Designing Award-Winning Signs: Finding the Right Designer Fit

Since 1985, Matt Charboneau has owned and operated Charboneau Signs in Loveland, Colorado. He is a consultant and designer for monument, channel letter and pylon sign projects. His book, “The Pre-Sale Sign Survey Field Guide - The how-to guide on sign surveys for the professional sign salesperson” can be ordered on his website: www.CharboneauSigns.com or by emailing him at Matt@charboneausigns.com.

So, it’s time to find another sign designer 

You have a virtual stack of electronic resumes and portfolio links sitting on your desktop, and it’s time to sort through the resumes, the recommendations, and the endless channel letter drawing examples to figure out who in the pile truly understands what Outdoor Electric Sign Design is really all about. After years in the business, you already know that finding a sign designer is not as easy as it sounds. Sign design, especially Outdoor Electric Sign Design (OESD) is not like the world of print media design where business cards and printed graphics are created. It’s not like T-shirt design, nor is it like large-format digital banner design. It’s certainly not like designing an ADA sign, and it is miles away from designing a vehicle wrap. It’s really in a world all by itself.

What happens in the world of a graphic artist that causes them to focus their skillset on three-dimensional sign design? Did they slip on the ice and hit their head real hard one day and suddenly say to themselves, “Hey, now I want to design signs that are 50 feet tall!” Seriously, what event occurs that forces them to push beyond their own capabilities? What causes a great designer to expand their skillset beyond the acceptable and into the exceptional? 

So, your candidates are lining up and you have interviews planned for the day. Do you plan to ask them the same dry boring questions that cover everything from aluminum thickness to the best PDF conversion settings? (Yawn) … And the answer is yes, of course you are. You will probably ask them questions that force them to expand on an event or story where they handled a big project that was a success, or something like that (yet another yawn), but yes, you will ask those questions and a few more that really don’t tell you what you need to know about the candidate’s motivation to be a designer.

What questions should you ask your next sign designer candidate?

There are three simple but deep questions that you should ask that may help you understand where their passion for design came from, where it’s at and where they want it to go.

Question #1: Who are you?

Yep, this is the deep question that most candidates hate to be asked. In fact, nobody wants to be asked a monstrously ambiguous question like “who are you,” so why should we ask it? Because a lot of times it comes down to “how they answer it,” not necessarily what they say, that tells us the most about the candidate. If they stammer, if they stumble over their words and pause a lot it probably means they have never thought of defining themselves in this way. The exercise works because it lets you know where their head is at, and it helps them to consider “who they are” in a much deeper way than they had before the interview. If they ramble on for three minutes about their successes and future in the sign industry, you will know right away that you have found someone who is either well trained in interviewing, or has a good handle on who they are as a person. Let’s go with the second assumption, shall we?

Question #2: Describe the value you bring to the organization you are working for.

This is another great question to help you understand where your candidate’s heart is, how they look at themselves within an organization, and how they view themselves as a solution provider. If they answer with a lot of “um, well, I don’t know” then it means they probably have never thought of the value they bring to the company they work for. Perhaps nobody has pointed out their value to them in the past? So often employees are not recognized for all the good they do for an organization. This can wear out an employee’s drive and whittle away at their self-esteem. Creatives are especially sensitive to this. Watch for this to be either a red flag, or a welcome sign. Your candidate should be confident in what they do, proud of what they have done, and optimistic of what they can do for you.

Question #3: Describe the Emotional Paycheck of an Outdoor Electric Sign Designer?  

What’s beautiful about this question is that you may be asking them to describe for you something they may not have ever considered before. Do they realize that they get two paychecks? One pays their bills, but the other one, the Emotional Paycheck, is the one that drives them to get out of bed each day. It’s the reason they work late and finish up the presentation so it’s ready to go in the morning. It’s their fire; their passion to design a monument sign that wins the project by design, form and function, not low price.

You’ve asked the tough questions

Congratulations to you on asking questions they probably had no idea would be asked of them. The questions probably made them squirm in their chair a bit. When you asked them the question, did you catch them off guard or did they rattle off several emotional paycheck “bonuses” like they were reciting the thicknesses of sheet aluminum? Creatives that understand who they are, what they bring to the table, and what they are worth in the market are typically the candidates you want to bring back for a second interview.

Those who are not able to verbalize their answers may at least have their eyes opened by the questions you’ve asked. In some cases the way they answer the questions may say more about them than the answers they give.

Technical details and processes can be taught. Passion and enthusiasm for a craft cannot be. Knowing what makes your creative team member tick is sometimes the most important bit of information you could ever hope for. I have seen it make the difference in hiring a committed team member versus ending up with someone who watches the clock more than the monitor.