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A "Sign" of Profit...

Copyright © 2011 by Davis Multimedia, Int'l. All Rights Reserved.
As Printed in September 2011, Volume 37, No. 3 of The Engravers Journal
Today’s ADA-compliant sign materials include new colors, patterns and designs. Photo courtesy of Gravograph, Duluth, GA.

     As engravers, we have many different opportunities to sell our products and services, whether we choose to target a mainstream market such as corporate awards, a more specialized area such as wedding gifts or a highly specific selection of niche markets such as engraving pet tags or horse stall signs. In any case, it pays to consider your options. One that you might want to consider is the architectural signage market.
     The architectural signage market can be very lucrative for engraving businesses. Customers in this market area are typically “high-end” buyers who are willing to spend more for good quality signage. And from an engraver’s point of view, unlike some other types of engraving jobs, signage is very easy to manufacture using your laser system, rotary engraving machine and/or sublimation equipment. For the most part, you are engraving or printing flat pieces of sign materials with mostly text, maybe a pictogram or an organization logo and a few graphics.
     Of course, creating a perfectly engraved sign blank isn’t the total answer in making a sale, especially among architectural signage customers. Most of the time, the sign needs more embellishment and a great way to dress it up, give it an “image” and add immeasurable functionality is to put it in a sign frame. A sign frame is a holder for a sign that not only looks good, but allows you to “permanently” place or mount the sign and change the insert if the sign becomes damaged or the message becomes obsolete.
     “Sign frames, whether they are simple holders or part of an architectural framing system, provide a classy and finished look to signage,” explains Brad Jaques, President of The JRS Company, Inc., Covina, CA, a major manufacturer of sign frames and holders. “Certain styles of frames can provide a level of protection to the signs in a facility, making it less prone to vandals. And for the producer of the signage, the frames also provide an opportunity to increase margins with the added sale of the frame with the sign insert,” Jaques adds.
     There is an incredible variety of sign framing systems and materials available in the R&I industry. Here’s a look at how they can pave a path to what could be a very profitable avenue for your business.

Stand-offs are a new option for displaying architectural signage that are offered by several suppliers, including B.F. Plastics, Inc.

Anatomy of a Sign System
     An integral function of sign frames is that they allow you to create a high-quality architectural sign framing “system” for your customer. A sign framing system is essentially a series of frames that are coordinated by color and design, and that can be used together to create a uniform appearance. People can easily recognize signs by color and shape in all areas of a building so they know where to look to find what they need. The effect is one of “harmony” of design, color and information from one area to another to reinforce the sign buyer’s image.
     Rowmark LLC, Findlay, OH, is another major supplier of sign framing systems and materials. According to Jeri Bjorling, Rowmark/ClearPath Sales Manager, “Signage and wayfinding is needed for interior and exterior structures so that individuals using those facilities can find their way. The benefits of a sign frame system is that it enables the use of many types of sign substrates and it allows the sign maker and/or facility manager to easily update sign messages. A sign frame system also ensures a clean, modern, attractive and consistent look for both internal and external signage that will last for years.”
     Frames are made in many different sizes and configurations to suit different uses within an environment. For example, in a typical office building or hospital, you might expect to find directories at the main entrances, directional signage throughout the facility, signs for specific areas such as rest rooms, room identification signage, desk/cubicle nameplates and specialty signs such as a conference room sign that slides to indicate if the room is “in use” or “open.” If people see a directory at a building entrance, they will seek out similar-looking signs as they move through the building. Sign frames can help create such a system so that it is both functional and aesthetically pleasing.
     “The benefits of a sign framing system are fairly simple. It gives an office, hallway, conference room or anywhere in a facility that requires signage a more professional, finished and polished environment,” says Ben Fichter, Marketing Coordinator for B.F. Plastics, North Lawrence, OH.
     The beauty of selling a system like this is that you can turn a high profit because you can sell more sign frames at a higher price. Buyers in this market are purchasing an architectural concept and are willing to pay higher prices. And if you provide a good experience, customers can reorder signs with ease when the time comes, knowing that the new signs will match those that are already installed, which means repeat business for you.
     “A frame system enhances the look of signs and makes them more vandal resistant. If you make your product unique, it is also an excellent tool for keeping customers loyal to your business,” says Margaret Johnson, Director of Marketing for Johnson Plastics, Inc., Minneapolis, MN.

Wood grain patterns are a popular trend in sign materials today and suppliers such as B.F. Plastics, Inc., North Lawrence, OH, stock a wide selection of choices. Johnson Plastics, Minneapolis, MN, offers a variety of frames that are coordinated by color and design that can help you create a sign framing “system.” With some sign frames, the insert can be easily removed using a suction cup. Photo courtesy of The JRS Company, Inc., Covina, CA.

