Designing Award-Winning Signs

Designing Award-Winning Signs: Monument Construction Needs Lots of Teamwork

As with most mornings, I was sitting at my desk, sipping hot coffee and staring at the monitor while the morning’s new emails downloaded to my computer. Aside from the usual channel letter design requests there was an email from a client named Paul Ingle of Design Center Signs in Tyler, Texas. He had a large project that involved removing an existing sign structure and installing a new one. His email included site photos, background information about the customer and specifics about the project. He also included their logo in vector format as well as a couple renderings that the customer designed. It was a well-organized design request.

While speaking with Paul on the phone, he explained that the customer, Brookshire Grocery Company, had come to the point where they needed a more effective marker for its grocery warehouse headquarters. Its late ’60s era existing sign was a monstrous steel-framed grid with large lighted cabinets with not much chance of a cost-effective retrofit. (Photo 1

Because BGC sponsors many local charity fund raisers, the company felt an LED display would provide an effective medium for promoting both itself and the charitable events it promotes. 

BGC has its own in-house design department, and Paul’s email contained some conceptual illustrations the company had created. The illustrations called for a dual pole pylon with a full-color message center. The drawings provided me valuable insight as to what the company was envisioning; it gave me a place to start the design process. 

Photo 1: The original sign employed an ‘80s-era steel-framed grid. Photo 2: A 3-D color illustration of the proposed sign.

First step was to check with Paul on what the city would allow. I needed to know if there were any ordinances in place that limited how often the message could change or any set-back or right of way concerns. Paul already verified the setback and EMC hold time restrictions (three seconds in Tyler, and no animations) and BGC had received a variance for the sign itself. 

My next step was to determine the overall shape and size of the columns and cabinets that would make up the sign. I started with the basic 4' x 8' and 4' x 10' aluminum sheet sizes and designed the structure in a way that uses these materials most efficiently. I also paid attention to the internal framework, supports and saddles that all required a certain amount of “wrench room” so that the cabinets could be easily assembled in the field. 

Paul suggested that the upper cabinet should have a concealed lip around the edge with a row of LEDs that would provide a soft glow around the sign face. This lip was an easy build that definitely added a nice touch to the cabinet’s night presence. We also agreed on enclosing the ends, top and bottom of the two message boards for a cleaner, finished look. It also served to minimize the exposure of the back side of the message boards to the extremes of Texas weather and to bird nesting. Black cabinets in 100 degree heat make for very uncomfortable working conditions when oven mitts are required to remove a service panel. We used a perforated sheet for the top and bottom enclosure and solid sheeting on the ends. 

I started with the BGC concepts and created a couple variations to the design that still offered the overall feel of their original intent, yet stayed within construction parameters for their budget. To help the BGC committee visualize the design, I provided a 3-D color illustration (Photo 2) that provided them a better understanding of the components that made up the structure. 

Photo 3: A color scheme was soon agreed upon.

Once the customer was satisfied with the design, I then began the process of color selection. (Photo 3) I put together half a dozen variations and soon a color scheme was agreed upon, minor revisions were completed and before we knew it we had an approved monument design that was ready for permit.

Photo 4: Work began on the fabrication drawings.

I started work on the fabrication drawings, (Photo 4) knowing that the engineer would be calculating wind load to determine the pipe and caisson size. Initially, we estimated these pipe sizes with the understanding that the pipe size may increase once the engineer put his eye on it. As long as I left room in the design for a larger pipe, I proceeded with the rest of the design without worry. If necessary I could have reduced the cabinet sizes to accommodate a smaller pipe. Keeping options open is the key at this stage of the game. 

As I created the fabrication drawings, I made call outs for things like the 1" air space between the cabinets and message board; a specification required by the manufacturer for proper ventilation. In creating this call out in fabrications, I could have created a detailed schematic but it was decided to allow their skilled craftsmen to determine the best fabrication method for this themselves. I have found that many details like this can be left to those who are fabricating the signs; their experience can result in creative, time saving methods that might not have been considered until the sign was in fabrication. These decisions should be reviewed with the fabricators in advance so that there are no surprises and they have enough detail to allow the job to move through the shop quickly.

Once the fabrication details were 95 percent complete, my drawing was sent to the engineer. Much to my delight, the pipe sizes we had decided on in advance were very close and other than caisson depth and diameter the drawing was ready to go. I adjusted my pipe reduction dimensions to reflect the engineer’s specs exactly as well as double checked all aspects of the drawing and resubmitted it for final approval. The finalized drawings were approved and signed off by all parties. Once the permit was in hand, the digging began. 

Photo 5: Two caisson holes were drilled. Photo 6: Steel plates were welded to lower sections of pipe to prevent sinking. Photo 7: Once lower sections were secure, the upper sections were welded in place.

There were two massive caisson holes drilled at 6'-0" diameter and 9½' deep 20" staged down to 16” pipe. Photo 5 shows the steel plates that were welded to the bottom of the lower section of pipe to prevent sinking. Due to their length and weight, the pipe sections were transported to the site and welded together after the lower sections were secure in their concrete caissons. (Photos 6 and 7

Photo 8: Once pole covers were installed, the crane operator readied the lower cabinet. Photo 9: The lower cabinet about to be lowered over the poles.

Bases and pole covers were installed followed by the lower cabinet. (Photos 8 and 9)

Next up was the massive Watchfire LED message boards at almost 29' long. (Photo 10

Photo 10: Next up, the LED message board.

Special care was taken to make sure weather conditions were right and there was little to no wind for setting the two very expensive and delicate panels. This is one step of the install process where everyone holds their breath and on this day everything went exactly as planned—like it does every day for everybody, right?

Photo 11: The upper cabinet is secured into place.

Finally, it was time for the upper cabinet, which signified the last and final stages of the project. (Photo 11) I designed the cabinets with a wide enough depth to allow installers to enter the cabinet for final wiring and electrical hook up. I was tempted to provide detailed fabrication drawings for an optional iced tea dispenser and central air system inside the cabinet so service crews would be comfortable on those hot Texas afternoons. Considering this sign went up during the recent record Texas heat wave, this idea didn’t sound that crazy!

All-in-all the entire project went smoothly, on time and within budget with a minimum of obstacles to overcome. The customer was pleased, and as you can tell by the night shot (Photo 12) the completed sign has lived up to its expectations and became the communication icon that the customer, Paul and I had hoped for. A project of this magnitude requires a seasoned team of craftsmen and support personnel as well as a lot of heavy equipment. The risks are great, but the rewards can be addictive because when it all goes right the finished product can be simply breathtaking.

Photo 12: All things considered, the project went very smoothly.