In the Trenches: And the Winner is ...

Rick Williams

Rick Williams owns Rick’s Sign Company, a commercial sign shop in Longview, Texas. He has been in the sign industry since 1973 and has been a contributing editor to Sign Business since 1986. Contact Rick via e-mail at

Well, as the sign business has evolved into a digital environment, I have become a judge of a contest that is ongoing. It has had multiple winners over the years and one loser, and at least at our shop, and that person is me. If you are the one at your sign business that does the majority of the layouts, and communicates via email with a most of your clients, you may well have your own competition going on.

The contest is to see which client or potential client, with what must be a straight face on the their end, can send the poorest, lowest resolution piece of digital art, or digital junk, with full expectation that anything graphically required can be produced with it. 

I have a sense of humor, so it seems almost comical what people expect a sign designer to work with. But, over the years, my smile has faded a bit into a frustrated expression of, “Are you kidding me?”

At least when it went from 50 kilobytes (very early low resolution record, long since broken), to 25, to 15, and a little while back all the records were shattered with a graphic file -- how they even produced it I wouldn’t know -- with a total of 7 kilobytes... seven…. to print a banner from. For crying out loud! Why, a dice has more dots than that file had pixels!

Of course, one might think that all these impossibilities are just opportunities to sell up, and get to charge a great hourly fee for fixing these totally hopeless logos and artwork, but that hasn’t really worked out for me too well. A job I did the other day is a good example of what happens to my well-intended profit margins.

It was a 4’ x 4’ sign, single-sided, just sign face only and their guys would do the install … a piece of cake. Not quite, because the sign was for our local Habitat for Humanity chapter and being it is a nonprofit entity, and a good one, and we always do all their signs at a discounted price.

But this one, thanking a boat load of sponsors for helping fund a new home under construction, was to display about a dozen company logos, plus some other art for Habitat. Well, of the dozen logos generously provided for us to incorporate in that otherwise simple and repetitive sign layout, only about two were actually good enough to print larger than a postage stamp.

The sign had to be finished in two or three days just ahead of the ground breaking celebration, which meant their person had time to find two or three more that were enough of an improvement to actually use, and the rest was up to me. So, the first volunteer laborer on this home-raising event was their sign maker who reworked seven or eight company logos, involving about three hours of labor so they would look professional enough to give the public a worthy mention of those generous donors who made this new home construction project possible.

Of course we are glad to help many nonprofits, churches, and struggling small businesses, but it is just being honest to realize that this considerable volunteer labor, billed at zero dollars per hour, does have an impact on the sign maker’s bottom line, and even the sign maker’s bottom end as he sits for long stretches at his logo-fixing work station.

But, for now I think the contest part of it may be about over, as the record holder previously referenced seems to have had no challengers as of late, and not sure there is much way to better it … or worsen it … that is to create something that small which still (barely) looks like something.

Maybe I’ll enter the contest myself, as I’ve been a judge long enough and the fun is in doing the impossible … or at least the totally impractical. And I can be impractical, or so I’ve been told. If not, why would I be in the sign business? For what is truly impractical if it isn’t owning and running a business that keeps virtually nothing in stock, and in order to sell anything at all we first have to show the customer what he really intended to buy, and then go out and make the dad-blamed thing!

But that is what we do, day after day, here in the Trenches. And, even with its numerous frustrations, it’s still a fun business to work in, proven by the four decades plus that I’ve been doing it and the fact that some of my employees are trying to gain on me.

I hope your sign business is doing well, your clients are sending you a lot of good stuff and very little junk, and you and your crew are having a really great month.