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 businesses in our industry. Customers in this market area are typically “high-end” buyers who are willing to spend more for good quality signage. And from a business owner’s point of view, unlike some other types of engraving jobs, signage is very easy to manufacture using your laser system, rotary engraving machine, UV printer 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. Certain styles of frames can also provide a level of protection to the signs in a facility, making them less prone to vandalism. And for the sign producer, the frames also provide an opportunity to increase margins with the added sale of the frame with the sign insert.
There is an incredible variety of sign framing systems and materials available in the industry. Here’s a look at how they can pave a path to what could be a very profitable avenue for your business.
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 and coordinated 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.
Johnson Plastics Plus (JPPlus), Burnsville, MN, is a major supplier of sign framing systems and materials. According to Bobbi Payne, technical service advisor, “The practical benefits for using hardware in your signage application are, of course, easy mounting and a finished appearance. However, it can offer so much more. We have frames and mounting fixtures that offer tamper resistance and the ability to create all kinds of clean, modern effects.”
A sign framing system creates a look of harmony in a building. Photo courtesy of Johnson Plastics Plus.
Frames are made in many different sizes and configurations to suit different uses within an environment. For example, in a typical office building or medical facility, 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 near the 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 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.
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 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 Payne points out, the organization doesn’t necessarily need to be a huge conglomerate to need signage. “Any type of business would be a good prospect for architectural sign-age and sign framing systems. Architectural signage is found almost everywhere you look, in restaurants, commercial and government buildings, museums, libraries, schools and universities, stores and malls. Anywhere in your community where people gather is a great option for sign frame systems,” she says.
Because you are already involved in the Recognition and Personalization Industry, chances are good that you have a leg up on finding potential signage customers. Many businesses in the industry 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.
Options in Sign Frames
The JRS Company, Inc., Covina, CA, and Rowmark LLC, Findlay, OH (and their network of worldwide disributors), offer a very large selection of sign frames and holders. Several major distributors in the industry carry one or both of these companies’ product lines, including: B.F. Plastics, Inc., North Lawrence, OH; JDS Industries, Sioux Falls, SD; JPPlus; and Gravograph, Duluth, GA.
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 widely 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 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. JPPlus’ Streamline anodized aluminum frame system, for instance, can be purchased assembled or in frame pairs to easily customize your frame size. Accessories like “frame dividers” that section off larger frames to hold multiple smaller plates, such as a room number and the name of a room, are available as well. There are literally hundreds of options for configuring and adapting the sign design to the environment it is being installed in.
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 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.
There are other types of decorative sign framing components available as well. For example, JRS offers a line of decorative bars and rails. This framing series consists of four sizes of decorative bars designed to create borders for signs. The 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.
Stand-offs continue to be very popular mounting fixtures for sign framing systems. 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.
JPPlus recently added Gyford stand-offs to its line of sign frames and mounting fixtures in addition to “invisible” mounting fixtures. “‘Floating’ dimensional signage is a popular effect today where the sign protrudes from the wall but you can’t see the mounting fixtures. This is easily achieved with our selection of ‘invisible’ mounting fixtures including the Fisso Klipser and Ghost that hide behind the substrate,” says Payne.
There are also sign framing options available for exterior applications. B.F. Plastics offers the JRS Xterior frame system consisting 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 applications include departmental signage, directional/wayfinding signage and informational signage.
JPPlus carries the Rowmark Portico system featuring frames made of high-impact plastic suitable for indoor and outdoor use. The frames are available with square or round corners and come in a variety of colors and standard frame sizes as well as a modular directory.
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.
For customers who are more concerned about vandal resistance, there are other options to consider. Some substrates are held within the frame structure using 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.
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. “One of the key elements in architectural signage today is putting thought into the design and continually creating new looks to stay a cut above the competition,” advises JPPlus’ Payne. “JPPlus offers the entire line of Rowmark engravable sheets in a large selection of colors and finishes which are a very popular solution for the architectural signage market.”
UV-LED printing is seeing an upswing in the signage industry. Photo courtesy of Johnson Plastics Plus.
One popular sign material offered is Rowmark ColorHues, which is a line of unique, lightweight acrylics that have vivid color with the smooth, clean look of glass. “Our brilliant Color-
Hues cell cast acrylics have become amazingly popular for a wide range of creative signage applications, including ADA, display and POP projects. ColorHues are available in an extensive color palette of 35 color options so design options are unlimited.”
A popular trend in signage today is sign designs that invoke the feeling of nature and the outdoors. Rowmark recently introduced two new products to meet that demand. The Hardwood Collection is a laserable wood material designed for signage and fabrication needs. Available in nine wood species, it is constructed of five single-
ply hardwood layers (veneers) that are laminated together. The Naturals is a laser and rotary engravable microsurface impact acrylic featuring nature inspired textured patterns that can be used for both interior and exterior applications.
