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The 2011 International Sign Contest: Signs of Rebirth



For the past of couple of years, I’ve received a common response from many former competition stalwarts: “I’m sorry, but I don’t have anything worth submitting this year.” Perhaps it was unnecessary modesty in some cases (or a to-do list too large to accommodate one more task), but I’m sure most spoke honestly. The downturn has impacted almost every industry negatively (bankruptcy attorneys may have been among the few in high cotton), and so many projects have disappeared or been scaled back due to lack of funds.

However, the quality of contest entries has remained high, even if quantity has diminished somewhat. I was consistently impressed by the quality of this year’s 302 submissions. It affirmed, even during challenging times, some customers still could be persuaded to invest in their corporate identity via compelling sign design.

As usual, electric and commercial building signs received the largest portion of entries among the competition’s 11 categories. Somewhat surprisingly, sign-system entries abounded. Instead of attracting entries in the teens to low 20s, it generated 36 projects this year. Many were for healthcare entities and other institutional clients. Perhaps the money had been allocated before the economy’s implosion, or perhaps American Restoration and Recovery Act stimulus money for infrastructure improvements surfaced.

ST conducted this year’s judging at the Saddlebrook Resort near Tampa in conjunction with the Signage and Graphics Summit conference. In addition to escaping a blustery Ohio winter for a few days, I enjoy enlisting local sign and design professionals (you can read the judge s bios below).

Collectively, this was one of the livelier panels of judges we’ve had. Strong opinions were good-naturedly expressed throughout the process – given their diverse backgrounds, individual biases were inevitable. But, consensus was achieved.

A few companies enjoyed particularly strong showings. Danthonia Designs (Inverell, NSW, Australia) swept the Commercial Freestanding Sign category, and Snyder Signs (Johnson City, TN) won First Place in the Electric Monument Sign and Electronic Message Center categories.


For the first time, one end user – Mellow Mushroom, a funky, Atlanta-based pizza chain, was the beneficiary – had two of its signs, which Snyder Signs and Sign Systems Inc. (Hickory, NC) built and submitted separately, win awards in the same competition. Buddy Finethy, Mellow Mushroom’s director of creative services, who supervises production of the company’s internal store graphics and integrates them with each location’s sign program, said, “This is an honor for us. We strive to give each of our properties its own unique identity. We give shops who build our signs a lot of freedom, and we’re always proud of the end result.”

The ultimate prize, Best of Show, went to Young Electric Sign Co.’s (YESCO) Denver branch, which fabricated a sign for Wild Ivories, a Denver dueling-piano bar. Kreg Lyles, a YESCO designer, said, “I think the most enjoyable thing was, after all the revisions, seeing the sign being constructed, and finally, lighting up. It was what I call the Frankenstein moment, when you see your creation come to life, or light up, for the first time.”

That’s enough backstory; proceed to the pretty pictures and descriptions of the materials, equipment and know-how that helped produce the International Sign Contest winners. Enjoy 2011’s winners – and, don’t be shy about taking your shot at glory in next year’s competition!

About the Judges

Mike Bethune, Bethune Signs
A 25-year veteran of handcarved- and sandblasted-sign fabrication, Mike Bethune founded Bethune Signs Inc. in the Tampa area in 1990. He learned sandblasting and engraving at the tombstone and monument foundry where his father worked, but, after having worked at a different monument fabricator, he opted to become a signmaker. His portfolio includes signs for numerous doctors and attorneys, state and county parks, the Florida Aquarium, MacDill AFB, the Tampa Zoo and numerous residential developments. He also served as a judge for this year’s International Sign Contest (see ST, April 2010, page 63). He moved to his current shop in Thonotosassa, a Tampa suburb, in 2001.

His “calling card” is his shop vehicle, a Chevrolet HHR that’s outfitted with a 3-D sculpture of a sleeping man that’s secured to both rear side panels. A larger version was attached to his former mode of transportation, a 1954 panel truck.


For more information about Mike and his shop, see his Shop Next Door profile (see ST, March 2009, page 60) or visit

Mike Chawk, Signstar
A Tampa native, Mike Chawk, 57, began his career in the sign industry in his teens. Chawk’s first real job was as a bulletin painter’s helper. In the days when billboards were painted by hand with 1Shot lettering enamels, he spent his days on swing-stages, learning from a master painter. After studying art at the University of South Florida, Mike spent his early career in sales and marketing before returning to the sign industry.

For 23 years, Mike has worked for SIGNSTAR, a Tampa-based sign manufacturer and contractor, serving clients nationwide. Mike handles the business of several key clients, works to build the business, and deals with governmental affairs and permitting. Mike is married, with a teenage son, and lives in Temple Terrace, FL. With his family, he enjoys travel, the outdoors and the sea.

Maggie Green, Florida Aquarium
Maggie Green was born and raised in New York City, and moved to Tampa, Florida in 1987 with her family. She graduated from Florida State University in 1995 with a bachelor’s of science degree in Visual Communications, emphasizing graphic design and studio art. Shortly thereafter, Green moved to Boston and found her first job in graphic design, and continued her hobby of fine art.

Currently, Maggie works at The Florida Aquarium, where she’s been its print designer and exhibit/environmental graphic artist for nine years. She manages projects from concept to completion, which includes working with the Aquarium s departments and outside vendors. The Aquarium s exhibits department uses a wide range of materials to fabricate the different exhibit graphics and signage. She also enjoys a great passion for the arts, natural sciences and environmental graphic design.

Maggie said, “I love being able to help to teach people about the world we inhabit by using creative imagery and interpretation.”


Peter Lewis, Signs Now
Peter Lewis has owned a Tampa-based Signs Now franchise, which is the company’s oldest to continuously operate in one location, for nine years. He’s also a member of Signs Now’s franchise-advisory board.

His shop holds two, long-term contracts with Hillsborough County, and produces its construction signs. Lewis recently purchased a HP 25500 latex-ink printer, which he said is the first in the Tampa Bay area. Lewis said, “This will enable us to increase output and print in a more environmentally friendly way than using solvent inks.” In his spare time, he enjoys tennis and exercise.



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