Signs of Business

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Every business needs one. Whether it’s over the main entrance, in the window, on the door, or a standalone structure, it helps customers find your front door and tells passersby about your presence.

From simple vinyl lettering on a window, to an awning with the business name, to intricate “exposed neon” lighting displays, to corporate logos fashioned out of laminates of aluminum and plastic, a sign let’s people know you are in business.

“Our old motto is a business with no sign is a sign of no business,” says Paul Ash, general manager of Houston Sign, located in Victoria West for half a century, in a highly competitive industry.

And, for most businesses, it isn’t just a simple matter of hanging up a shingle — a sign makes a statement about your business, and there’s a lot for a business owner to consider when deciding on a storefront sign. Several players in Greater Victoria’s sign industry and some business owners offer some sage sign advice.

First, the money

Deciding on a sign starts with deciding on a budget. A simple plywood sign projecting from a bracket, like many signs in Victoria’s Old Towne, can cost a few hundred dollars, or you can pay $25,000-plus for a highly visible, custom-designed sign with moveable parts and lighting. A small business with a building frontage of 10 to 15 metres can pay $2,000 to $5,000 depending on the materials and the complexity of the sign.

“Often it is an inadequate budget when it comes to the sign,” says Al Crow, owner of the Speedpro Signs franchise on Vancouver Island and operator of the Victoria location. “They get going and they’re buying their inventory and doing tenant improvements and all that, and they forget about the sign.”

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Next decision is to lease or buy, although, according to Alf Styan, a co-owner of Triad Sign, leasing isn’t as popular any more. Ash from Houston Sign attributes this decrease in the popularity of leases to low interest rates. “Sign companies aren’t banks, so we have to charge more than what the bank would lend you the money for,” Ash says.

Some sign companies still aggressively pursue leases. Triad salesman Buzz Parsons notes that the cost of leasing can be deducted as a business expense against income tax. For a sign purchased outright, only the depreciation can be deducted.

“I’ve been through scenarios where accountants have recommended leasing to clients to keep the money in the business and just pay on a month to month,” says Parsons, who in a previous life was a professional soccer player with the Vancouver Whitecaps. “And other accountants say, ‘No, purchase it.’”

What’s in the bylaw?

Sign bylaws vary by municipality, and Saanich and Victoria even have specific regulations for some neighbourhoods. Langford has a rigorous bylaw that requires signs to be “professionally prepared.” Other municipal sign bylaws don’t go that far but are complicated enough to require some professional help. For example, the Saanich sign bylaw is 27 pages and 8,000 words long.

“The permit process is the biggest hassle of this business,” Ash says. “It can burn you out.”

Given the time needed to navigate the rules, and if the budget is tight, it may make sense for business people to do the municipal legwork themselves. Sign companies will do it, but there’s a charge for it, Crow says.

Ryan Shepherd, general manager of Landmark Sign in Langford, doesn’t see the regulations as too onerous, though. “On the Island, it’s not too bad because we have copies of all the bylaws,” he says.

In any case, putting up a sign without obtaining a permit is major mistake.

“If you start production of a sign and then apply for a permit, you might have spent some money on a sign that’s going to go into your garage,” Ash says.
Styan recalls approaching Central Saanich council to install an illuminated sign in Saanichton for CIBC. “One of the comments was that this three-foot-by-three-foot sign I had facing Mt. Newton Cross Road… was too bright for the cows,” he says. The sign, a standard light box found on bank branches across the country, is still leaning up against a wall in Styan’s shop.

Sign rules can backfire. Sidney once decided to allow only awning signs on Beacon Avenue for a uniform look. “My salesman went down the street, one door to the next, and sold everybody an awning,” Styan says. “We had pink ones and green ones and it was the most godawful looking street. They had to quickly change that.”
Sign rules are there for a reason. Landmark Sign salesman Richard Eastman says, “If you let everybody do what they want with signage, it would look like Vegas times 10.”

One way around sign restrictions is to have been in business a for a long time and to have a sign that predates the bylaw. Advance Collision at Blanshard and Pembroke streets had its non-conforming, rotating sign rebuilt by Houston Signs two years ago at a cost of nearly $50,000, including taxes, says Advance owner Jon Bell. It needed a new rotating mechanism with a proper clutch and LED lights for the temperature display.

“The city has been wanting me to take it down for a long time,” Bell says. But the city can’t force him to remove it, because it predates the sign bylaw. It went up a couple of years after his father John Bell and partner Dave Baird established the business in 1963. All Jon Bell has to do is tell customers on the phone that he’s across the street from Island Farms and to look for the sign. “It’s pretty easy to find,” he says.

Changing Fashions

Back in the 1980s, exposed neon signs were popular. Not so much any more. “Neon is getting less popular with the expense of it,” Styan says. “There are still a lot of people who like it for the nostalgia factor or they’ve got it in their sign program.”

Neon remains a favourite of longtime sign makers like Ash. “If it’s exposed neon, you can’t beat it,” he says. “You cannot beat the light intensity. LED doesn’t even come close, even though we like to think it does.”

