How sign maker Luke Stock­dale uses his knowl­edge of brand­ing and ty­pog­ra­phy to cre­ate beau­ti­ful ar­chi­tec­tural signs that aim to raise the stan­dard of the in­dus­try

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How sign maker Luke Stock­dale uses his knowl­edge of brand­ing and ty­pog­ra­phy to cre­ate beau­ti­ful ar­chi­tec­tural signs that aim to raise the stan­dard of the in­dus­try

LUKE STOCK­DALE_ Aus­tralian-born Luke is the owner and cre­ative di­rec­tor of Sideshow Sign Co, a Nashville-based team of de­sign­ers and fab­ri­ca­tors who spe­cialise in cus­tom sign mak­ing. He is also the cre­ator of the Church of Sign Tol­ogy, a com­pre­hen­sive on­line guide to sign mak­ing.

Ac­cord­ing to Aussieborn de­signer Luke Stock­dale, signs are not what they used to be. In re­sponse to peo­ple “car­ing less” about signs and the craft of sign mak­ing, Stock­dale’s Nashville-based cre­ative de­sign and fab­ri­ca­tion com­pany, Sideshow Sign Co, strives to im­prove the pro­file of the sig­nage in­dus­try, and get both de­sign­ers and clients de­mand­ing bet­ter signs.

On top of run­ning the busi­ness side of things, cre­ative di­rec­tor Stock­dale wants to pop­u­larise sign mak­ing. With his on­line re­source, the Church of Sign Tol­ogy, he’s gath­ered to­gether in­for­ma­tion about the sign-mak­ing process to make a com­pre­hen­sive and hon­est guide.

Fol­low­ing his en­light­en­ing talk at TYPO Berlin (see page 16 for our full re­port), Stock­dale chat­ted to CA about the eco­nomics and craft of sign mak­ing, and how these fac­tors af­fect the in­dus­try...

You talk about mak­ing street signs great again. Where do you think sign mak­ing has gone wrong?

With ev­ery­thing that’s a craft, or any­thing that’s man­u­fac­tured, ev­ery­one just cares less. This isn’t exclusive to sig­nage. De­sign­ers and clients care about con­sump­tion and cost and what they can have and what they can get away with. So in the old days you couldn’t cut cor­ners, it wasn’t even part of the cul­ture. It wasn’t even con­sid­ered. Nowa­days that’s the main con­sid­er­a­tion.

There’s also no watch­dog for sig­nage. And that’s why I sort of feel re­spon­si­ble as a de­signer and a sign maker. I feel like if some­one is go­ing to ex­pose the in­dus­try for be­ing in a coma, then it’s got to come from in­side the de­sign world. I think sig­nage has just suf­fered along with ev­ery­thing else, but there’s no one out there to stop the work get­ting cheaper and cheaper.

Is that why you es­tab­lished the Church of Sign Tol­ogy, to make sign mak­ing knowl­edge more ac­ces­si­ble?

I re­alised the de­sign in­dus­try was try­ing to avoid good de­sign be­cause it wasn’t as eas­ily or as suf­fi­ciently fab­ri­cated, and that that’s the rea­son de­sign­ers in the in­dus­try could get away with bad de­sign. My the­ory – and it could be wrong – is that once the in­dus­try started shut­ting out de­sign­ers, that lead to a de­cline in qual­ity. Plus, sign mak­ers work with such lim­ited ma­te­ri­als any­way.

Do these ma­te­ri­als re­strict the type of signs you can pro­duce?

Very much so. There are six ba­sic ma­te­ri­als you can use when mak­ing a sign. And com­ing from a brand­ing back­ground, I think that’s just not good enough. You’ve got to choose the ma­te­rial that best rep­re­sents the brand and honours its aes­thetic. De­sign­ers that cut cor­ners are work­ing back­wards. They’re ba­si­cally try­ing to make lo­gos that light up. That’s not what a sign is.

What is a sign to you?

A sign is like a busi­ness card, it’s a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of you. Es­pe­cially ar­chi­tec­tural sig­nage, which is what I’m talk­ing about. If architects are go­ing to spend years and years de­sign­ing this beau­ti­ful build­ing and it costs $50 mil­lion to build, and you just go and slap a plas­tic box on it with a logo, that’s in­sult­ing. But you don’t have many op­tions, and that’s be­cause of ma­te­ri­als.

What do you do with clients who won’t budge on ma­te­ri­als or de­sign?

We just send them to the other sign com­pa­nies. We’re only in­ter­ested in work­ing with peo­ple who are will­ing to push their de­sign a lit­tle bit. Clients are usu­ally re­ally en­thu­si­as­tic about the sign un­til the price kicks in. And that’s the thing we’re fight­ing against all the time be­cause there’s this new wave of con­sumerism thanks to the likes of Ama­zon, where you can get what­ever you want, when­ever you want it. Cus­tom things are dif­fer­ent. Cus­tom things are al­ways go­ing to cost four times as much be­cause you’re not man­u­fac­tur­ing two hun­dred thou­sand of them.

Peo­ple usu­ally come to us with hon­est en­thu­si­asm for do­ing some­thing dif­fer­ent, but then are some­times not will­ing to pay for it. You can’t have both, it’s im­pos­si­ble. And that’s one of the rea­sons the in­dus­try has been able to get away with bad sign mak­ing for so long.

You went from ty­pog­ra­phy to sign mak­ing, how did you find that?

