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
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
"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.