Neon is used less now for individual “channel letters” as sign makers turn to low-voltage LED lights, which cost more but draw less electricity.
Trends have also overtaken fascia signs, also called light boxes or sign boxes, simple illuminated metal cases with plexiglass fronts. In many areas, such backlit signs are no longer permitted.

“Even architects are getting away from it,” Parsons says. “Shopping centres are getting rid of their sign boxes and going to individual letters.”
Nevertheless, at Houston Sign, Ash says light boxes still account for about half the jobs. Today, they’re fabricated from aluminum rather than sheet metal.

“The main thing with sheet metal on a building is if you put it on a nice white wall, four years down the road you have rust stains dripping all down your wall,” Landmark’s Jennings explains.

But there are more options than just aluminum. Sign makers today use a wide array of materials, including acrylic sheets with space-age names like Implex or Lexan. Products like Dibond and Alupanel are aluminum with a polyethylene core and can be fashioned into almost any shape and glued to other modern materials. The combination creates effects that used to be difficult or prohibitively expensive.

Much of the cutting is done with “computerized numerical control” routers. A CNC machine creates letters and other shapes with exacting precision, via instructions from the sign designer’s computer. Other favourite tools of sign makers are enormous inkjet printers capable of full-colour images, including photos, on vinyl, special banner material, and even paper, up to four feet wide.

“So the trend is to get more and more ornate,” Styan says. “We’re seeing some very different designs in the last few years just because of our capability
of quickly manufacturing them.”

Among the more complex signs Landmark did was a $26,000 job for the Rock Wood Fired Pizza and Spirits in Red Deer, Alberta. It had hand-painted aluminum, bevelled PVC on the face of the channel letters “to give them a forged looked,” and a sheet metal raceway with real bricks glued to it, Jennings says. “Everything we can do is in that sign.”

Choices, choices, choices

A sign doesn’t have to be ornate to be effective. “We’ve had the odd ones where budget is tight, and they actually get us to put up a banner and it lasts for many years,” Crow says.

Another economical option is an awning. “It’s more affordable,” says Darren Massey, co-owner of Jeune Bros. Tent & Awning, which has been in business in Victoria since 1886. “Of course, it depends on the size and material. You are usually looking at $1,000 to $2,000.”

Even awnings have benefited from technological advances. Eradicable fabric enables a sign maker to remove material to make white letters, whereas, in the past, they would have been sewn on. The frames are now fashioned from aluminum instead of steel.

“Definitely aluminum is much nicer,” Massey says. “It’s lighter and it doesn’t rust. It’s a little bit more expensive, but there are way too many positives.”
“If you’re in the sign business, you’re looking at all the signs all the time. So you go by some signs and you go, ‘Wow, that is nice.’ Or you go, ‘Wow, why would they do that?’” says Parsons.

Does that mean the customer isn’t always right when it comes to signs?

“In minor ways. Say, for example, someone has an English script as a business card. It looks really nice for their letterhead, their business card, and that. Well, you wouldn’t necessarily be putting the script in a sign because it doesn’t read well,” he says.

Another common design faux pas concerns letter sizes. Crow says it’s common for someone to request 12-inch letters across a six-foot-wide window without realizing the space only fits six letters on a line. Another frequent mistake is trying to cram too much information onto a sign.

“It also depends on whether their name conveys something about the nature of their business or their logo,” Crow says. “If it’s two or three Cs stylized together, does anyone know what the Cs mean? You want a call to action. You want people to be coming in.”

In the computer age, anyone with a keyboard can theoretically design a sign. But it doesn’t mean it’ll be a good one. “You can still tell a person who has artistic graphic knowledge. They know how to lay out a sign,” Ash says.

Colour is another important consideration. According to samples on display at Speedpro Sign, the most legible combination of colours is black script on a yellow background. The rating is based on a legibility study by the U.S.-based Color Research Institute. “And that’s why Robbins parking uses that for all the parking lot signs,” Crow says.

And while black on yellow may be too bold for many tastes, even number 17 on that list, blue on white, is highly readable.

The next stage is to check the colour of the building. “For example, this will lose some visibility if it’s just on a white building,” Crow says of the blue-on-white example. “If it’s on a white building, we may discuss flipping it.”

Make it different

The main objective of a sign is to attract people’s attention. One way is to have a sign as large as legally permissible. Another way is to check the signs of neighbouring businesses and do something completely different.

“You don’t want to do something that looks like your neighbour’s,” Shepherd says. “You want to do something that goes the exact opposite way.”
At My Chosen Café in Metchosin, the main sign consists of an antique covered wagon, brought from Saskatchewan 23 years ago, and the restaurant name is stencilled on the side. Wally Helgesen, from a local pioneer family, built a new buckboard and made the structure more stable, while Pete’s Tent & Awning in View

Royal built a new framework and renewed the fabric cover. As a commercial sign, it was a bargain: the wagon cost about $500 and the framework and fabric another $600.

“It catches people’s eye,” says Shannon Madill, who owns My Chosen Café with her husband Mike. “We illuminate it from the inside and from the outside. We’ve got lights inside so it glows. You can see the writing in the evening. It’s a landmark.”

Visibility at night, even when a business is closed, is an often overlooked but important function of a sign, says Ash. “You don’t have to be open to be doing business.”