.

The hard part was conducting all the due diligence then designing, developing and directing through the activities and requirements that a project like this takes in order to become an actual order on the backlog. In this case, the timeline took over a year. Talk about the need for patience.

The project itself came about as a result of an overall master plan of signage that I was contracted to create for the city. The master plan was to address wayfinding signs, parking signs, informational kiosks, some specific destination signage, signs for their river walk and a variety of visual solutions to create fun, provide a unique visual experience, and promote activation, engagement and interaction in the heart of their downtown districts.

Out of all of that, the discussion then grew to include new gateway signs to welcome drivers entering the city at all the major entry points. As soon as the county found out what we were working on, they decided they wanted in on the action and joined the conversation. They wanted gateway signs as well.

As it turns out, many communities are in the mood to address their look, their impression, their brand. They all have and need signs. A master plan is a good place to start and you have the expertise to offer them those services if you’re willing to put in the time. I’m working on similar master plans for several cities, municipalities, schools and other organizations at this moment.

Out of all the items I designed for Elkhart, the “welcome to” gateway signs became the wild animal, with me as the only one to figure out how to tame it. Here’s a rundown of some of the things I had to do in order to make this project successful … a sort of laundry list of what I encountered and had to deal with and overcome.

In the beginning stages, there were meetings. Lots of meetings. When designing branding solutions for a city you can bet there will be many stakeholders and participants who will want to be involved. With the signs that would welcome folks to Elkhart, these partnering parties with ideas and opinions, or at least with some input, included the mayor, the city engineer, the city planner, the city’s director of economic development, the staff of the convention and tourism bureau and public hearings to present and attain favorable votes (and use of funds).

The goal is to gain the confidence and buy-in of all these people who all have some authority or influence to help or hinder the momentum of a project like this. It took months. But I eventually did just that. Design played the biggest factor. If people can’t see something, you’ll have a hard time selling it.

With the ideas finally “sold,” I had to go to work on all the aspects that become related by association. Have you ever worked with the DOT or a highway authority at the state and national level? If so, you know. If not, pay attention.

When it comes to custom signage that you want to place in places where roads are governed by state or federal entities and departments you better be well prepared, professional and present yourself as an expert. They won’t or don’t like to dance with  small “contractors” as they tend to see sign people. I’m one of you. I’m a sign guy. But I had to be someone they prefer-a consultant. And they want to see your documents executed in the ways they like or want, or need.

There is homework involved. Meetings via web, phone and in person. Basically, it is like dating and at the end you hope for a really positive relationship. Otherwise your project can be doomed.

The most frustrating part of this project for Elkhart came when after going through all this, and thinking I had been working with all the right people, in came the attorneys that were not even located in the same state, and more names up the ladder who I had to approach and explain things all over again with none of them having any history leading up to me having to contact them for their blessing. To help me seal the deal, I enlisted the friend of the friend of the enemy.

Through good investigative efforts, I was able to identify a friend of mine who had the clout to help me. He’s a commercial developer with a big network and a good reputation. He also just happened to sit on a committee that was connected to the toll road highway. Bingo. I turned him into a lobbyist (an ambassador sounds nicer) on behalf of the city and its ability to welcome people with these beautifully unique signs that would build impressions for years to come.

But there would be another cold bucket of water thrown on the project even after securing every necessary approval to allow these gateway signs. The dollar amount of all the signs had exceeded the city’s legal ability to work with one design-build contract. They would have to split the project into two parts and allow two companies to make the signs. Oh well. Better to have some than none.

Why did I go through all this? For one thing, these projects pay. There is value to providing design, development and consulting. In the process you earn the expert reputation in a niche area of branding. You gain great insights and make relationships that help you with future projects. And, if you end up making the signs as well as designing them, well, you make money-again. Plus you get to finally put all that hard work into works of art that identify a community. That is truly rewarding.

The signs for Elkhart are simple, yet elegant. Clean, with uniqueness of character. The curves, shapes, materials, lighting and use of their brand logo come together tastefully to represent a city and county that has pride. These signs are building impressions as they welcome and serve as gateways for the community.


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Matt Dixon

Matt Dixon is the managing editor of Graphics Pro.

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