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Exploring the Architectural Signage Market

Copyright © 2015 by Davis Multimedia, Int'l. All Rights Reserved.
As Printed in September 2015, Volume 41, No. 3 of The Engravers Journal
These sign frames from B.F. Plastics can be used for outdoor applications and are available in two “hard-coat” anodized colors, satin yellow gold and satin silver.

   It's crunch time. John needs to get to the right place for an important meeting but the signs are few and far between and are hard to read. He wanders through the huge building anxiously, peering into each suite and conference room he sees, hoping to find the right place in time for an appointment. He is late, despite being to the meeting place half an hour early. This scenario could have been avoided entirely had clear architectural signage been installed in that building. As a sign maker, you easily could become part of the solution.
Why should you consider selling architectural signage?
   Signage is often the first impression people have of a business or organization. In all types of busy facilities, from office buildings to airports, schools, hospitals and hotels (any place where people congregate), clear, attractive sign-
age doesn’t just look good, it’s also used for wayfinding and for meeting the stringent requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). And once you’re inside the building, other ID products, such as building directories, nameplates and name badges, can help you find the right office or person. All of this helps add a professional air to the business and can make a substantial difference in how a visitor perceives the facility and the business or organization itself.
   All signs are not created equal. A lot of signs out there are plagued by boredom and visual mediocrity. Let’s face it: Some signs are just plain ugly or are not very serviceable, causing the building owner problems when signage needs to be maintained or replaced. How many times have you seen signs that were vandalized or had mismatched inserts?
   That’s where “architectural signage” enters the picture. Architectural signs are signs with a flair for design, they are serviceable and they are functional, providing both excellent wayfinding and a commonality in the look and design that carries all throughout the facility. It’s high-end signage that also carries a high-end price.
   For these reasons and more, 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 a sign maker’s point of view, unlike some other types of engraving jobs, signage is very easy to manufacture using your laser system, rotary engraving machine, sublimation equipment and/or a digital inkjet printer. 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 to change the insert if the sign becomes damaged or the message becomes obsolete.
   Dave Johnson, director of operations for Johnson Plastics, Minneapolis, MN, has this to say, “We see architectural signage as an important category for sign shops to produce more stylish and sophisticated signs. By providing a variety of materials and framing systems, we are helping sign makers provide upscale offerings to supplement the classic designs, and thus create additional revenue. By offering a more aesthetically pleasing sign, the sign shop provides a value-added service and creates uniqueness with their design capability.”
   Each type of sign represents a possible niche that your business could fill. The two major categories are interior and exterior signs, each of which has common types.


A variety of materials are available to create attractive and colorful signage. Photo courtesy of Rowmark, LLC.

