Dobell Designs: A Family Business, an Old-School Industry and the Resurgence of Hand-Painted Signs

Before the computer, all commercial signage was hand painted. But these days, trained tradespeople offering traditional, hand-painted signs are hard to come by. Dobell Designs is one of this area's only traditional sign painting businesses.

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Photograph by Douglas Magazine.

There used to be no other way: if a commercial business wanted a sign on their storefront or a sandwich board advertising their services, that sign had to be painted by hand. Trained sign painters took hours crafting them, and it was a common trade.

Then the first commercial computer was released in 1983. For sign painters, that was a game-changer that forced them to either adapt or go out of business. The companies hiring sign painters were opting for cheaper, computer-printed options as opposed to hand-painted signs.

Today though, there’s a renewed appreciation for the handmade and the original, and an interest in the traditional ways of doing things. Hand painted announcements and advertising is personable, unique and even a beautiful work of art, a far cry from the industrial signs that have become the norm in the last 30 years.

Stu (left) and Chris Dobell. Photograph courtesy of Dobell Designs.

Despite industry changes, Chris and Stu Dobell, the brothers behind Dobell Designs, have continued with the traditional sign painting methods. In fact, in the last three years, they’ve seen business boom as more companies look for unique branding opportunities instead of cookie-cutter graphic options.

Get to know a little more about these artist-entrepreneurs, how they got into this now-niche market and why they think this trade is experiencing sudden growth.

 

Meet the Artist-Entrepreneurs: Chris and Stu Dobell

The brothers are second-generation sign painters. Their parents opened Dobell Signs in Wollongong, a town just outside of Sydney, Australia, in 1968, teaching them the tricks of the trade during their school holidays. Both Chris and Stu Dobell eventually decided to follow in their parents footsteps, and went to the prestigious Sydney Technical College to earn an apprenticeship in sign painting. (Chris earned a second apprenticeship in screen printing.)

They ended up in Canada on vacation several times. When their father entered retirement and business started wrapping up in Australia in the early 2000s, the Dobell brothers decided to move to Victoria and try running a sign painting shop here. They officially started Dobell Designs here in 2006 and it wasn’t an easy start.

“We were doing art shows and knocking on doors to get business,”says Chris. “We’d get our paint from the Hartland Landfill, I’d pack up the car, show businesses our photo album of work and ask to fix up their sign for like $50. Nine out of 10 people would say yes.”

Scoring work with Phillips Brewing and Malting Co. helped get business off the ground. While Chris says 85 per cent of their work now is for Phillips, that connection helped put Dobell Designs on the map.

“Now people seem to know us and our work, especially locally” says Chris. “I once heard somebody say, ‘there’s the Phillips font,’ but it’s just my lettering style. Years ago you could go into a town and know who did every sign just by the style.”

 

Offering an Authentic and High-Quality Product

Dobell Designs uses different paints, airbrush inks, stencils and anything else they can to separate them from the cookie-cutter, stick-and-print sign printers that are more common nowadays.

“The gold and silver leaf stuff we do is especially eye-catching. Nobody in town knows how to do that anymore. They’re retired or they’ve passed away,” says Chris.

While common in the 1960s and 70s, today the duo is offering a hard-to-find product. It’s the Dobells’ level of education and expertise that makes their business authentic and stand out.

During their four-year apprenticeship in Sydney, they learned skills such as the proper construction of letters, how to lay out a sign, colour theory and reverse glass gold-leaf signage. It took four years of formal education and years of on-the-job training from various mentors for the Dobells to reach the level they’re at. It’s time-consuming to learn properly — it took over a year before Chris even began to feel like it clicked. They treat it as a trade and a service, not just an art form.

“As well as the time side of things, it’s also hard for the younger people right now because there’s nowhere for them to go and learn,” says Chris, adding that his own program in Sydney has been discontinued and many trades schools don’t teach it at all any more. “They take one workshop, they’ll watch some videos — basically they haven’t done their time — and they start a sign shop. We’ve seen a trend of people with a graphic design background, who will also print and paint signs. They’re mixing and matching, which is smart but not traditional.”

 

The Move From Digital Back to Old-School Ways

Despite launching Dobell Designs here in 2006, Chris says the company has seen a boom in the last three years. That’s partly due to both him and Stu being in Victoria full-time and being able to take on more work, and partly due to the release of the documentary Sign Painters in 2013. Mostly though, he thinks people grew tired of more than three decades of computer-generated signs and are now more willing to pay for original work.

“People are interested in getting back to making things by hand. I think people want a change — they’ve seen so much of the same old stuff and it just gets boring,” says Chris.

“Hand-painted branding also sets a business apart,” he adds. “We sit down with clients and educate them on how important signage is for their branding. It’s a chance for them to stand out.”

They’re not sure where signage and design trends will go in the future, but that’s okay. For the Dobells, this not-quite-lost trade is hard work, but also a lot of fun.

“The best part is creating something out of nothing, from a sketch on a piece of paper or a napkin to the seeing the client happy with the final product,” says Chris. “With sign writing, you can change the look of a city or a building. I think that’s what makes it such a cool job.”


 

Dobell Designs Signs Around Town

Chances are, you’ve also seen this company’s traditional signs all around town. Maybe you’ve even seen their work around North America — Dobell Designs’ work can also be spotted across Canada in cities like Calgary, Edmonton and Toronto, and down in the States.

While there are many, here are just a few Victoria companies choosing to elevate their signage with a traditional hand-painted sign by Dobell Designs.

 

Anian

Cold Comfort

The Flying Pig

Phillips Brewing and Malting Co.

Red Barn Market

Union Tattoo

Zeitgeist Vintage