Exploring the Architectural Signage Market: A Look at Sign Frames

Copyright © 2014 by Davis Multimedia, Int'l. All Rights Reserved.
As Printed in September 2014, Volume 40, No. 3 of The Engravers Journal
These signs from Johnson Plastics, Minneapolis, MN, feature the unique FusionGrafix engravable plastic and decorative stand-offs.

These frames from B.F. Plastics, Inc., North Lawrence, OH, can be used for outdoor applications and are available in two “hard-coat” anodized colors, satin yellow gold and satin silver.


   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, not to mention the exciting new world of digital printing. 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 vandalism and wear and tear. And for the producer of the signs, 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.

Gemini Inc., Cannon Falls, MN, offers frames made of CAB (cellulose acetate butyrate) plastic, a non-petroleum-based plastic that is a renewable resource, that are suitable for interior or exterior use. Sign blanks simply snap into the frames for easy installation.

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.
   Signage and wayfinding is needed for interior and exterior structures so that individuals using those facilities can find their way. The benefits of a system approach to sign frames 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 indoor and outdoor signs 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 sign-age, 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 re-order 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.

This directory frame is part of the Euro Sign System while the smaller frame is from the Premier Plus line. Photo courtesy of Johnson Plastics.

   “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 Dave Johnson, director of operations for Johnson Plastics, Inc., Minneapolis, MN.
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.
   Keep in mind, too, that the organization doesn’t need to be a huge corporation to need signage. Although 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.
   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. 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 sign-age market. If you’re doing awards for a local school or university, for example, ask if they have any sign-age 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.
Sign Frame Options
   Both JRS and Rowmark LLC, Findlay, OH (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.

In addition to a wide selection of stock frames, The JRS Company, Covina, CA, offers frames with custom shapes.  

   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 multi-level 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 or description 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.
    The ability to mix and match components to create individually-styled 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 modular sign that allows individual portions of the sign to be updated rather than replacing 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.
    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 manufactures a 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.
    Jessica Heldman-Beck, marketing manager for Rowmark, says that there are more framing options available today than ever. “The traditional sign frame is always a great way to create a classic finished look and a quick mounting solution for signage. Today’s sign makers, however, are really fortunate because there are many types of, what Rowmark likes to call, signage ‘bling’ available, including new signage hardware, frames and mounting systems, to enhance their sign designs. Stand-offs and mounting fixtures, in particular, are hugely popular today, are available in all sorts of shapes, colors and sizes, and offer the perfect mounting alternative to a traditional sign frame,” she says.
    The relatively 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 offers Metro and Elite single and double panel stand-offs. The single panel stand-offs are typically used to mount signage that consists of one sign blank. The double panel stand-offs are used to mount two sign substrates on one sign, one on top of the other with space in between. This is an attractive choice for architectural signage when a “layering” effect is desired.
    Gemini Inc., Cannon Falls, MN, offers decorative stand-off mounts made of anodized aluminum which are available in two cap sizes and two lengths. Gemini’s decorative stand-offs have a clear anodized finish when sold separately, but when sold with Gemini signs or plates, the stand-offs can be painted any standard Gemini color.
    Rowmark also offers the Clamper as another type of mounting fixture. Available in seven sizes, this anodized aluminum sign hardware is a contemporary alternative to stand-offs and features a “clamping” system that allows you to secure sign substrates without having to drill holes through them.
    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.

Stand-offs can transform any ADA or architectural sign or display project into an inspired design statement. These signs feature materials from Rowmark’s (Findlay, OH) Hardwood Collection and ColorHues product lines. 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.

   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 or snaps 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.
   For customers who are more concerned about vandal-resistance, there are other options to consider. Some substrates are held in 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.
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.

This sign features green glass acrylic and decorative stand-offs from Gemini Inc. For increased vandal resistance, some of Rowmark’s sign systems require using a special tool to remove inserts.