Interior Signs
   Types of interior signs vary. One common example would be “Wayfinding” signs which tell you where the business or suite you are looking for is in the building, for example, the directory signs in the lobby of just about any office building. Viewing the male or female symbol on the door lets you know where to find the appropriate restroom, even if you’re in a foreign country. There are directional signs that tell you whether specific suites are to the right or the left (very common in office buildings, hotels and hospitals), where exits are in an emergency and those that identify your destination once you’ve arrived there with the name of the business and the suite number.
   Hospitals often have directory-style signs with arrows pointing which way to go for specific departments as well as the hospital’s gift shop or cafeteria, good information to have if you need to buy a gift or get something to eat or drink. ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) signage also is important. For example, making signs in Braille for your clients’ buildings means that blind people entering them can find their way with some measure of independence.
Exterior Signs
   LED-illuminated signs and other illuminated signs (which may be attached to a building or free-standing in front of it, often raised on a pole) can include directory-style signs that list every business in a strip mall. Signs may be mounted to the front window, on the door or over the door to indicate a business’ name. Other exterior signage includes ADA handicapped parking signs, handicap entrance/ramp signs, etc. The ADA sign-age market, in particular, is growing largely because “accessible signage” is now mandated all around the world.
   Within both of these categories, a variety of attractive sign frames, materials and architectural mounts are available in the industry that can be used to make what otherwise might be a plain sign “pop.” Knowing what’s available will make it far easier to achieve the look your client wants. Here’s a look at what some of the major suppliers in the industry have to offer.
Gemini Inc.
   Gemini Inc., Cannon Falls, MN, is a manufacturer of dimensional letters and logos that can be used for a variety of architectural signage applications, including shopping malls, fashion boutiques, cafes, restaurants, schools, gyms and government and cultural facilities. The company offers custom letters and logos in metal and plastic material choices that are suitable for interior and exterior applications.
   Metal letters are available either “flat-cut” or cast. For the flat-cut letters, a CNC machine is used to cut sheet metal made of various alloys and in various thicknesses, depending on the desired end product. Customers can choose from various finishing options, sizes and fonts. Cast metal letters are manufactured by pouring molten bronze or aluminum into a sand mold. Fabricated stainless steel letters are formed by cutting out sheet metal, then bending or welding it into shape.
   Plastic letter products are another option and are available either injection molded or thermoformed. Many of the company’s plastic letters are made from non-petroleum based plastic. Gemini also offers flat-cut acrylic letters that are fabricated using an automated machine to cut out the letters in a manner quite similar to making flat-cut letters.
   The company also recently began manufacturing its own line of laser and rotary engraving sheet stock that can be used for all types of signage and name badges. Gemini’s Duets line is available as either an ABS product designed for rotary engraving or impact-modified acrylic designed for laser engraving. Currently the material is offered in 1/16" thickness and in three sheet sizes but, according to Kenan Hanhan, vice president of marketing, Gemini plans to expand its engraving materials offerings in the near future. Gemini also offers a selection of stand-offs, mounting fixtures and sign frames which are additional product lines the company plans to expand.
   If you are looking to outsource some of your architectural signage work, Gemini offers custom sign making services as well, including cast metal signage, etched and laser engraved signage, and aluminum ADA signage.
Johnson Plastics
   Dave Johnson explains that flexibility is the key to creating successful architectural sign products for customers. “Johnson Plastics carries components for creating signs that can be tamper-proof, easily changed, visually coordinated, lightweight, dimensional and environmentally-responsible. The ability to create secure signs or easily changed signs helps the sign shop create a relationship with their customers,” he says. The company also carries a large variety of stand-offs, architectural mounting fixtures and sign frames from several industry manufacturers to serve different pricing and/or aesthetic needs. According to Johnson, “We offer our architectural sign products in different finishes, dozens of standard sizes plus custom sizes for any application. The biggest sellers are brushed aluminum, rose or yellow gold and matte black sign frames.”


DuraBlack is a laser engravable aluminum substrate that can be used for exterior signage applications. Photo courtesy of Johnson Plastics.

The JRS Company 
   The JRS Company, Inc., Covina, CA, is probably best known for its huge selection of nameplate holders and sign frames. “We have such a broad range of signage products and the industry itself encompasses such a large array of signage options that, when it comes to architectural sign-age, there is no industry standard and no limit when it comes to sign design,” says Brad Jaques, JRS president. “That means that each project can be unique, depending on the designer and the end customer’s needs.”
   Extruded aluminum is used to manufacture the company’s frames as well as its traditional holders, he says. “We offer around two hundred unique dies that can be used to produce holders in almost any size or length. Our frames are primarily for interior use. Our line includes custom architectural frames, traditional aluminum holders and injection molded sign frames. We offer nine anodized color choices, seven powder coated and seven choices of molded frame colors. Our frames are simple and clean looking, and are priced extremely competitively.”
   With so many items for customers to choose from, he states, it is hard to single out one in particular. “Our Architectural Metal Frame line is our oldest and is still a very strong collection because of its clean, simple appearance, ease of use and durability. It adds a distinguished look to signage at a very reasonable cost.”
   In addition to the items already mentioned, he adds, “We have recently begun producing our own small line of rotary and laser engravable materials, as well as a line of materials for ADA signage.”
Rowmark
   Jessica Heldman-Beck, marketing manager for Rowmark LLC, Findlay, OH, explains the company’s focus. “Rowmark is the leading manufacturer of engravable sheet materials for the signage, engraving and awards markets, and also carries a complete line of signage products, including stand-offs, mounting fixtures, sign frames and more,” she says. “When used together, these products offer a complete solution for creating innovative architectural signage and wayfinding projects for just about any location or environment. Many of Rowmark’s engraving materials, in addition to being laserable and rotary engravable, are outdoor weatherable and UV stable, so they’re suited for even the most demanding outdoor applications.”
   When asked about what’s hot right now, Heldman-Beck says it depends on what the fabricator and end user want to achieve. “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 and are available in all sorts of shapes, colors and sizes, and offer the perfect mounting alternative to a traditional sign frame.”
   The anodized aluminum Clamper is an example of one of the company’s most popular mounting fixtures due to its appearance and versatility. Available in seven sizes, this 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.


