Sign Design: Grassroots innovation in fabrication

October 30, 2017


Photos courtesy Craig M. Berger

By Craig M. Berger
In the sign and graphics industry, large-scale companies and institutions have often been at the centre of innovations in design and fabrication. This is because the organizations behind well-known brands can afford to spend extra money on high-quality materials and well-known designers.

Their high level of visibility can lead to a misleading snapshot of innovation, however, because at the same time, many new and exciting approaches have come from small businesses, especially those that have worked to stand out from the crowd through their authenticity and contrasting style.

There is nothing novel to this trend. In the post-war culture of the 1950s, for example, many small businesses invested in creative, flashing neon signs to capture the public’s attention, particularly as more of their potential customers travelled by car.

Today, the spirit of ‘grassroots’ innovation in signage is occurring for new reasons. Small businesses like food trucks and carts, brewhouses and recently legalized marijuana dispensaries are all seeking ways to differentiate themselves from each other in an increasingly busy marketplace. And in some cases, these businesses are even run by former artists and designers who are still looking to make their mark visually with their work in the public environment.

Due to these businesses’ small size, their design interventions can occur quickly and flexibly, creating design trends large organizations cannot match but may attempt to emulate in the future.

Reinventing murals with digital printing
Many of the technological developments that have affected signmaking in the last decade or so have been a boon for small businesses in particular. And none of these has been more dramatic than the use of digital large-format inkjet printers to produce interior and exterior graphics for placemaking applications. The cost of durable indoor vinyl, especially, has dropped substantially in recent times, putting it in reach of even the smallest business.

This has spurred innovation in the design and creation of large, colourful murals and other artwork for public environments. In some cases, they are combined with transparent effects or illumination. Future trends will depend on the further advances in materials.


The advent of digital large-format inkjet printing spurred innovation in large, colourful outdoor murals, such as this one at Vancouver’s Centre for Digital Media (CDM).

Creative cutting and natural materials
Similar to the widespread adoption of large-format digital inkjet printers, computer numerical control (CNC) routers can now be found in the finishing departments of even the smallest sign shops. These machines allow signs and graphics to be cut creatively into any number of shapes and sizes.

At the same time, many signmakers are collaborating with artisans to develop projects that use atypical materials, including natural wood, bronze and weathering steel. By engraving, layering and even burning these substrates, they can create a richer palette of visual effects, which are now being adopted for larger brands, too.

Turning buildings into signs
Another major focus of grassroots innovation in signmaking has been adaptation to new buildings’ architecture. Today’s office buildings, shopping centres and other facilities tend to feature extensive glass façades facing the street, which provide the perfect surface to install digitally printed window graphics.

They also provide an opportunity to combine identification (ID) signs, printed graphics and innovative illumination in creative ways, allowing entire building façades to serve as eye-catching signage.

Driving future trends
As society continues to evolve, the way people look at and engage with buildings has changed. To attract attention, small businesses must rise above the clutter, so they are motivated to try innovative ideas in terms of signs and graphics. The lessons learned from their efforts will, in turn, drive trends at a larger scale.

Craig M. Berger is chair of the visual presentation and exhibition design department of the Fashion Institute of Technology’s (FIT’s) School of Art and Design and runs his own firm, Craig Berger Management Consulting, which assists fabricators, manufacturers and institutions with design-based marketing and education strategies. For information, contact him via e-mail at[3].

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