By Peter Saunders
Comsign is a small shop in Edmonton with roots dating back to the 1940s and which has passed through many owners’ hands over the years. Originally known as Commercial Signs, its name was shortened in 2001 after a change in direction to focus on the architectural signage market, as well as to distribute standoff mounting systems and related components to other sign companies across Canada.
Building the business
Comsign’s current owner, Duncan Wilkie, has been part of the sign industry since 1972, when he began studying commercial signwriting at Edmonton’s Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) and also built signs part-time with Murray MacDonald in Flin Flon, Man.
“I joined Commercial Signs after graduating from NAIT in 1973 and then moved on to other shops, doing electrical sign design for about five years,” he says. “Back then, everything was painted by hand. There were no computers yet.”
During that stint of his career, Wilkie met his wife Laurie and started his own shop in their backyard, known as Wilkie Signs & Graphics. When he was offered an opportunity to buy half of Commercial Signs in 1980, he jumped at it, as he felt it was one of the more economically solid sign businesses in the city. Laurie came on-board as office administrator. And two years in, they bought out the other half of the business from Wilkie’s partner.
“Changes needed to be made, but basically, we built the business from there,” Wilkie says. “Some of our customers from back then are still with us now.”
Indeed, the company’s long history helped keep work coming in through referrals and repeat business. Over time, to meet these customers’ changing needs, Comsign added new equipment, evolved from sign fabrication by hand to computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) and moved to new facilities on several occasions.
“We were able to constantly adapt to the changes in our industry,” says Wilkie. “We’ve been faced with technology that changed everything we know about signmaking and we’ve seen wide-ranging ups and downs in the economy, but we continued to be focused and positive about our place in the industry.”
A shift in focus
Today, the 511-m2 (5,500-sf) shop where Comsign has been based for more than 20 years combines traditional signmaking skills with computer-aided design (CAD) software, vinyl plotters, inkjet printer-cutters and thermal printers. A millwork and fabrication space is equipped with a computer numerical control (CNC) router and certified spray booth.
Comsign primarily serves commercial, institutional and government clients in Edmonton, Red Deer and Northern Alberta. Its shift in focus toward architectural signage (see example below) was born out of these clients’ needs.
“Many of our customers are property managers and owners who had challenges maintaining their wayfinding signs and asked if we could help,” Wilkie explains. “Architectural signage wasn’t really a ‘thing’ yet, so we looked at systems from various manufacturers and matched the form and function of their components together. As we became very good at duplicating this process, the demand for our services grew, until we were asked to design and supply custom logos and wayfinding systems for new and renovated buildings.”
The shift turned out to be well-timed, as Alberta’s economic boom brought with it many new commercial buildings, condominium towers and apartment buildings, all needing their own wayfinding systems, logos and monument signs. Meanwhile, other sign and display companies began to outsource the same specialized tasks to Comsign, rather than trying to handle it themselves in-house.