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Dimensional Signs

Special F/X

Virginia-based Art and Sign FX displays singular creativity.

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The Virginia commonwealth offers a distinctive, vibrant sign market. Its legacy as the epicenter of colonial and antebellum culture lives on with many historic districts, attractions and landmarks. Complementing its historical fabric, populations have swelled in many northern areas that serve as Washington, DC bedroom communities. This duality offers ample opportunity to create unique, traditional signage that promotes businesses related to the region’s tourist trade, as well as stately monument signs and detailed wayfinding and identification programs for housing developments that mushroomed throughout the area.

Troy Dawson, proprietor of Fredericksburg, VA-based Art and Sign F/X, has grown his shop from his basement into an approximately 9,000-sq.-ft., 24-employee entity. Because the company plies much of its trade in monument and architectural signage, Dawson also established an inhouse landscaping division to supplement the shop’s signage and bolster its bottom line. And, although he’s learned that it’s an intensely competitive market, he’s aggressively trying to penetrate his region’s vehicle-wrap market.

Getting started

During his childhood, Dawson developed artistic talents, but he followed an educational path that ultimately led to his earning a bachelor’s degree in urban planning from Virginia Commonwealth University and embarked on a civil-engineering career.

After 12 years in this profession, he decided to rejuvenate his creative juices. He collaborated with a childhood friend to found Art and Sign F/X in 1994. One year later, philosophical differences spurred Dawson to dissolve the partnership and undertake sole company ownership. During the shop’s early years, cut-vinyl and vehicle graphics helped sustain its growth – he greatly relied on a Summa 610 cutter. However, as Dawson’s customer base expanded, his past professional experience aided the shop’s growth.

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“With my background as an urban planner, I have considerable experience with project and site management,” he said. “And, I cultivated a dimensional-sign business, in part, through my contacts in the building trades.”

In the late ’90s, Dawson purchased a Gerber Scientific Products Sabre CNC router, which helped catalyze the company’s expansion into the entry-monument and architectural-sign markets. Fredericksburg’s broad spectrum of sign-fabrication opportunities keeps the shop hopping.

Dawson said, “In the town’s primary historic district, they forbid electric signs, but, otherwise, it’s really not very difficult to obtain a permit. You go through two review processes – first with city officials to ensure compliance, and again with the local historic-preservation group who ensure the sign isn’t ‘out of character’ for the community – but they’re usually pretty cooperative.”

Design to sell

During the shop’s formative years, Dawson handled all sign design himself. However, as Art and Sign F/X’s business continued to grow, he hired two fulltime designers with graphic-arts degrees, Maureen Abaie and Raygan Ketterer. Abaie said converting a 2-D computer screen or paper rendering into a 3-D sign, through the coordinated contributions of the design and fabrication staffs, brings her job satisfaction.

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To perfect her designs, Abaie initially uses a combination of Adobe’s Illustrator, SA International's FlexiSign and Delcam Intl.'s Artcam software. She likes Illustrator because it offers simple, cut-and-paste capabilities and layering that allows specific images to be used without disturbing other graphic components. FlexiSign earns high marks thanks to its nesting option, which automatically moves graphic elements to minimize material consumption, and easy copy selection with cutting-plotter applications. Abaie praised ArtCam because it allows 360° viewing of dimensional artwork and gauges that allow simple depth adjustments.

Big opportunities

Frustrated with inconsistent service when he subcontracted landscaping services to embellish his creations, Dawson established a landscaping division within his company in 2000. Since then, it’s grown into its own, self-sufficient entity that operates as complete, design-build operation. The company also employs a welder to create brackets and hanging apparatus to complement its signage, and handles its own permitting, foundation pouring and concept-drawing creation.

“I simply don’t feel comfortable relying on someone else to install the signage we’ve worked hard to build,” Dawson said. “I think it’s important for a signshop to maintain ownership of its work throughout the process.”

For one of its more unique projects, the company contracted, through an exhibit-design firm, to create a 3-D, scenescape mural for the Smithsonian Institution’s American History Museum. This entailed a painted rendition of a historic home built in the early 1800s. Dan Ramsey, a nine-year shop employee, led the in-shop painting of the replica and coordinated its installation and handpainting, a three-day process, at the museum’s entrance.

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“At that point, inkjet printers had already saturated the market, and their speed and consistency gave customers what they required,” he said. “So, as much as we enjoyed that project, I knew the handpainted-mural market wasn’t viable for us long-term.”

Abaie said a challenging project required creating a logo and 3-D graphics for BCA, a Fredericksburg-based engineering firm. BCA’s management team asked Art and Sign F/X to develop a few samples of graphics based on varied cost structures. Ultimately, they chose routed-aluminum decorated with a brushed-gold finish applied to black Komatex® PVC-sheet backing. After having routed the letters, fabricators glued each letter to a Plexiglas® impact-modified-acrylic panel decorated with background black, vinyl ruler marks. Using ½-in. pegs, installers projected the panels from BCA’s exterior wall.

Changes ahead

Since the shop’s inception, Dawson hasn’t needed to advertise – his shop has thrived simply from word-of-mouth referrals and customers who visit his website, www.artandsignfx.com. However, as 2007’s onset of financial crises lurches into 2008, amid promises of protracted economic malaise, changes may become necessary.

The sign industry’s overall competitiveness has increased tremendously in the Fredericksburg area. When Art and Sign F/X opened its doors, Dawson said the city had three or four signshops, including electric-sign outfits. Now, with the area’s growth, new shops, particularly franchises, proliferate – he counts approximately 40 nearby signshops.

Dawson hopes to capitalize on the burgeoning vehicle-graphic market. However, breaking into this market has proven challenging: “I’ve been in contact with several fleet managers and beverage distributors in our area, and many of them have their graphics and service providers specified from corporate headquarters. It’s a competitive area, but we’ll continue to pursue and perfect the vehicle-wrap market.”

He’s also looking to create a new niche – inkjet-printed wallcoverings designed for children’s rooms. Dawson’s son was the beneficiary of the shop’s beta test – a Disney-themed mural designed for his room. To promote this new service, the company has begun a print-advertising campaign and is considering other publicity avenues.

Though he believes his staff possesses the skill to fabricate electric signs, Dawson demurs from incurring the insurance premiums and crane-truck rental or purchase expenses they would require.

“We want to be in the custom-sign and graphics market, and we intend to stay here,” Dawson said. “We’ve been fortunate not to have significant turnover in our staff, and I think our combination of skill and creativity will remain successful.”

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