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Designing Award-Winning Signs: Helping Your Designers be Better

Give your designers some fabrication time

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“We can’t build a channel letter with only a ½” stroke width, so the sign design cannot be built without a substantial change to the size of the letter strokes. The client has already approved this, so now we have a problem.”

This is one statement that should never be heard in or around a sign shop. Regardless of the project, whether it’s a channel letter set or a monument sign, it’s the sign designer’s job to make sure the design is buildable. But what is the best way for a designer to fully grasp the challenges of fabrication and installation? How can you possibly put your designers through a crash course that will educate them quickly and effectively in a way that sticks in their brain like a sword in a stone?

Sign designers must be intimately familiar with fabrication and installation strengths and limitations. They must understand the difficulties that exist when building a sign from scratch and then installing it. Aluminum and steel are the materials used most often in the electric sign world. Does your designer understand the difference between .040 aluminum and .080 aluminum and the effect that material thickness has on shearing and braking? How about the efforts that must be put forth to change the color of a trim cap to some other color that is not one of the standard trim caps available? Does your designer really comprehend how difficult it is to build a channel letter with a 1″ stroke width and a 5″ deep return? How about the challenges of reaching the back of a sign face when the cabinet is 12″ wide by 8 feet long?

Back in the golden days…

My early days in an electric sign shop included about 30 days of hands-on shop time, working side by side with the channel letter benders, the cabinet builders, painters and installers. When I started out, I learned how to nest the letter faces onto a sheet of acrylic, how to spin tape, and how to cut them out by hand with a jig saw. I learned the steps required to finish them by hand to fit the patterns provided. This taught me a valuable lesson on how difficult serifs can be to work with, and how much extra time it takes to bend the returns to follow those serif edges. I learned how to build cabinet frames, saddles and pipe guides, how to shear and break aluminum and the planning steps and calculations involved to build a cabinet with an overall finished size of exactly 48″. I figured out why faces and backs are best cut from one sheet of material. I learned how and why raceways must provide enough wrench room to get your hand inside to tighten the anchor bolts, and how steel behind the wall creates all sorts of problems.

All of these lessons provided me with a strong understanding as to why certain constraints must be acknowledged and planned for prior to creating a design. It also gave me great conviction when it came time to defend my design as to why I made the cabinet 24″ wide instead of 18″.

Create a continuing education opportunity

You can probably surmise at this point that the best way to accomplish this is to send your designers into the shop, and into the field, so that the challenges encountered can become lessons learned for the design process. But how do you do that when the designer is up to their eyebrows in work? It’s time to get creative and devise a plan for your designer to gain the needed shop experience they need.

One idea is to allow your designer to work in the shop on one day a week, let’s say on a Friday. Then, on Saturdays they can make up the day that they lost during the week, or by simply working two extra hours a day to make up the difference. Of course, this is like sending your designer to a one day a week class. It will be an investment in your time, and of theirs. It also takes a designer who is willing to invest in themselves and their craft for the sake of their skillset. Not every designer will see this as a benefit or an opportunity. It may take some convincing that this is, in the long run, a vital part of their qualifications to being a great designer.

What is best to focus on initially

I have gathered the most valuable understanding of electric signs from working with channel letters. It is truly a hands-on exploration into the trials and tribulations of the channel letter department. More importantly the pushing, pulling and bending of the aluminum seems to leave an indelible impression in the mind. The combination of the pain felt in the fingers and wrists when combined with the looming pressures of completing 16 letters before the end of the day leaves an impression that is never forgotten. I remember mumbling under my breath “these letters are a pain in the butt” as I attempted to work the trim cap around the acrylic letter without damaging either of them. Yes, it was frustrating to say the least as my learning curve was steep, and my fine motor skills were not allowing me to work the trim cap properly. My first few letters were a mess to say the least. I think I remember redoing one or two of them. I learned some valuable lessons that week that carried me over into the other departments. Once your mindset is programmed to pay close attention to small details, like serifs, then it becomes much easier to pay attention to larger details, like cabinet depths and access panel locations.

Regardless, the important thing to remember is to focus the designer’s efforts on that which will benefit them the most. If it’s channel letters or monuments or wall signs, put them in the shop and then out in the field. Your efforts will return to you tenfold.

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Matt Charboneau

Since 1985, Matt Charboneau has owned and operated Charboneau Signs in Loveland, Colorado. He is a consultant and designer for monument, channel letter and pylon sign projects. His book, "The Pre-Sale Sign Survey Field Guide - The how-to guide on sign surveys for the professional sign salesperson" can be ordered on his website: www.CharboneauSigns.com or by emailing him at Matt@charboneausigns.com.

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