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Maggie Harlow

5 Tips to Improved Sign Design Productivity

Proven advice that will help make your design department a profit center.




EARLY IN OUR SIGN business start-up, we had just three employees: my husband Brian and me, and Keith, who did our graphic design and production/installation. Brian and I did not have the skill or inclination to “fill in” for design if Keith was busy with other things, so design was a precious and limited resource we discussed frequently!

Brian helped manage Keith’s design time by occasionally going through a time-estimation exercise. Brian would hold up a work order and ask Keith, “How long to get this design done?” Keith would scan the design and reply confidently, “20 minutes.” Brian would then set a home kitchen egg timer on Keith’s desk for 20 minutes. Almost without fail, 20 minutes later we would all hear the ‘DING’ of the alarm, and then “DANG IT!” from Keith, in frustration.

Estimating and managing design time are critical parts of building a productive sign company.

Even a small signshop might be surprised by how much the design process can disguise lost revenue and hidden expenses. Here are some areas you might examine, along with some ideas of how to manage your design processes.

  1. Design charges can be a profit center. Be clear with your customers how much design time is included in any transaction, and charge what design time is truly worth. Here are some ways to stay profitable in your design services.
    1. Create a standard setup or design fee, no matter how small an order. Ours is $25.
    2. Establish an amount of time that is included in the standard, and going beyond that should trigger a conversation with the salesperson about the additional cost of design. (Our standard is 15 minutes of design — beyond that and the designer should talk to the sales team.)
    3. Charge an hourly rate for design for complex projects. Be sure your designer knows how many hours are included, so they can help manage the use of the hours.
    4. Train your salespeople to consult with design on how long a design is likely to take so they can quote adequately.
    5. We include up to two revisions to a design. Additional simple edits are $25 each. (We rarely charge the fee once we explain it — customers suddenly become more efficient.)
  2. Many shops have designers provide designs directly to the customer for speedy edits. However, this leaves the door open to multiple edits in design not being paid for, or a project to change dramatically enough to need requoting. We keep our salespeople engaged with the customer regarding design changes to avoid unpaid services and leave the designers to be designers.
  3. Encourage good communication between sales and design. Training about file types, discussions about design challenges, and back and forth regarding how to describe design should be considered normal and healthy exchanges.
  4. Measure design productivity. Our team strives to complete 15 designs per day, per designer. This number will vary depending on the speed and experience of your designers, as well as the complexity of the work. Consider measuring productivity for a month to establish a baseline and then brainstorm with design on how to get more work done by improving efficiencies.
  5. Start your training on day one to encourage new designers to know that speed matters. Remember that college students are generally graded on quality of their work, but rarely must report how many hours they spent getting it done.

We used that egg timer for many years, helping our designers see that time has a way of ‘sneaking by’ in the ‘flow’ that designers work in. No one was a fan of the timer, but it helped us all learn that time, an important resource, has to be managed.


Maggie Harlow is the CEO of Signarama Downtown Louisville (Louisville, KY), one of the largest and most prestigious locations for the global sign franchise. Contact Maggie at



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