Election year a big boost for sign businesses

At a time when economic indicators can seem to point up, down and sideways all at once, there’s at least one Clark County industry where signs clearly point to growth: the sign business.

Sign makers were not hit as hard as many other sectors when the so-called Great Recession arrived, but business did slow down and stay slow for several years. Orders have been up in recent months, however, buoyed by political campaigns in some cases and demand from business buyers in others.

“Two months from now, who knows what will happen,” cautioned Dick Miller, a 35-year veteran of the industry and president of Vancouver Sign Co. “But we’ve been busier for the past two or three months than for the previous one and a half years.”

The sign business is divided into niches. Some creative marketing agencies design signage as part of a full branding package, then contract with third-party manufacturers to make the signs. Other companies focus exclusively on signs, and may be able to help customers obtain permits and comply with lease requirements at the same time as they design and make the products. Banners and lawn signs are more likely to be made by a printing specialist than a sign company, though manufacturers of signs may make exceptions for long-time customers or when a larger order also includes more traditional signage.

No matter the niche, though, orders are going strong.

Kimberly Stromberg, business partner at Ask Advertising in downtown Vancouver, said the creative agency she and her husband run does not usually do a lot of sign work.

“We do a lot of branding for small businesses, restaurants, retail shops,” she said. That could include design of a logo, business cards, stationary, menus and a sign if requested. The company would then go find a vendor to handle creating the sign so that its customer would not have to do the heavy lifting.

Signs have taken center stage recently, noted Stromberg, and are likely to stay there through the November presidential election.

“We get heavy during campaign season, and we have very few sign requests beyond that,” she noted.

By contrast, Vancouver Sign Co. does not make the lawn signs that are the hallmarks of political campaigns. Its sales can be driven by national companies moving into the Portland-Vancouver area, or by local companies setting up shop or growing here, Miller said.

Local clients have driven his recent surge in orders.

“The tag word now is branding,” Miller said. “You have people changing their branding, changing their logos, and when they do they might need a new sign.”

New local entrepreneurs are also driving business at Vancouver Sign, as are expansions and remodels at health care facilities, which need signs to correctly point to different departments within the building, Miller explained.

Shopping for a sign?

When comparing manufacturers, you’re not likely to find much variation in sign offerings from one company to the next.

“There are several companies our size in Portland, Vancouver, one in Woodland,” Miller said. “What we do is relatively straightforward. Most everyone offers plastic, aluminum and LED signs. Where we compete is on design, service and price.”

Service is about more than just courtesy in the sign business. Each city in the metro area has its own set of regulations governing outdoor signage, and permits are generally required. In addition, landlords often include restrictions and requirements in property leases. A good sign business should have someone on staff skilled with navigating the permit process for your jurisdiction, and should also be able to interpret lease requirements, said Miller, whose business provides both of those services.

Design experts say that two key elements should guide the look of your sign: how well it fits with the rest of your branding, and how easy it is to read.

“We want it to be easy to read at a glance, and recognizable from a distance,” said Maya Muller of Maya Design, which has designed some campaign signs as part of larger packages that include political ads or logos.

Stromberg said that she tries to be careful about color selection, especially when designing political signs. Republican candidates may want to use red because of its association with the party, for example, but Stromberg recommends using red as an accent color at most. “It can be an angry color from a distance,” she said.

As to whether you should go to a marketing agency to design your sign, or should ask the manufacturer to do it instead – that depends on who you ask.

Designers at sign-focused businesses know how to fit a new product to your current look, and Miller said they will also work with customers to design a new look from scratch.

If a sign is part of a broader marketing campaign, however, Muller advocates for hiring a creative agency to do the design work.

“The sign makers will hate me, but if somebody is paying for ads in publications, they should pay to have the same designer design the signs as well, so there’s consistency,” she said.