The Business of Sign Making

So, you’re thinking about the business of sign making? Well, you’re in luck! Sign-making is an easy business to get into and it has a very stable market. As long as people need to market their goods or services to those around them, they’re going to need signs to do it!

Now, when I say that it’s “easy” to get into sign making, that’s a relative term … It’s still a business and like any business, you need a good plan. This article won’t deal with writing a business plan as there are plenty of other resources for that. What this article will deal with are some of the key factors in building a successful sign business, including a general overview of the talent and equipment you’re going to need to get started.

The topics we’ll cover here are artistic talent, software, equipment, supplies, and the types of signs you can expect to sell right out of the box.

Vinyl and Sign Supplies

Your primary media when starting a sign business will be vinyl film. You can buy hundreds of different Pantone colors, reflective vinyl, iron on vinyl, metallic vinyl, vinyl that simulates etched glass, transfer tape for vinyl, and even vinyl film laced with 24-carat gold! With the variety of vinyl films available, the artistic possibilities are nearly endless!

My favorite brand of vinyl film is HTVRONT, they have an excellent selection and their products are very easy to work with. One key point you’ll want to remember is that vinyl comes in different “quality levels” and the quality is usually determined by the length of time it will withstand exposure to the sun and the elements. So, you’ll want to assess the environment in which the sign will be displayed and use the appropriate grade of vinyl.

In addition to vinyl films, you’ll also need a good workbench, plenty of transfer tape, squeegees, metal straight edges, rulers, tape measures, T-squares, X-ACTO knives, tweezers, Rapid Tac, and STABILO pencils. All of these tools are relatively inexpensive so beyond the software, vinyl cutter, and computer, there isn’t a lot of additional cost for equipment.

You’ll also want to keep plenty of blank substrate materials around such as various sizes of banners, Coroplast, Alumalite, and magnetic sheeting. You’ll want to keep enough on hand to fulfill the most basic requirements for quick sign making. More elaborate or specific substrates and larger quantities can be easily ordered and most sign supply companies can have fresh materials out to you in about 24 hours.

Design Sense

The next priority is to find someone who can handle the artistic requirements of your sign business. If you’re already a graphic designer looking to start a business then you’ve got a leg up as you won’t need to hire anyone right off the bat. If you’re not an artistic person then you’ll want to start searching around for someone who is. While most of the software used to design signs is easy enough to learn, becoming a good artist is not.

Hiring a good graphic designer may cost you, but putting out poorly designed signs because you’re trying to do everything yourself will cost you even more. Also, someone who can fulfill your design requirements can easily learn all the other aspects of the business and become a valuable “all in one” employee … especially if they have excellent people skills and can act in sales/customer service as well.

When looking to hire a designer, REQUIRE that they’re proficient in Adobe Illustrator (or a similar vector-based design program) and request that they submit their portfolio when submitting their resume/application for the job. If they can’t provide a portfolio, throw their application out and immediately move on!

You don’t have to be an artist yourself to recognize good design. Simply look over their portfolios and interview the ones that strike your interest. In addition to the quality of their designs, also pay attention to how their materials are presented and how good their social skills are. You’ll want to pay attention to attributes that illustrate the applicant’s craftsmanship as well as their ability to communicate with customers.

Software, Vinyl Cutter and Computer

The 3 major pieces of equipment required for a sign shop are the software, the vinyl cutter, and a computer to drive everything.

When it comes to software, I usually recommend Adobe Illustrator, it’s the industry standard for vector artwork and as you expand your business, you’ll never outgrow the software. It costs about $500 and is widely available. Plus, most design schools teach Illustrator so most design students and new graduates should already have a basic understanding of how to use the program.

Your vinyl cutter is going to be one of your largest investments and the lynchpin of your business. Major brands are Roland, Gerber, and Graphtec. The standard vinyl cutter starts at about $2000 and goes up from there.

In addition to the major brands, you’re going to find a plethora of second-rate vinyl cutters on the market. Be sure that you don’t buy a sub-standard vinyl cutter because cheaper vinyl cutters are prone to jams, misalignment, and other critical cutting errors that waste expensive vinyl film and your time.

Computers today are simple to buy and you don’t need any special requirements to run the software that drives your vinyl cutter. Simply spend about $1000 on a new computer and it’s going to be capable of cranking out all sorts of signs. (You can even run things off a laptop if you like.) One little upgrade you may want to think about is a nice large monitor. As an artist myself, I like to put a little extra money into a nice monitor because it makes things more convenient for you or your artist and it’s also convenient when your customers are looking over your shoulder as you present designs to them.