Revisiting “Who Are We?”

Sign Industry Memories

It was in 2009 that the question was posed on  by one of us, “Who are we?” This is not an esoteric foray into the nature of being or a Nietzschean quest for our place in the grand scheme of things. No, this question and the four-part series that drew an outline around the edges of the sign industry’s “big elephant” relates to the post-hole-digging-vinyl-wrapping-digital-printing-POP-sign-making-creative-3D-makers of consumable signs. This is the big elephant in the room, that everyone wants to woo, yet nobody but fellow makers and designers of consumable signage seems to understand. Stay tuned here to share your thoughts in the poll below.

[Update: Poll Closed]

Instant Sign ShopIn 1985, these remarkable little shops began springing up in retail-like environments. I remember marketing with a postcard campaign to explain to the marketplace what “instant signs” were. Yes, that is what we were first labeled! The Wall Street Journal published a story about “Instant Signs” and said, “A new breed of signmakers has come to town.” The name of my shop was originally “Banacom Instant Signs,” part of an early chain of independently owned, future-minded entrepreneurs. Today, in fact, there are a few of these shops with that original name (I changed my business name in 1989 to “The Sign Machine”). There are many others that incorporate “Instant Signs” as part of their moniker.

From “Instant Signs” we moved to the world of vinyl signs, ie, signs made with cut vinyl films mounted to a wide array of substrates. We – a baby elephant of an industry – were called “vinyl sign shops.” As if. But what could we do? Vinyl was a primary material used in 70 – 80% of the sign products.

Bill Deal, President of NESA, Speaking at Sign Biz Convention 1994 in Washington, DC

Then along came our visit with Bill Deal, then President of NESA – the National Electric Sign Association (which became ISA, the International Sign Association), in 1994. We (a Sign Biz team) agreed with Bill that NESA should reach out and make friends with this elephant, these non-electric sign shops. So NESA became ISA and we proposed that the descriptor “vinyl shops” become “computer-aided sign shops.” This became official in 1995, and we are a little bit proud of that. At least we were not related in some way to Naugahyde. This was the new division of ISA, with no seat on the board, however.

Today, by all estimates, there are some 23,000 of these shops in North America. A comprehensive $50,000 Probe Economics study funded by ISA looked at all sign manufacturers, digital print houses that produce signs, screen printers, POP printers and related. Altogether, the US sign industry is represented by roughly 20,897 (approximately 6800 sign manufacturers and 12,000 other) establishments today, after the economic downturn and subsequent slow recovery reduced the number of companies before expansion started again. Canada should have about 3000. Growth of the sign industry shop count in Canada was nearly identical to US, and US population is 315,968,000 and Canada’s is 35,056,064 so I would estimate that Canada has 3000 sign shops, yielding right around 23,500 businesses all told in the US and Canada. Note: This study did include neon shops, wood sign manufacturers and the like, but not granite carvers ;)

So, as the elephant grew, so too did all of the manufacturers of digital print and vinyl products, ranging from media to hardware to software and services. This behemoth industry sector now makes up the vast majority of booth sales and attendees at the International Sign Expo, the world’s largest trade show serving the sign industry. Organizations such as the Arizona Sign Association, the NE Sign Association, the Texas Sign Association and many other sign trade associations have selected their own terminology to describe this big group of predominantly non-electric sign shops. Some call us “commercial sign shops” or “digital sign shops” or the generic “sign manufacturer” (intended for on-premise, electrical sign shops) or simply a “sign company” – a very big bucket indeed. But perhaps that is the most simple term, the one common denominator – we make signs. The challenge then is to see the unique needs and style of operation of a shop that needs no contractor’s license, performs no electrical sign work, and prefers to produce beautiful, creative, consumable signs and graphics packages for branding,  interior way-finding, vehicle wraps and POP displays. The needs of that “sign shop” are, in many cases, distinct and separate from the needs of the on-premise, electrical sign manufacturer.

After CAS, or Computer-Aided Signmaking, we saw sign associations grapple with dues and divisions representing this mass of shops that average 4 employees. This was okay for years – in fact, Signs of the Times magazine adopted the “CAS” term for their bi-annual survey of this industry segment. Soon, it was clear that nearly every sign shop – from the two dozen national companies all the way down to the small digital print shop – was “computer-aided.” Profitable, growing enterprises that contribute greatly to the local economy, and whose buying power supports a vast network of sign suppliers and distributors. The next term that found a home for a while is “digital sign shop.” But now, wait for it….. dynamic signage, and Electronic Message Centers (EMCs) and routing and engraving companies all lay claim to “digital.” And WE are the best suited, most connected to the client in a personal, long-term consulting relationship, and walk the floors of their buildings countless times. So we are the best suited to serve clients with dynamic digital sign products. If that is part of our next new skin, our classification should reflect that. So where are we in this process? Or better, WHO are we?

Have some fun, try this poll – you can see what others think after you vote! (Log in or register to vote. It’s easy!) [Update: Poll Closed]

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