These signs from Johnson Plastics feature the unique FusionGrafix engravable plastic and decorative stand-offs.


   Also very popular are Rowmark’s Metro and Elite single and double panel stand-offs. The single panel stand-offs are used to mount sign-age 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.
   Newer additions to its line of stand-offs include the Fisso Three, Four and Six. Instead of a traditional round stand-off, these new products are three-, four- and six-sided to create triangle, square and hexagon shapes for a totally new look that is also tamper-resistant.
   Another one of Rowmark’s exciting new products is the aluminum Fisso Flag suspended cable system, which allows you to create flag and ceiling mounted signage in a variety of orientations and styles with the use of varying panel lengths. The aluminum mounting panel accepts a wide variety of sign substrates, including wood, glass and metal, and can also be screen printed or digitally printed.
   Sign makers can combine these and other sign framing and mounting products with the company’s engravable material selections for endless options. “Rowmark’s engravable sheet materials are available in a complete selection of colors and finishes and are a very popular solution for architectural signage applications,” Heldman-Beck adds. “Our brilliant ColorHues cast acrylics product line has become wildly popular for an expansive range of creative signage applications, as well as ADA signs, displays, POP projects and more. It is available in 35 color options, 10 of which were introduced in 2014.”
   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.
   Rowmark’s Hardwood Collection is an attractive option for architectural signage, in addition to craft and artistry projects, awards and recognition pieces, custom gifts and promotional products. The Hardwood Collection is constructed of five single-ply hardwood layers (or veneers) that are laminated together. The collection is available in oak, maple, walnut or cherry laminates (which are neither sealed nor lacquered, so they can be stained as desired). In addition, the wood can be lasered on both sides and is available in either 1/8" or 1/4" thicknesses. Stock sheet sizes are 12" x 24" and 18" x 24".
Marketing, finding customers and making the sale.
   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.
   Important aspects of marketing your architectural signage efforts include staying current with ADA regulations (and any changes to them), which govern how these signs are made. This means you should check the current legal language on the Internet and at your local library (research librarians are a great help). If you offer ADA expertise, it will be very valuable to customers, whose signage must meet the letter of the law. This applies both to sign installations for new construction and for major remodels when compliant signs are needed.
   All of these potential clients have architectural signage needs:
• Public building administrators of museums, libraries, zoos, courts, city/county buildings and other municipal structures
• Office complex landlords, who give you access to multiple companies in a single building
• Private office owners or office suite owners within these larger office complexes
• Those who own a headquarters or main office building for a business
• Service building landlords, administrators or owners; examples include hotels, schools and hospitals
• Leasing companies, which are responsible for filling vacant offices in large buildings or office complexes
• Keep in mind that your contact may be someone other than the owner, such as a construction or property manager, an architectural firm, the manager, leasing company or another individual the owner designates.
   The right signage helps these users put their best foot forward. Price is usually not an issue. Quality and appearance are what’s most important to these clients. Extensive use of sign blanks, frames, panels and more can help keep costs down while still offering an attractive product. In order to customize your architectural sign-age to meet your clientele’s needs, you need to know what the materials are best used for and to keep up with industry standards. Keep in mind not all substrates are suitable and also that ADA requirements can be very specific. Stay on top of those requirements and the cutting-edge trends and you’ll come out ahead.
   Keeping up with these trends may require some on-site research. Are you targeting your signage services to the new healthcare buildings or hospitals being built in your area? Go to other, similar buildings that recently have been built or renovated. While there, notice the signage trends you see. What fonts are being used? Are they serif or san serif fonts? Is signage layered to “set off” the information? What other unique qualities do these signs have that make you think they’re both useful and attractive? Take photographs and keep archives for particular types of signage to give you ideas for new projects. Do this type of research for any type of business to which you’d like to market your architectural signage.
   It’s important to find your niche. If most other companies in the area specialize in vinyl signage, use another substrate or medium to make your work stand out from the competition. Find a way to improve upon what’s already being done. Can you produce signs that look just as good as the competition’s? Find ways to wow potential customers with innovative designs and your flexibility. Meet their needs.
   There’s a lot of business available by replacing old and outdated sign-age. Go over to those buildings and, if you feel the signage there is outdated, or could otherwise be improved, find the business’ numbers and again, call those owners. Explain what you do and set up a meeting to discuss the specific services you can provide and also show them samples or a pictorial portfolio of your work.