Trotec Laser, Inc., Plymouth, MI, now offers a full line of laser and rotary engravable materials that are well suited for signage. Included in the line are a wide range of options in plastic, wood, acrylic and even paper materials. For instance, Trotec’s TroGlass family of acrylic materials offers a large selection of options including gloss finish in different grades of transparency, frosted, satin finish, reverse engravable, clear, mirrored, metallic, glitter, acrylic that is optimized for LED lighting and acrylic that actually changes color from black to bright when backlit in the dark.
Outdoor weatherable materials are also in high demand today and are readily available from industry engraving material suppliers. Many acrylic engravable materials are suited for both indoor and outdoor use (but be sure to check with your supplier). One popular exterior Rowmark product line is the Metalgraph Plus product family. This material offers a hard coat and subsurface brush finish that is moisture and fingerprint resistant and designed to provide protection for exterior applications. Metalgraph Plus is also available with matching core colors for use as channel letters in addition to a new textured pattern. JPPlus also offers a wide selection of interior and exterior engraving materials from Innovative Plastics, Inc., including the Stones line which has the look of real stone.
B.F. Plastics has recently introduced Gemini Duets Laser XT, a durable, UV-resistant, laser and rotary engravable impact modified acrylic material that features a unique .002" non-foiled solid plastic cap layer that allows fine, detailed engraving. Laser XT can be used for indoor and outdoor applications, and some sheets are offered in a two-sided, 3-ply option. B.F. Plastics also recently introduced Duets Ultimates, a rotary engravable material made of impact modified acrylic designed for exterior applications and harsh environments.
Even sublimation is now gaining a presence in the exterior signage market. JPPlus recently introduced ColorTuff EXT by Duraluxe, a sublimatable exterior signage material option. ColorTuff EXT is a durable coated aluminum sheet available in gloss, matte and textured finishes. It has a five-year warranty for exterior applications and offers resistance to vandalism as spray paint and permanent markers can be easily washed away.
Condé Systems, Inc., Mobile, AL, recently introduced exterior grade aluminum building signage to its family of sublimatable products. The .045" thick gloss white aluminum sign blanks are from Unisub and are UV-rated for an expected outdoor life of up to three years. The sign blanks are available in various sizes and shapes, including rectangles, ovals, bunting tags, parking signs and garden stakes.
JRS Flex Frames from B.F. Plastics, Inc. offer a tamper resistant sign framing option that allows the sign to be easily maintained and changed.
Sign Making Technologies
When it comes to making the signs, you have a variety of options depending, of course, on your equipment. “All methods continue to be viable options and shops that are able to offer more than one technology can offer their customer base a wide variety of products and services,” says Payne.
Laser engraving, of course, is probably the number one method for creating engraved signage. The process is quick, easy and versatile, and there are more laserable sign materials available today than ever.
Rotary engraving continues to be a very good technology, especially for the production of ADA signage, permanent signage, industrial signage and more. It’s particularly well-suited for raised lettering and Braille on ADA signage because it allows for extreme accuracy when drilling holes for Braille beads and cutting out letters, unlike laser engraving. Another advantage to rotary engraving is that it is easy to engrave deeply when necessary or desired.
As mentioned earlier, sublimation is now a viable contender in the sign-age market as new and better materials for the process are available and more are likely on the horizon. The big advantage to sublimation is the ability to create signs with full-color images, even photographs.
Another full-color technology that is becoming more popular in the industry is UV-LED printing. “Recently, there’s been an upswing in customers using UV-LED printing technology to create signage. It offers full-color image reproduction, and some models have the ability to print ADA-compliant Braille signage,” says Payne. “UV-LED printing has truly made a big splash in the marketplace. The ability to offer full-color signs and banners creates excellent visibility for your customers.”
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:
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.
- Establish a social media presence: “Today, one of the easiest ways to find customers is to create a social media presence where the dealer can demonstrate how easy their frames can create a classic, finished look and quick mounting options for their signs or artwork,” says Payne. “Platforms like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn can be an extremely cost-effective method of marketing yourself and your brand. Once you have established a small customer base, you can leverage them by thanking each customer for their business and asking them for referrals.” In addition, many sign makers are finding success by creating online Etsy stores to sell their signage.
- Know the ADA guidelines: If you’re serious about the architectural signage market, 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. “While the regulations can be a bit intimidating, if you keep the primary points in mind when creating your designs it’s relatively easy to create great looking, ADA-compliant signs,” explains Payne. “Key points to keep in mind are the non-glare finish of your material, the color contrast between your substrate and the text, the size and space requirements for text and pictograms, compliant fonts, Braille sizing and spacing, and the mounting heights required.” See the sidebar accompanying this article for a rundown of the ADA regulations regarding signage.
- 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 fit the style they’re looking for. Equip yourself and your sales team with a case of signage samples, and consider providing a mock sign sample when bidding a job to increase customer interest. 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 buy.
- 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, promotional products and other personalized 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 use technical data provided by suppliers to help explain how signage can be mounted and configured.
- Make ordering easy: 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 re-orders 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.
The Bottom Line
If you are looking for a profitable area to put your visual graphics services to use, consider the architectural signage market. You probably 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.