Who’s Buying?
     When you think about it, one of the main reasons the signage market is so lucrative is because the list of potential customers is huge. Virtually any public building, structure or area requires some type of signage, including (but certainly not limited to) office buildings (whether owned by a single organization or by an investor who leases office space in the building to others), healthcare facilities, government offices, educational institutions, public buildings (zoos, libraries, museums) public transportation facilities (airports, bus and train depots, subways, monorail systems) and theme/amusement parks.
     As Bjorling points out, the organization doesn’t need to be a huge conglomerate to need signage. “Though architectural signage is well-suited for large-scale wayfinding projects, smaller businesses should not be discouraged from using these systems since they are affordable, easy to install and easy to manage,” she says.
     Because you are already involved in the recognition and identification industry, chances are good that you have a leg up on finding potential signage customers. According to Bjorling, “One of the advantages for recognition and engraving shops is that they have an established customer base, which has a natural extension into the architectural signage market. If you’re doing awards for a local school or university, for example, ask if they have any signage needs or upcoming projects that you can assist them with.”
     The trick to selling to this market is to find out who the decision maker is. Who is responsible for purchasing signage? It might be the administrators of public buildings, landlords of office complexes, owners of private offices or office suites in larger complexes, or leasing companies that are responsible for filling vacant offices.
     Once you’ve found a potential customer and the decision maker, you can show them their options in sign frames and materials.

There are a variety of sign materials and frames available that are suitable for exterior signage. Photo courtesy of Johnson Plastics. Accessories like frame dividers allow you to section off frames for multiple plates. Photo courtesy of B.F. Plastics, Inc. These modular sign framing systems from Rowmark LLC, Findlay, OH, allow you to create signage that is specific to your customer’s needs.

Sign Frame Options
     Both JRS and Rowmark (and their network of worldwide distributors) offer a very large selection of sign framing options. Several major distributors in the industry carry one or both of these companies’ product lines, including B.F. Plastics, Johnson Plastics and Gravograph, Duluth, GA.
     “There are so many different styles and price brackets to choose from that there should be something to fit almost anyone’s budget. We are also very proud of the fact that all of the frames we carry are made in the USA,” says B.F. Plastics’ Fichter.
     The sign frames available today are typically made of molded plastic or aluminum. Synthetic frames are primarily suited for indoor applications, while more durable materials like aluminum hold up well outside. Aluminum frames are available with anodized, powder coat, paintable or other types of finishes, and both plastic and aluminum frames are available in a wide variety of colors.
     The modular designs and accessories for these frames allow you to create virtually any type of sign frame your customer needs, whether it’s a single plate holder for a cubicle or a multilevel directory for a large office building. Some sign framing systems are completely customizable, allowing you to use interchangeable parts that can be mixed and matched to create any frame size desired and achieve a totally custom look. Accessories like “frame dividers” that section off frames for multiple plates, such as a room number and the name of a room, are available as well. “When using a sign system, there are hundreds of options for configuring and adapting the design to the environment it is being installed in,” Bjorling states.
     The ability to mix and match components to create sign frames also provides your customer with great flexibility. Not only can you create a directory for a customer based on his or her specifications, you can create a system that allows small portions of a sign to be updated rather than the entire sign. This is an attractive option to sign buyers where employees, tenants and departments change frequently, such as hospitals, rental properties, office buildings, libraries and shopping centers. For example, a building directory might contain a sign with a building map, a header panel at the top that identifies the building name and several small inserts containing tenant names. When new tenants move in, the map and header stay where they are and the small inserts are changed.

Rowmark LLC’s Post and Panel system can be used as an attractive option for exterior applications.