The Clamper is a popular anodized aluminum mounting fixture available from Rowmark, LLC.


   Before you meet with a potential customer, familiarize yourself with the architectural signage products you have available and know how to utilize them in creative ways. Signage is a visual medium, so it’s vital to bring brochures and catalogs with you to illustrate your point as well as good samples which may wrap up the sale.
   Make the process easy on yourself by compiling a portfolio of your signs that have been installed locally as further illustration of your abilities. Ask your clients if they’d be willing to serve as references for future customers, and add those references to the portfolio showcasing your work. Take the sign samples, portfolio, catalogs, brochures and your best ideas to customers to wow them with your expertise. A lot of successful producers take a tablet or other computer with them and have plenty of great pictures available to show.
   Johnson of Johnson Plastics suggests your portfolio should also be online, showcased on your website. He adds, “Take two signs that you have created for a customer and then upgrade the second one by adding an attractive frame or contemporary stand-offs. Showing your customer how to enhance the look while you add value is always a good sales tool.”
Get to know your customers.
   Once a customer has expressed interest, learn exactly what’s needed. What are the goals for the signage? What is their desired image? What is their budget? What are the most important features: changeability, vandal resistance, low maintenance?
   Depending upon how far along a construction project is, tour the facility and/or review blueprints to get a feel for the signs needed. Find out the color scheme by obtaining swatches of wallpaper, paint, flooring, etc., so you can make sure that the signs compliment the interior design. Learn who will occupy or visit the building. This “audience” will also determine appropriateness of signage. (As an example, a medical office that treats primarily older adults or a senior center might need signage with bigger lettering.)
   Make your customers’ lives easier. Offer package pricing (one price for x number of signs). Additional signs can be sold a la carte or in quantity by increments (perhaps 5 or 10 signs). Offer two to three ideas based upon what you know he or she is looking for (too many choices may make a decision more difficult) and make sure that the materials are durable and the signs can be easily updated. Make re-orders simple by creating customer order forms with the original sign specifications right on the order form. The customer just needs to check off what is being ordered and add a number indicating the quantity ordered.
   JRS’ Jaques adds, “Frames are a great add-on sale with no labor in the manufacturing process for the sign maker. Opportunities exist any time they sell a signage job, whether it’s one sign or an entire project. Successful sign makers always look for the add-on sale.”
Creative limits? What limits?
   Perhaps the best way to sell architectural signage is to get your creative juices flowing. Imagination and creativity are key to making memorable signage that will keep customers coming back for more.
   Jaques says customers can take even a simple sign component and make something stunning. For example, he says, “One of the most unique uses with our frames involved a customer who built a donor recognition wall using our Architectural Metal Frames. This truly highlighted each individual donor with a really sharp border.”
   “One of the most important selling features for signage today is design innovation,” says Rowmark’s Heldman-Beck. “Anyone can add a couple stand-offs to a sign and call it done. It’s about putting thought into the design and continually creating new looks to maintain a cut above the competition. Though it may seem intimidating at first, it’s important for sign makers to know that they can easily be imaginative and make a design creation all their own with just a few small touches or add-ons. Signage can be layered with different colored or shaped substrates in varying sizes. There are more color options available today than ever before. You can create great dimensional looks by layering substrates with stand-offs or mounting fixtures...or create a ‘wow’ factor by using multiple stand-offs in one area as an outline, shape or just to complement the design.”
Conclusion
   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.

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