By Peter Saunders
Calgary-based Studio Y Creations (SYC) has been in business for nearly 24 years, designing and manufacturing dimensional displays for themed environments, such as amusement parks and shopping malls. Over the course of the past nine years, however, the company has become better-known for its Imagination Dental Solutions (IDS) brand, which focuses specifically on decorating pediatric dentists’ clinics, both to help them stand out in the market and to put young patients at ease.
Inspired by new dimensions
When David Nolan started SYC in 1993 with his business partner Andrew Hulbert, they were inspired in part by Dan Sawatzky’s Imagination Corporation in Chilliwack, B.C., which was already building a strong reputation for distinctively styled themed pieces.
“I saw Sawatzky’s work at a mall in Calgary, the Chinook Centre, back when I was hand-painting window art for the Stampede,” says Nolan. “It really stayed in my mind. I’ve never met him, but he showed the industry what we could do.”
At first, SYC specialized in hand-painting temporary backdrops and producing foam props—such as columns and arches—for professional photo shoots.
“Given the market, ours were short-term indoor pieces and easily damageable,” Nolan recalls. “We knew we would eventually need to find a way to protect the foam better, so we looked into various materials and ended up using a hardcoat. Then, as we more and more frequently used hardcoated foams for photographers’ props, we realized we could also build sculptures for parade floats, museum displays, trade show booths and theme parks.”
With this expanded scope, SYC grew year-over-year, employing a skilled team of designers, marketers, fabricators and installers. Along the way, they adopted digital technologies, including three-dimensional (3-D) modelling and computer numerical control (CNC) routing.
“When the first CNC routers were available for cutting foam, I was against the idea, since I liked the imperfect nature of cutting by hand,” says Nolan, “but now we know there’s no way we could do our work as effectively without routers.”
They handled projects for Canada’s Cirque du Soleil and WonderWorks attractions in the U.S., among others.
“We worked on many incredible builds,” says Nolan. “Then, in 2008, we went to a trade show for the theme park industry and realized it was going to get hit hard by the Great Recession. Shortly after that show, we created IDS. Dentistry represented an untapped industry where we saw a lot of opportunity.”
Bringing Disneyland to dentists
At the time, it was not uncommon for pediatric dental clinics to feature colourful decals or even simple murals on their walls, but SYC was offering a type and level of creative expression few of them had ever considered. Before launching IDS as a brand, the company had handled one dental office project, to which the client replied, “You’ve really got something here!”
“The early adopters wanted to stand out,” says Nolan, “and now other dentists believe in the idea too and are all in for it. They recognize investing in this type of unique display work can positively impact their business and help them grow faster.”
Indeed, the company has handled 175 themed offices so far, with most costing their customers between $125,000 and $175,000 U.S. As Nolan explains, pediatric dental clinics have the right amount of money to do this kind of marketing properly. What’s more, many dentists have come back to IDS to theme multiple offices after the success of their first.
SYC’s market research shows the demand for elaborate and creative displays comes from the nature of the industry. A graduating dental student has to build his/her own practice in a busy market and, in Nolan’s words, “put bums in chairs,” which means (a) attracting new patients and
(b) making them feel comfortable, so they’ll become repeat visitors.
“One of our clients told us 94 per cent of his new customers were drawn to his clinic by the five big exterior characters we’d built for him,” says Nolan. “Patients hear about him specifically because of his unique signage. We’re bringing Disneyland to their offices.”