Understanding Your Electric Sign Designer

Salespeople sell and designers design-right? It sounds simple, but it doesn't always run that smoothly, as Matt Charboneau reminds us.

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You hear a knock at your door and you look up to see your designer standing there looking completely exhausted. Suddenly time seems to stand still as you recall seeing this same look on the face of every designer who has worked for you. The appearance of being run through a mental meat grinder seemed to show up about 90 days before the designers threw up their hands in frustration and resigned. You promised yourself that if it ever saw that look again, and if you felt the designer was worth keeping, you’d take steps to undo whatever it was that was extinguishing the fire and passion that they had when you hired them.

Did you read your designers instruction manual yet?

Every significant piece of equipment in your shop has a user’s guide. You would never ever attempt to set up a new flatbed printer without first understanding what the machine’s needs were for surge-free power, temperature and humidity, software, proper ventilation and maintenance. Ignoring any one of these could permanently damage the equipment and cost thousands of dollars in lost productivity.

What steps have you taken to ensure that your designer or design team has the right type of free-flowing creative environment? Have the designers been given the right level of authority for the projects they handle, and are they consistently provided clear and concise project details so they can work efficiently? Knowing what to provide your designers, when to provide it, and understanding the importance of using the right type of creative fuel can make all the difference in the services they provide your company.

Designers can see in the dark, and they are experts at mind reading too!

You may have noticed that electric sign designers are unique in that they are required to visualize concepts and ideas in 3D where as a print designer typically works in a 2D flat-surface reality. Electric sign designers must be able to look at design concept and visualize what is behind it, on the side of it, on the top and underneath it. They must be able to mentally project the internal framework, LED access, acrylic push-thru text, EMC venting, wiring, saddles, etc. They also must also be able to understand the scope and parameters of the client’s desires, the city’s restrictions and the salesperson’s desires in order to succinctly communicate their mind’s-eye 3D vision of the job. For this, they need clearly defined instructions with the right type and amount of detail.

Design requests – the most important step for an effective and efficient design process

Establishing a process for conveying design request details to the designer is one of the best ways to maximize the designer’s efficiency. Ignoring this aspect is no different than handing your accountant a shoe box full of receipts and bank statements and expecting them to spit out an accurate P&L. If you have ever done this to your accountant, you’ve probably only done it once and hopefully you immediately understood the importance of providing them not just details, but clearly defined and well organized details that can be used in an efficient manner. The same rules you use for your accountant applies to your designer. Allowing salespeople to dump shoe boxes of incomplete and unorganized info on your designer tops the chart as the No. 1 no-no if you want to keep your designer a happy designer.

Let designers design

Most people would agree that sign designers are creative thinkers, and while we all recognize that many exceptions abound, for the most part they thrive in the creative process that focusses on the intangible relationship between graphics and emotions. I’ve talked with designers who have been required to do things like accounting, budgeting and determining compensation for sales reps. This brings a designer’s creative flow to an absolute halt, and in worst cases it happens during a critical point of the creative process for a really big project.

This is no different than requiring the payroll department to design a logo in enough time for the designer to finish the illustration for the sales presentation. Allowing your creative staff to focus on their job as it relates to their department is another critical step to maximizing your designer’s creativity, productivity and overall productive well-being.

Who’s the captain of the creative ship

When a salesperson brings a new electric monument or channel letter project to the designer, who is in charge of the creative process? Is your designer given creative license to do what they do best or does the sales person’s idea automatically override the designer’s vision? Because the salesperson is the liaison between the customer and the designer, they offer the best insight as to what the customer wants and needs. However, sometimes an eye that’s not so close to the sale can provide a better solution to the problem. Regardless of what this relationship looks like, establishing the parameters of this give-and-take process is important to keeping things running smoothly.

I remember years ago I once had a salesperson hold back one of my designs and did not share it with the customer because it didn’t fit his vision for the project. The salesman could not describe to me what his vision was, so I came up with a simple but effective design idea as a way to engage the customer in the creative process with the salesman. After holding onto my presentation for nearly two weeks, the client finally called him and asked if there were any designs ready to look at? With no other options, he reluctantly shared my illustration with the customer who literally had a deposit check ready for him within the hour. The customer was so pleased with the design they ended up using it in all of their marketing materials as their new logo. 

Salespeople who insist on over-controlling the design process typically squash a designer’s creative drive and establish an adversarial relationship within the department. A sharing environment of give and take is always better than the alternative. Establishing the parameters of the creative process will help maintain an amicable relationship when the work load is heavy, deadlines are short and tensions are high.

Acknowledgment – the creative lubricant

Let’s face it, nobody enjoys it when his or her efforts are minimized and work is poo-poo’d by someone who doesn’t understand the parameters of the project. There’s a lot to be considered by an electric sign designer before the creative process can even begin. It can be daunting to say the least, especially when the psychographic opportunities of the project are overlooked or ignored completely by the salesperson as “just too much info to obtain.” Most designers become designers because they have a unique ability to see past the tangible elements of the design and expand on the intangible aspects that can turn an ordinary sign design into a tool that communicates emotion as well as information. Nurturing this talent is important.

Acknowledging and encouraging your designer’s innate ability to see beyond the metal and acrylic will help you develop a better, deeper level of communication with the designer’s process. Establishing parameters for creative design, providing them clear, concise details for design and clearly stating the chain of command on design concept development will help you keep your designer happy and healthy. When your designer knows that his or her opinion and ideas matter, it makes all the difference in their passion level, which directly affects the quality and quantity of their design work. 

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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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