What led you to start Sideshow Sign Co., a full-service design and fabrication company focused on signage and dimensional branding? I wanted to make accessible classic signage. I had worked as a creative director on a project that needed signage “decor,” but I was unable to find anything that fit the brand, so I made it myself. Once my fabrication skills started developing, I was able to take on commissions, and the rest is history.
What inspiration do you draw from historical signage? There are two parts to this. The obvious answer is the quality of fabrication, the simplicity and the attention to detail, which are so difficult to find these days. More importantly, though, the signage industry has drifted away from designer-to-fabricator collaboration in favor of speed and cost efficiency. Designers are involved people who want to explore and challenge standards, and this can be counterproductive to a fabrication shop that wants to stick to what it knows. I understand this—and it’s worked in our favor for the most part—but it’s also kept the industry from evolving. So, the inspiration I get from historical signage is just like anything that was built before the ’80s—it was done the right way for the right reasons.
What are the most amazing materials you’ve gotten to work with because of your job? There’s not much we haven’t worked with. When we translate two-dimensional brands into physical objects, we use whatever we think reflects the character of the brand, whether that be traditional materials, like brass and copper, or newer composite products, like Valchromat and Durat. One technology stands above the rest, though—neon tube. It was developed more than 100 years ago and introduced to the public in 1910, but it’s still the most impressive thing we have the luxury of working with. It’s so primitive—the only elements needed are glass, gas and electricity—yet it’s still superior. There have been many attempts to replicate the look and flexibility of neon through LED technology, but in my opinion, nothing has come close.
How has the US sign industry led in ways others haven’t? How has it lagged? The United States has led in areas like digital printing, but it’s still the conservative younger sibling to Europe when it comes to creativity and design culture, especially in the southern states, where Sideshow is based. Here, material distribution is limited and fabrication is lazy. Most people here don’t invest in signage; they’d rather put their money towards church and treadmills.
How has your experience designing and fabricating custom signs affected how you approach branding? I see branding as much more than print and digital. When we develop brands from the ground up—or rebrand an existing one—we think about how it will translate to the physical environment, as well as how it will look in print. We see a lot of signage that is an obvious afterthought, so we try to educate designers on the importance of signage consideration during the brand development process—not after it. If you rely on your local sign company to translate the brand, you’re doing a disservice to your client.
What conversations would you like to see the design industry having? We often get elaborate branding documents from designers—sometimes from very high-profile agencies—that don’t even have guidelines for signage. We also get enthusiastic sign concepts from designers that simply aren’t possible to fabricate or are way out of their budget. It’s part of our job to guide designers through this process, but if we educated young designers in materials and basic manufacturing, they would be able to offer a much more effective brand package to their clients.
Introducing this kind of training into design courses would be a start, but practicing designers also need resources available. So, over the last year or so, Sideshow has been working on a side project called SignTology, which will act as an educational resource for designers. The idea is that designers will be able to access industry information and digital tools, learn about materials, and therefore add signage design to their skill palettes. We hope to launch SignTology next summer.
Has the maker movement been a helpful or a harmful force when it comes to design? Nothing harmful came out of the maker movement—it was an energetic response to a recession and decades of poor-quality products. However, if you look at the maker-movement-inspired companies that are still around today, they’re the ones that have a grasp of design and innovation; they aren’t just making things because they bought the tools. As the market has dictated, an understanding of design is just as important as hand skills. One of the most positive things that came from the maker movement was the challenge it gave to big manufacturing, but that’s another conversation.
How has Sideshow’s focus shifted in the years since it was founded? We began with a focus on traditionally fabricated pieces that were carefully aged and finished to look like they had been sitting in a warehouse for 50 years. Our brand was built on this aesthetic, but my interests have evolved to a broader range of materials, styles and fabrication methods. For example, I’m pretty excited about 3-D printing. I bought a printer last year, and we’ve been using it to build parts, print mock-up models and experiment with styles that can be produced in a larger format. There are also some pretty cool digital printing substrates that are expanding our possibilities. I still have a passion for historical signage, but the focus is now on bringing brands to life in a physical environment, which requires us to be open to all styles.