Magazine Article


Is Signage A Market To Tackle?

Is Signage A Market To Tackle?
by Elizabeth Cunningham

  • "All posters are signs, but not all signs are posters." - David Williamson

Display signage is a ready made market for reprographers, commercial photo imagers and large format display shops that have the business initiative to expand their horizons. As film fades into history and inkjet printing grows in the corporate and industrial markets, commercial imagers are encountering more files without a photograph.

Might commercial photo labs and repro shops be called display and sign makers five years from now? Much depends on the individual business model. Obviously signs will never go away because they are the most economical form of advertising for a business, but they will change in makeup and application.

So why not grab a piece of the pie? According to the International Sign Association (ISA), the sign industry is a $5 billion-a-year trade, consisting of about 31,000 companies providing 250,000 jobs.

If you hang a banner, insert a few words and/or add a logo photo or graphic, is it a display, P.O.P, a photo image, a graphic or a sign? What constitutes a sign? According to the SBA (Small Business Administration) it is a form of communication and, if there's a photograph involved, it's worth much more than a thousand words.

The SBA website lists some general sign categories - building mounted, freestanding and interior. The distinction here is sign shop vs. signage display graphics. We can break these categories down much further by frontlit, backlit, indoor, outdoor, electronic, materials, etc. But simply, signage falls into three categories: identity, directional and promotional.

Can Your Shop Be Involved?
Is now the time for commercial imagers and reprographers to officially and overtly attacking the signage business? What equipment do they need, and where are the markets?

The photo/graphics house that wants to be in the sign business does not have to produce signs that are image based. For practical reasons we can exclude specialty areas like plaques, electronic neon, highway postings, etc. Yet for those of you that have first-class finishing departments, you are already basically equipped to be in the sign business. If you want to expand into quality cut outs and letterings, then all you need is a vinyl cutter and a router, such as a Gerber Scientific.

A router is an old name for new technology, a CAD/CAM device (Computer-Assisted Design and Computer-Assisted Manufacturing). Routers can draw, cut various materials up to 4.5 inches thick and trim mounted prints. A router will also efficiently handle contouring, drilling, milling, routing, inlays, cutouts and engraving. Thanks to computer technology and a broader market, the prices on these have dropped. At the April ISA show there was a router on every aisle corner.

Labs Already In On The Action
Photobition, the British photo/graphic conglomerate, appears to be going in the direction of sign display by catering to corporate clients that buy large quantities of wide and grand format. Their plan is to send electronic files to the closest point of exhibition for their facility to output and install. The Photobition business model is client access to digital photo and grand format inkjet.

Ben Leavitt is an industry consultant who has spent over 40 years in the commercial lab business - the past 25 have been with Gamma & Photobition, Chicago. He says, "We have always been in the sign business, but we call it 'display graphics.'" For any more serious dedication, "companies will have to adapt to the sign business, and we can compete with sign shops if we bring it to a different level. You must make the customer aware of what you are able to do with signage while you maintain your identity with quality and service. You cannot compete on their turf. You must compete on the photo lab's background in color and composition.

"Making the bridge is difficult," Lavitt explains. "We can do some of the work, but we can't double as a fast sign shop. Make the customer aware of what you are able to do with signage, but maintain your identity of quality and service."

Rick Cappelletti of Andrés Imaging & Graphics (Chicago) concurs. Both Leavitt and Cappelletti say that you need the photo imaging roots to go into the signage, but it cannot take away from your core business.

"Yes, we are definitely in the sign business," said Cappelletti, "We don't have a choice because as more and more people design graphics without photography, more graphics are going to look like signs instead of photographic." Since Andrés is deeply entrenched in retail, its clients are beginning to request directional signs for stores. "This is a new market that just fell in our lap," Cappelletti said. "We recently had a $10,000 job that was directional signs for corporate meetings."

One might ask why a designer would solicit what is to them a "photo lab" instead of going to a sign shop? Cappelletti explains: "The designer has the customer, and they need specific colors that are matched across banners, signs and collateral." A shop with photographic and color knowledge can provide quality and service far beyond a sign shop.

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