Sign of the Times

Sign of the Times

By Becky Kalajian

A cottage industry once run by artisans who painstakingly cut, pasted, and painted by hand has exploded across the country.

No longer the domain of artists consigned to the darkroom with 10 fonts to choose from, more than 20,000 sign companies have opened shop in America since the early 1990s.

Traverse City's sign culture has mushroomed, too, quadrupling from the few owner/artists that were around before 1990. Business owners agree that though the field is crowded here, there is enough business to sustain them all.

Although many of Traverse City's shops are still considered small, the shift from an apprenticeship trade to a bona fide industry is directly linked to technology, said Paul Britten, owner of Britten, Inc., one of the country's leading providers of creative production services, event signage, and large-format digital printing.

"Since the advent of inkjet printing in 1995, our industry has only gotten faster and better," said Britten, who at press time was under contract to purchase Traverse City's Mod-Zel Screen Printing. "The software and the equipment have exponentially improved."

Bill Modzel says he doesn't miss the days when he worked in a darkroom, had only about 10 fonts to choose from, and spent hours cutting, pasting, painting, and cleaning his print screens.

"Three months after we bought our first Mac [computer, in the 1980s], the darkroom was gone," said Modzel, who opened in 1980, focusing on flat stock signs usually seen at election time. "I really don't miss those days."

Like many cottage industries, the digital age has delineated the artists from the businessmen, said Harry Day, fourth generation owner of Day Signs.

"Technology has opened up a new world to every Tom, Dick and Harry out there," said Day, a hand-lettering and gold leafing expert whose shop is 94 years old. "You no longer have to be a craftsman… but I'm good with it, it's the age of the time."

Although technology has all but eliminated apprentices, printers costing $100,000 and more set a different kind of barrier to those who want to be successful.

Several shops said they had either purchased or were researching six-figure flat bed printers, which print directly onto unusual surfaces such as windows, doors, mirrors, and tile.

So far, only NuArt, Britten and Signplicity have installed the printers, allowing the owners to tap into new lines of business.

Simon Wolf, owner of Signplicity Sign Systems said that to keep his 18-month-old printer busy, he launched a new website called There, clients can pick their media (wood, metal, tile) and upload a photo that prints directly on it.

"The printer allows us to be competitive locally," said Wolf, who would like to franchise his business eventually, "but also gives us a presence on the web."

While flat bed printers increase productivity and product lines, new technology has changed the consumer side of the sign business.

"Digital signage is becoming more and more relevant; you see them everywhere downstate," said Alan Hubbard, owner of Pro Image Designs. "The software has become manageable and the cost of the media players has come way down from a couple of years ago."

Digital signs use flat screen TVs to advertise products and services, inserting different tickers and widgets to keep a company's message fresh. Hubbard predicts that the cost will come down enough so that the technology, which was $3,000 two years ago, will settle at about $500 off the shelf.

The spread of sign shops also means that franchises have gained a foothold here. Two – FASTSIGNS and Signs Now – rely mainly on local business, with clients like Hagerty Insurance, Grand Traverse Resort and Spa, and local trade shows.

"Seventy percent is repeat business from customers; the other 30 percent is new business because of all the new businesses coming to Traverse City," said Rob Harlow, owner of FASTSIGNS, a Dallas-based company that has 550 franchisees nationally.

Traverse City's sign boomlet and a growing business prompted Signs Now to move from their 1,500-sq.-ft. shop on Woodmere Avenue to Barlow Street, tripling their production space.

"We can now be more efficient with time and we have space for vehicles [getting wrapped]," said Amy Kohlmann, who along with her husband Andrew bought the business in 2008.

Kohlmann echoed her industry colleague's sentiments about the growing number of sign companies in Traverse City.

"I'm not sure how it happened, but we feel like if there were less [shops], that would be fine, but for right now we are busy and our customers have a choice," she said. "And that's a good thing."

The sign industry here stays busy because most of the demand is for soft signage, such as banners, which are driven by business promotions and a growing festival culture, Hubbard said.

"There is always that need for the banners and soft signage because people run specials, and also because Traverse City is becoming an event-driven town," said Pro Image Design's Hubbard, whose shop opened in 2000 in Rapid City, expanding into Traverse City in 2009.

Like many of his colleagues, Hubbard says that while the banners and other small projects keep the cash flow going, it's the custom projects that win awards and keep the creative juices flowing.

"At the end of the day, you get recognition for those eye-catching custom signs," he said, "not for banners."