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Looking for Trouble: Copper and Walnut

Steven Vigeant owns Berkeley Signs, a commercial sign company serving the San Francisco Bay Area since 1985. Visit his Web site at BerkeleySigns.com or contact him at Steve@BerkeleySigns.com.

Strange coincidences and unlikely twinning overlaps happen from time to time, and I try to take them in stride. This time it was nothing more than a couple of bakeries, each owned by people named Jen, several menu options that included walnut backgrounds and a little bit of copper leaf. The funny part is that each of the three projects in question have some superficial similarities but each emerged from a completely different design perspective. As sign professionals we have to quickly evaluate what is the client’s relationship is to their branding design and at what point do we begin to interact with it.

Jen Angel of Angel Cakes in Oakland already had a logo design but was using it in half a dozen variations for cards, A-frames and window vinyl. I took this to mean that I might be able to cherry pick from several previously existing versions so I can make a dynamic sign. I asked if “interpretations” of her logo were kosher and she stated she was fine with whatever I wanted to do.

It is important to be tactful and open minded about a client’s logo. I often think of the process as a team effort between the designer, client and myself. In this case I asked myself several questions about how to proceed. What would be the cleanest variation of the artwork so it would make a strong sign? Could this mean getting rid of extraneous information that might be OK on a card but not on a sign? Or what about picking something that appears somewhere only once but could be recycled somehow for a unique sign design? Second, how can the design be transformed from 2D to 3D by adding dimensional letters, carving or a cut-out shape? A third question should be, what kind of finishes should be used to lift the sign into its own class of custom quality? Would the client be open to gold or metallic finishes, gloss contrasts or painted blends, textures or patterns?

The Gioa’s Pizza design questions seemed simple at first. “Please replace our old tired menu that no longer served our purposes.” There were a few clues about how to proceed based on some pre-existing graphics and signage, but the client had very little attachment to any of it. It fell to me to sort out the pre-existing sign styles that spanned two locations and many years of random branding.

There is a different list of questions and research methods that kick in for me at this point to try to determine a design direction. I asked the client, represented by a young manager, what do you think works on the original project? Do you like the wood look, the copper frame or perhaps maybe the casual hand-painted lettering? The answer was, “Sure, sounds good, you know what you’re doing. Yeah, wood, with casual lettering and copper sounds great.”

The problem is that still doesn’t mean much and the clarification process can go on forever. I decided to dig into some stock resources to make it easier. I could use the same walnut MDF plywood paneling that I was currently using for another project at the time for a company called Batter. I also chose a nice interior frame stock from the lumberyard and made it fancy with copper leaf.

Finding a combination of lettering styles that would work was more involved. My first attempt was an attempt to mix their pre-existing Roman title lettering with a respectable casual font for the menu items.

The client didn’t like what I did though, so I had to come up with a plan B. I realized my first priority should be to harmonize this new menu board as much as possible with design elements they used on their website and other places. It is important to look at a client’s website anyway before doing anything, and this one included photos of their other store that I hadn’t seen before and menu lettering styles that all seemed to be straight Roman variants. It turned out that for Gioia’s, a plain Roman letter was a “casual” compared to the chiseled looking Roman they usually use.

Jen Musty of Batter in San Francisco had a completely different design all together. Her brother Scott eventually specified every detail of the project as a style guide. However, even in this situation there is going to be quite a bit of designing left to do to translate the ideas into reality. I went over the entire sign package as a “consultant to the designer” before I did any bidding. This meant a long phone conversation to analyze all of the design implications for his evolving specifications and layouts. The blade sign could be made as a cloth or vinyl banner, swinging plywood or a constructed box. Dimensional letters or carving could also be an option. When they seemed to like the cloth banner option they would next need to confirm the exact color based on the Sunbrella samples. For the “copper window graphic” they wanted, I’m sure they contacted me specifically because it is a known specialty item I handle, but still there would need to be confirmations of the process and a sample before proceeding. And once they asked for a wooden faced menu with vinyl lettering, I hit on the idea of designer plywood. The final step was to go over samples for all of it.

Each of the three cases represent a different starting point regarding design. I guess none of them are “sign painting design.” Often I give myself the more adaptive title of “secondary industrial designer” rather than “sign designer.” What’s the difference? The reality is that the client’s designers got us started with some initial ideas and layouts and color choices, but everything else remained up in the air until I came along. Each of the three cases called for a slightly different type of design model but they are all starting from the same place: They want somebody who wants to work as a team to make their dream a reality.