     Suppliers continue to offer new sign framing products as well. According to Jaques, JRS is constantly responding to dealer requests and inquiries for new products and has introduced several new lines over the past couple of years. “Aluminum frames continue to be the material of choice for the majority of the signage that we are involved in fabricating. There has been a more recent push to provide more green products which resulted in the development of our Environmentals line of holders. This line is made from 75 percent recycled aluminum billet,” says Jaques.
     JRS also recently introduced a new line of decorative bars and rails. This framing series consists of four sizes of decorative bars designed to create borders for signs. The new system is designed for flexibility—you can use four equal size bars, unequal size bars or just two bars for different looks based on your customer’s preferences.
     According to Johnson Plastics’ Margaret Johnson, “New types of frames are introduced all the time. In addition to the JRS Environmentals line, we also have become very involved with stand-offs from Rowmark and JRS, which are very popular.”
     The new stand-offs are architectural sign supports that are mounted into the corners of the sign blank to allow it to protrude from a sign backing or the wall. The result is a classy and modern look that will appeal to many architectural sign buyers. JRS’ Prestige Collection of stand-offs are available in brass and aluminum in a variety of colors.
     Rowmark’s ClearPath Signage System division offers a complete wayfinding sign system that can be configured for many popular interior and exterior applications, including directory signs, room identification signs, suspended signs, totems, pylons and post and panel signs. The company also offers a wide variety of framing options, from a basic one insert frame to large aluminum modular directories with many inserts and divisions.
     There are also sign framing options available for exterior applications. JRS’ Xterior frame system consists of aluminum alloy frames with stainless steel corner angles. These frames are available in two hard-coat anodized colors, satin yellow gold and satin silver. “Typical usages include departmental signage, directional/wayfinding signage and informational signage,” says B.F. Plastics’ Fichter.
     Rowmark’s ClearPath division also offers a variety of sign framing systems suitable for outdoor use. The company’s Triline wayfinding frame system is made of anodized aluminum and is offered in four edge styles with interchangeable components. The Exterior Post and Panel system features two posts which can hold stacked panels for vinyl or paint applications as well as other types of sign inserts. Rowmark’s Totem Multifunctional system is a modular directory system with elliptical aluminum posts that have been specially designed to accept ClearPath’s variety of inserts.
     Depending on the system, sign blanks can be inserted into frames in different ways. For example, sign blanks can be simply and easily held in frames using tape or Velcro. Some styles have the option of mounting a metal backing inside the frame and using magnetic tape strips to hold the sign in place. With other styles, the sign blank simply slides into the frame and is held in place by a “lip” on the top and bottom or sides. Many frames are designed to accept printed paper inserts. For these types of signs, you can purchase clear acrylic lenses that slide over the insert to hold it in place and protect it.

Innovative Plastics, Inc. sells plastic sign materials that provide the look of metal but are easy to engrave. Frames are available in just about any shape and size, and there is a huge selection of sign materials available from suppliers such as Innovative Plastics, Inc., Algonquin, IL.

     For customers who are more concerned about vandal-resistance, there are other options to consider. Some substrates are held into the frame structure with small clips or prongs that snap into place. In this type of frame (as well as magnetic frames), the sign blank can be removed using a suction cup. With others, the sign inserts slide into a three-sided frame and a fourth frame side is snapped or screwed into place. And there are other options as well. For example, many of ClearPath’s frame systems provide an anti-theft feature that will prevent sign blank removal without the use of ClearPath’s special “key” tool.
     Another option in sign framing is the appearance of the sign insert in relationship to the frame. Depending on the edge style and frame design, as well as the thickness of the insert, sign blanks can either be flush with the frame edge, recessed to create a more dimensional look or curved out slightly for a more contemporary appearance. There is no difference between the styles in terms of performance; it just depends on the desired look you want to achieve.
     Of course, this is just barely scratching the surface of what’s available today in sign framing systems. And you also have the option of using a supplier’s custom fabricating services if you and your customer need something truly custom.

Sign framing systems, such as these offered by Rowmark LLC, make it easy to change and update signage as needed. This sign frame from The JRS Company, Inc., has a curved design to create a modern appearance. For increased vandal resistance, some of Rowmark’s sign systems require using a special tool to remove inserts.

Options in Sign Materials
     Like sign framing options, your choices in materials for sign blanks abound. “First you need to know if it is indoor or outdoor signage and whether you will be laser or rotary engraving the sign,” advises Johnson Plastics’ Johnson. “Then you can choose an appropriate material depending on color requirements, cost, texture, thickness and so on.”
     For most interior signage applications, matte materials are the preferred choice because they provide a non-glare finish and are easy to read. ADA materials that meet the sign regulations for finish and contrast are also in high demand for indoor applications.
     “Today, it’s about anything that is both ADA-compliant and design-friendly,” says Rowmark’s Bjorling. “For years, ADA-compliant signage was viewed as being utilitarian. However, today’s designers are working to incorporate patterns and designs that are appropriate from both a stylistic and an ADA-compliant standpoint. Bright colors—with the proper contrast—patterns and unique shapes are all being used more frequently in interior signage. More recently, Rowmark has introduced ColorHues, which is a line of unique, lightweight acrylics that have brilliant color with the smooth, clean look of glass.”
     Bjorling says that as far as patterns and colors are concerned, anything that invokes the feeling of nature and the outdoors is currently a popular trend for interior signage. “Wood grain patterns, bamboo and organic prints like grass and leaves are very popular. Taking those patterns and combining them with ‘industrial-looking’ products such as metallic foils and hardware is also popular with interior designers,” she says. Rowmark has recently introduced the Contemporary Wood Collection which is an engravable acrylic material with the look of real wood.
     Outdoor weatherable materials are also in high demand today and are readily available from industry engraving material suppliers. “Sign makers, architects and designers are definitely looking for products that are suitable for both interior and exterior use. The more versatile, durable and environmentally friendly the product, the better,” Bjorling says. Many of Rowmark’s engravable materials are suited for both indoor and outdoor use.
     Innovative Plastics, Algonquin, IL, offers a wide selection of interior and exterior engraving materials, including the Stones line which has the look of real stone. In addition, B.F. Plastics has recently introduced BF Select, a durable, UV-resistant, laser and rotary engravable material that features a unique .002" nonfoiled solid plastic cap layer that allows fine, detailed engraving. “There’s more of a selection in outdoor materials today. We offer several products that give customers a wide variety of material choices in different colors, finishes, appearances and so much more,” says Fichter.

