Sometimes customers need a push to upgrade their branding

Looking for Trouble: Something Old and Something New

Way back, more than 25 years ago, I repainted faded signs for a living. It wasn’t until after I’d dealt with dozens of worn out paint jobs, over the course of several years, all across the urban landscape, that I set foot in a sign shop. I had my niche, which was, more often than not, centered on the very limited palate of auto industry signage.

Back then, every big city had at least a couple dozen body and repair shops with chipping walls and window signs that needed an overhaul. I rarely tried to upgrade the content of the work. Most of the shops I worked for were neighborhood places that never heard of “branding” and had nothing left to prove. They could afford to wait for a cheap repaint or a trade deal. There was one guy, somewhere in the midwest, who stood under his old faded sign façade, looked me straight in the eye and said, “It doesn’t need it!” As a hungry 21 year old, that really messed with my head! A recent project I did for Stewart’s Auto Body on San Pablo Avenue in Richmond, Calif., typifies many aspects of my evolving sales tricks, some of which “ain’t broke, and don’t need fixin’” and others that have been overhauled considerably.

The before photo with a gigantic, hand-painted “Body Shop” that is quite overbearing when compared to “Stewart’s.” Since the whole building was going to be painted, I directed their painter in painting the long, black stripe.

San Pablo Avenue is more than 20 miles long, spans two counties and is purported to be the longest continuous commercial street in the country. Of course, it has a great abundance of auto businesses, many of which I have worked on over the years. When the proprietor of Stewart’s Auto Body called me, I assumed that I might already have some word-of-mouth credibility given my long history on the avenue. But you can’t necessarily assume that homegrown loyalty in the world of today’s globalism. My first take on Stewart’s signage was that it was exactly the type of thing I used to repaint, back in the day. The design looked like it was from the ’70s and there were at least six coats of red paint that was an 1/8th inch thick. Inside the building, there were cool pictures of the same family business on the wall with brand new classic cars that went back to the early ’50s. Stewart’s, like many of the industrial businesses now being taken over by the next generation, had a positive attitude and a sincere desire to upgrade the place where they grew up.

This shows a view of the secondary side, where “Body Shop” and “Stewart’s” needed to work together.

Building on family pride is a good starting point in the sales process. I assume that nothing other than an exciting new vision is going to be acceptable. In years past, I might have repainted the colors and added a little text for $600 or $700. Now, I invariably think in figures that are 10 times that amount, because I intend to push for all of the upgrades that a classic business deserves. Next I attempt to learn a bit about the state of their branding. Are they attached to a logo or colors from the past that needs to be re-incorporated? Can it be re-evaluated by me? In Stewart’s case, repainting the funky sign painter lettering out front was all they had known, but now, after successfully redesigning their business cards themselves, they were more open to changes in the original look of the signage.

When I was starting out, I found it useful to work from business cards. How else could you know what a customer might like when you literally didn’t know what graphic design was? I stopped employing this strategy when all the know-it-all sign magazine writers insisted that there was nothing worse than making signs that looked like business cards. Now I’m here to tell you, go for it anyway! The client didn’t call me because I was a graphic designer who was going to overthrow everything they like. I humbly assume that an approved business card design, rendered on the client’s computer, whether by themselves or their kid cousin designer, will give me an indication of what works for them. I’m willing to accommodate their taste, yet I reserve the right to gently improve the aspects that aren’t suitable for a sign. In Stewart’s case, I assumed that there must be something they would like more than arced red Copperplate on a black background.

To test my theory with Stewart’s, I showed them a random sampling that explored possible new directions. To do this, I engaged what I call the scatter shot effect, which calls into question all the assumptions that have been made by anyone thus far. What if the lettering was a different font or color or how about eliminating the arc? What if the background contrast was reversed and so on. (See Rough Sketches)

Rough Sketches (left): I initially worked up a “scatter shot” design approach to indicate a broad range of possibilities, without a lot of attachment, in order to discern a general preference direction. Approval Sketches (right): This rough layout proof refined the options based on the choices from the scatter shot. I tried to harmonize what the client liked with what I knew to be good signage.

I tend to do this with the hope that the client will be able to see what isn’t working with their homemade design, but nine times out of ten, they return to the original ideas that they liked. Perhaps, it’s a shortcoming on my part that I’m not creating more persuasive alternatives, but I don’t approach this process like a wannabe graphic designer. I’m billing myself as a veteran sign guy who has been making buildings like theirs jump for twenty-five years. I use the experimental sketches to get some sense of what is going to make the client happy.

This clean layout had a strong impact and was worth developing and thinking through carefully. The “BODY SHOP” wording is what I call a “Bank” element. This placement of the lettering is very visible and clear-cut. These few letters could easily wind up paying for all of the rest of the signage.

Once I’m sure I’ve identified the client’s aesthetic priorities, I move into the layout phase where I research all of the ways to re-arrange the new givens. (See Approval Sketches) I want to see for myself how they will work out with the layout concerns I need to nail down, and I want the client to understand the options. With Stewart’s, this is when I made it clear that red letters on black would need an outline and some dimensional letters to be effective. The key sales moment happens when the client becomes invested in one of several higher end possibilities. Sometimes, I try to avoid talking specific price for as long as I can in order to prioritize comprehensive design options. In a sense, we’ve clearly arrived on the new sports car lot for keeps, and it would be insulting to remind the person that these cars are a bit more expensive.

For me today, good sales have to start with an internal oath, which might go something like this, “I, Vidge, a grown-up version of that paint- splattered kid I used to be, is going to do a totally killer job on this funky old place.” Period. For much of the process, I’m not at all sure what this really means. The important thing is that I know I’m not going to be satisfied until I’ve pushed every button possible to create an inspired project. Taking time to understand and respect the client’s taste, as well as noticing and caring about every detail along the way is what adds up to a win-win agreement. In the past, my Jackson Pollack sweatshirt was enough to convince everyone, including all random pedestrians, that I was an artist of some kind and at least had some experience. Now, as a seasoned sign professional, I understand that in order to it takes an engaged negotiation and research process to achieve a high-end result, that will successfully surpass the status quo.