Apple Signs

Like most sign people, Michael James got in the business “for the creative side.” If you like to design and make things, signs may be one of the few careers where you get to do that. Of course, it’s not all just the creative work. Many customers want production or informational signs, and Michael has done a lot of screen printing and informational signage over the years.

In common with other sign people, Michael got his start in the business by painting signs in high school—and stayed with it. He went on to screen printing, started off cutting stencils by hand, and later ran his own screen printing shop. He often printed two-color 4-by-8 signs by himself. In time, screen printing got more competitive, and computers changed the sign industry.

“Like everything else,” says Michael, “you have to change with the times. So I got into vinyl signs. I started out with the Gerber Signmaker 4B, which was just a keyboard and a one-line display attached to a cutter. You couldn’t see your layout on a screen because there was no monitor. Fonts were $250 each, so you had to choose them carefully.

“During the early years, Gerber ran a contest asking for tips from 4B users. If your submission ran in their newsletter, you received a free font. I was fortunate to win many fonts and build a nice font library.”

Michael opened Apple Signs in 1987 in Ball, a central Louisiana town of about 4,000. He does vinyl and digitally printed signs—no 3-D work. He refers everything else away, preferring to focus on what he can produce in-house, without any staff.

“I’m a one-man show. I enjoy doing what I do, and I like to be in control of what leaves my shop. To me, that’s really what I’m selling.”

Today the bulk of Michael’s sign work is largely for industrial plants. These facilities require many regulatory and informational signs, and that’s what his shop is set up for—though he still does a fair amount of general signage.

“It seems that manufacturing plants must post a warning for almost everything,” says Michael. “It really seems a bit ridiculous at times, but the signs have to be there. Also, there are a lot of regulations on how these signs must be made, so you have to make sure you comply with that.

“After doing all this tight, informational work, it’s good when I get to do a sign for a small business that’s actually advertising. That’s why most of us get into the business to start with. You like the creative side and making signs that really advertise a business.”

Michael’s layouts typically keep the copy to a minimum, using bold contrasts with highly legible fonts. Some of that approach is probably the result of his exposure to the work of the late legendary sign painter Big John Brassell.

“I knew Big John when I was growing up in Olla, Louisiana,” he says. “I saw a lot of his work around there. Later, Big John moved to Natchez and was one of the first to do sandblasted wood signs. In fact, he made a sandblasted sign for my dad back then.

“I really believe that less is more when it comes to sign layout. Today there is a lot of overkill, thanks to what the software and digital printing can do. If you put too much in, the message is completely lost, the main point is missed. And that’s what our customers are paying us to get across to people.

“I see a lot of printed signs with textured backgrounds, blends, fades and photos. They look great up close. But you can get so carried away with the background and artwork that you lose the message.”

“I try to make sure that if someone shoots past one of my signs at 55 mph, they’re going to be able to read it.”

Michael says his market is “everyday signs for everyday small town small businesses.” They don’t have a lot to spend—or won’t spend a lot—on signs. Most of the time, he’s working within their budget to give them a sign that will work as well as possible.

He finds it frustrating that customers seldom realize the advertising value of an effective sign. So often, he says, they’re more concerned about what the sign will cost than what it can make them.

“I think it’s a bigger problem now that many customers think they can do their own sign design on their computer. There’s more to sign design than picking out pretty fonts. Then they look at the design on the backlit computer display from two feet away and are happy with it. When it’s up on the building or out in the field, though, they’re disappointed because it doesn’t look like it did on the screen. It can be hard to explain, but you have to warn them.”

For Michael, it can often be a mistake when a shop produces a design that a customer brings in, which you know will look badly once it becomes a sign. Since a sign shop depends largely on referrals for its work, producing a poorly designed sign can work against the shop—just as an effectively designed sign can work for the shop.

“A sign shop’s reputation is on the line with every job. Every sign you produce reflects back on your business—good or bad. That’s why I’ll turn down a job if my experience tells me that the design will fail. When people ask who did it, it will reflect back on me. I know they say the customer is always right, but that’s not true when it comes to sign design.

Original Article from the SignCraft Magazine | November/December 2013