The JRS Company, Inc. sells clear acrylic lenses for holding paper inserts in place. Tactile lettering and Braille can be added to the lenses and they also can be screen printed.   The JRS Company, Inc.’s new Decorative Bars line allows you to mix and match components to create different borders for signs.

Selling Tips
     As with anything, selling architectural signage requires marketing efforts. To find potential customers, be on the lookout for new construction and remodels in your community. Check out local real estate guides, local and state government agencies, and newspapers. Community newspapers are particularly valuable because they report on new construction projects happening in the area.
     Here are a few more tips to kick start sales:
     Know the product: “The biggest tip that I would give to a dealer when selling signs and frames is to know the product. Know what each line’s capabilities are and the costs associated with them in relation to what the customer is looking to accomplish,” advises JRS’ Jaques.
     Know the ADA guidelines: You need to be fluent in ADA regulations. Most architectural signage today must comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. It pays to know the ADA’s signage rules because your customers will depend on you to make signage that complies with the law and ensures that their building is ADA compliant. “With the current regulations in place, I would say that to be the most competitive in the market, knowledge of ADA regulations is very important in gaining opportunities over your competition,” says Jaques.
     Utilize “visual” selling: The visual aspect of selling is huge when it comes to making sign sales. Not only is it important to invest in a sign system you actually like and want to promote, but it is also crucial that you offer high-quality, finished samples to show potential customers that will fit the style they’re looking for. “Equip yourself and your sales team with a case of signage samples. Even providing a mock sign sample when bidding a job will increase customer interest. If the customers can’t see how the sign frame or system might look as part of a completed design vision, they’re less likely to invest. Visual aids are key,” says Bjorling. “Many sign manufacturers offer sign kits as a sales tool to showcase different product lines as part of a complete signage ‘collection.’ Sign kits are received well because customers want to touch and feel and take apart the product before they buy it. They want to understand how it works.”

Some sign frames, such as these carried by B.F. Plastics, Inc., feature end caps that are held in place with screws, making the sign tamper-proof.

     Use promotional materials: There are many cost-effective ways to promote this side of your business. Simply adding a page to your website and sending invoice stuffers to existing customers are great ways to promote the fact that you can deliver interior signage, in addition to the awards and other recognition products your customers have come to know you for.
    Catalogs are a good way to help customers reference your product information, and most sign suppliers have retail catalogs that you can use to show what you have to offer. Adding a product gallery to your website with high-resolution sample images is another great way to draw in interest and create design inspiration. Bjorling also recommends using technical data provided by suppliers to help explain how signage can be mounted and configured.
    Make it easy to order: Package pricing is a good concept when selling to the architectural signage market. For example, one price could include x number of signs and installation. A lot of people charge by the letter and by the square inch for materials and engraving. There is nothing wrong with that except the customer can’t usually figure the cost without getting a quote from the sign producer.
    Since there are so many choices in sign systems, it becomes your job to select a few—maybe two or three—based on the customer’s needs instead of overwhelming the customer with too many choices. Guide the buyer toward sign systems that are durable, easy to maintain and easy to update. This guarantees future reorders as tenants move and employees come and go.
    Make reorders easy by keeping records of all the sign specifications (size, price, dimensions, materials) and give your customers a copy. All the customer has to do is tell you the quantity and variable information to reorder.
    If you are looking for a profitable area to put your engraving services to use, consider the architectural signage market. You have the equipment, suppliers have just about any material and sign framing system you can imagine and the market is loaded with potential customers. With a basic understanding of sign products and applications, as well as buyer’s needs, you should be able to jump right into this highly profitable market.