Sign shop creates playful yet effective liability sign

Legal Ease

With some screen printing equipment, a Gerber IVB plotter and a small loan from his parents, Gary Johnson, owner of The Great American Sign Company, a full-service sign shop in Basking Ridge, N.J., started his sign business in 1990 following the real estate crash of 1989 when his employer was forced out of business. Johnson, who holds a B.A. in communications from Rutgers University, was working as the head of the graphics department for a sign company at the time of the crash but decided to take the company’s closure as an opportunity to invest in his own skills.

Over the past few years, Johnson has been increasing his focus on dimensional signage and has found the workshops taught by Dan Sawatzky to be helpful, he says. During the Sawatzky workshops, Johnson has learned to work with EnRoute software, a 3-D modeling program, and Abracadabra Smooth and Sculpt, a two-part epoxy used to create the 3-D figures. 

“Dan Sawatzky produces these amazing dimensional signs, and if you look at the finished product, you think how can you do that, but then he brings everything down into step-by-step instructions and shows you it’s not insurmountable,” Johnson says. “Step by step, you can produce really amazing signs without too many tools.”
Although Johnson has been working on dimensional signage for only a couple of years, he has already won multiple awards for his work, including first place in the United States Sign Council's Annual Sign Design Competition’s Dimensional Sign Category in 2011 and 2012 and an honorable mention in Sign & Digital Graphics Magazine's Annual Portfolio Competition in 2011. 

Recently, Johnson took on a dimensional signage project for a community garden. Initially, Johnson was to create a welcome sign, but the community garden’s lawyer also insisted on a sign warning visitors of liabilities. Neither Johnson nor the client was pleased with this inclusion, so they decided to comply with a lighthearted spin. 

“After some thought, it occurred to me that that even though the message is depressing, the sign didn't have to be,” Johnson says. “I asked the customer if he wouldn't mind if I made the sign playful, so we could lighten up the message a bit. I imagined a lawyer with his hair gray from worry, standing watch with his trusty power suit and tie doing battle against frivolous lawsuits.”

To create the lawyer sign, Johnson first worked up a drawing in Gerber Omega software, and once it was approved, he modeled it in the EnRoute 4 software, he says. Johnson then carved the lawyer figure from precision board with an air grinder. When the shape of the lawyer figure was roughly what Johnson had envisioned, he used Abracadabra Sculpt to add the flesh. After Johnson sculpted the figure, he painted it with a combination of Modern Masters paint and Sherwin-Williams paint, but something was still missing. 

“That’s when I built in the fence and the flowers because I thought it would be neat if he was standing in front of the garden like a guard, making sure no unsavory people come in,” Johnson says. “I thought the sign would look really nice as a black sign against all the flowers and greenery, and it did look nice, but I thought it was still missing something.”

Johnson first thought there was too much black, so he added some gold highlights; however, it started to look too much like a memorial sign. That’s when Johnson decided to add the ivy, which softened the sign by cutting down on the black while making it even more playful. 

In the end, Johnson was pleased with how the sign turned out because it took a negative and turned it into a positive, he says. While liability signs are everywhere these days, Johnson felt that it was a shame to have a sign of this nature in a community garden, but this sign delivered the message in an effective yet spirited manner. Johnson was even told that the lawyer in the sign looks quite a bit like the real-life lawyer who insisted on fabricating this project. 

“You have this community garden, which is a beautiful place, and it seemed like a shame to have to put this liability sign in a place that’s supposed to be an escape from the real world,” Johnson says. “To be able to take this message and turn it around and make it into something amusing, fun and playful but still get the message across was a part of the sign I really enjoyed accomplishing.”

As Johnson moves forward with his company, he would like to take on more dimensional projects and plans on investing in this application, he says. In fact, Johnson has been taking more classes on the EnRoute software to better understand how it works and anticipates purchasing a full-size 4’ by 8’ router for his shop. With these investments, Johnson expects to continue making headway in the dimensional signage sector.