   Although ADA-compliant signage has long been viewed as being utilitarian, that has changed in recent years. Today’s sign makers 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. Rowmark has introduced ColorHues, which is a line of unique, lightweight acrylics that have brilliant color with the smooth, clean look of glass.
   Rowmark also recently introduced new laser engravable materials, such as the FusionGrafix and Hardwood Collection product lines, which are also well-suited for creating innovative architectural signage. The FusionGrafix product line essentially allows you to create your own plastic sign substrate by choosing one of five Grafix patterns and one of 21 colored 2-ply plastic substrates. “With the freedom to combine unique UV-stable graphic patterns over durable acrylic cores, it puts the sign maker in control to create complete custom, never-before-seen looks,” says Heldman-Beck. Outdoor weatherable materials are also in high demand today and are readily available from industry engraving material suppliers. 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 offers BF Select, a durable, UV-resistant, laser and rotary engravable material that features a unique .002" non-foiled 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.
   Gravograph also carries a complete line of laser and rotary engravable materials, including interior and exterior plastics and substrates for ADA signage.
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 your 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 what you have to offer that can meet their needs. Equip yourself and your sales team with a case of signage samples and use mock sign samples when bidding a job. If the customer can’t see how the sign frame or system might look as part of a completed design vision, they’re less likely to invest. 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.
   “Take good quality photos of all the signs you make and create a portfolio to show new customers,” suggests Johnson. “Take a sign that you have created for a customer and then ‘upgrade’ a replica by adding an attractive frame or contemporary stand-offs. Showing your customer how to add value is always a good sales tool.”

Accessories like frame dividers allow you to section off frames for multiple plates. Photo courtesy of B.F. Plastics, Inc.

The stainless steel Clamper from Rowmark features a unique “clamping” system that secures sign substrates without having to drill holes through them.

This sign frame from The JRS Company features an acrylic lens that snaps into the frame over paper graphics.

   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. You can also 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 re-orders 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 re-order.
   If you are looking for a profitable area to put your engraving services to use, consider the architectural signage market. You probably already have the equipment you need. 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.

Frame Those Badges, Too!

The components in this badge from badgetec, Miami, FL, are part of the a-20 series. The logo can be printed or, if using your own material, etched or engraved. The front of the add-on logo section is particularly good for doming.

The badge frames shown here are from Rowmark LLC, Findlay, OH (bottom left), and Johnson Plastics, Minneapolis, MN (upper right).


   Like signage, name badges are ID products that are very much in high demand. Just as architectural signs provide wayfinding room and place identification in small and large facilities, distinctive name badges identify people by name, job title, department and other crucial information. As a result, nearly every business, organization, school, etc., needs and uses name badges. And also like signage, name badges can be greatly enhanced through the use of frames. A frame makes a badge look “complete” while giving it a professional appearance, and it also prolongs the life of the badge.
   “Frames add a more finished look and create a more durable badge,” says Dave Johnson, director of operations for Johnson Plastics, Minneapolis, MN. “In addition, badge frames are an upsell which generates more revenue due to the higher perceived value.”
   In addition to Johnson Plastics, several other suppliers carry badge frames in a variety of sizes, styles, shapes and materials, including B.F. Plastics, Inc., North Lawrence, OH; The JRS Company, Covina, CA; and Rowmark LLC, Findlay, OH.
badgetec GmbH, Miami, FL, is a relatively new arrival in North America from their home office in Hamburg, Germany, that supplies individual components that are used to create professional name badges. The unique concept of supplying a variety of individual components is that it allows you to mix and match them with your own products or with other components from non-badgetec badge systems to create professional badges that are custom tailored to the end user.
   Angela Klimmek, marketing director for badgetec, says “badgetec is very specialized in what it offers to the personnel identification market. Badges are worn in every type of business or organization, but there are only very few types of name badges on the market that are comfortable to wear and have the possibility of being individualized easily. The focus is always on the unique needs of the end customer. That’s why we need different styles, shapes and colors of badges.”

badgetec offers “starter” kits that include a selection of various components to get you started making badges quickly.

   As part of its product line, badgetec offers three different starter kits that include all the components you need to build badges. The Basic Kit “Complete,” for example, includes 20 badge holders in galvanic metallized or a gold-colored finish in your choice of 3 sizes, 20 magnetic findings and 20 front panel options. Panel options include anodized aluminum, which can be screen printed or digitally printed, aluminum for sublimation printing or laser engravable plastic.
   You can also purchase the components separately to build badges. Components include various sizes and styles of badge holders, findings (magnetic and pins), front panels and transparent acrylic panels which can be printed directly or used on top of a badge insert printed on paper.
   “Every type and size of badge is created for a special demand,” explains Klimmek. “For example, the badges in the a-series line are available in round or square shapes and are designed for smaller logos. This type of badge looks brilliant with a round or square logo, but for larger logos in different shapes, the p-series line is recommended.”
   Clearly there is a wide variety of badge frame options to choose from in the industry. So, the next time a customer orders name badges from you, don’t forget to ask, “Would you like frames with that?”




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