It was re­ally dif­fi­cult. A lot of hours and a lot of fuck-ups went into it. Sign mak­ing has to be an ob­ses­sion. If you’re go­ing to teach your­self how to make signs, es­pe­cially big neon elec­tric signs, then it has to be. The ty­pog­ra­phy and the de­sign are what drove me. It’s never been about money. It’s been about get­ting it right and un­der­stand­ing what makes sig­nage works.

Is sign mak­ing a vi­able busi­ness?

I’ve con­sulted with peo­ple to see where I should take this busi­ness be­cause it’s hard work and I’m not a busi­ness­man, and a lot of them have said that I’m haem­or­rhag­ing money through fab­ri­ca­tion, which is true. But I can’t stop that be­cause in or­der to de­sign signs you need fab­ri­ca­tion.

To make signs prop­erly you have to know how to fab­ri­cate, to make sam­ples and you have to know about ma­te­ri­als. And you can­not do that sit­ting in an of­fice, you have to do it through trial and er­ror. In our stu­dio, we’re get­ting to the stage where we can start farm­ing out some fab­ri­ca­tion to peo­ple we trust, but only be­cause now we re­ally feel like we un­der­stand the ma­te­ri­als, and you can’t get that un­less you do it. With stuff like that you have to have an an­gry client com­ing back and say­ing ‘the rust is stain­ing my wall’, or ‘the wood is ex­pand­ing in the heat’, things that you would never con­sider while in the of­fice.

What other ob­sta­cles are there to pro­duc­ing signs?

With sig­nage there’s a lot of city or­di­nance and codes that you have to fight. Like in Nashville, for in­stance, they wouldn’t al­low ex­posed bulbs in signs, so that’s been fought and just re­cently over­turned. It’s al­most like lob­by­ing in pol­i­tics. The big­ger sign com­pa­nies have been able to pen­e­trate the po­lit­i­cal groups and change the laws to suit them and their pro­cesses. So then you end up with big com­pa­nies be­ing al­lowed to have enor­mous bill­boards that flash, but you’re not al­lowed to have a bulb. Some­times they’ll make an ex­cep­tion if we prove that the de­sign is ex­cep­tional.

Did you have any train­ing?

Not as such, apart from ask­ing old sign mak­ers to show me things. I was lucky enough to do a few signs early on for Nike and a few other recog­nis­able brands, and so peo­ple started tak­ing us se­ri­ously.

With the first neon sign I made with my own hands, there was a client who called us and said, ‘Do you do neon signs?’ And I said ‘Yep,’ even though I didn’t know how. So I took the de­posit, and I learned to make neon signs.

We ac­tu­ally made three, and lost money, and we still do on jobs like that. Each one had a dif­fer­ent mis­take un­til the fourth one was per­fect. The client didn’t know, they just saw the fin­ished prod­uct. But I was hav­ing the time of my life. We were so busy and I was get­ting to make things and I was ab­sorbed. When you start to know half of some­thing, ev­ery­thing you learn

about it goes straight to your brain and stays there. Learn­ing about sign mak­ing was kind of like that for me.

Are you in­flu­enced by trends?

You bal­ance his­tory or trends with what the client wants and the de­sire to do your own thing. Peo­ple say our signs are like some­thing from the ’50s and ’60s. They are, but it’s not be­cause they’re from that time. It’s be­cause that was the era in which they used to make good stuff. It could’ve been any time. I’m not at­tracted to them for that nos­tal­gia, I’m at­tracted to them be­cause they were taken se­ri­ously and ever since then it’s been go­ing down­hill. But also those old signs were so beau­ti­ful. Take neon, for ex­am­ple. It’s glass and gas and it’s beau­ti­ful. It’s or­ganic. No LED is ever go­ing to be able to repli­cate it.

Are you wor­ried that the Church of Sign Tol­ogy will re­sult in more com­pe­ti­tion for you?

Mak­ing this knowl­edge more ac­ces­si­ble or wide­spread doesn’t mean that sign mak­ing is go­ing to be any eas­ier to do. Just be­cause you know how to do some­thing, you still need to do it a few times, there’s still a lot of work that goes into it. I’m not re­ally wor­ried about com­pe­ti­tion be­cause sign mak­ing does have a level of dif­fi­culty that a lot of peo­ple are go­ing to be put off by. But also it could ben­e­fit our busi­ness by pop­u­lar­is­ing sig­nage again. So if the de­sign in­dus­try starts writ­ing about sig­nage, that can only be a good thing. There are so many books on print but so few on sig­nage, which doesn’t make sense. Sig­nage is the same as print only more spec­tac­u­lar.

If there were more books or more peo­ple aware of sig­nage, then all of these de­sign­ers would be able to start putting more pres­sure on their clients to do bet­ter and their stan­dards are go­ing to go up. Even client stan­dards will go up. A client’s com­pe­ti­tion could be a shop down the road with an amaz­ing sign, and then they’ll want one too.

Can you see 3D print­ing af­fect­ing sign mak­ing in the fu­ture?

I’m re­ally ex­cited about 3D print­ing. It’s go­ing to change a lot. I’m not re­ally ex­cited about the tech­nol­ogy it­self, it’s more about brand im­ple­men­ta­tion. If you can come up with a crazy idea and do it and it looks great, I’m to­tally on board. And I think 3D print­ing is go­ing to de­liver that at a high qual­ity.

Did peo­ple warn you against go­ing into sign mak­ing?

The in­dus­try warned me! And some of the con­cerns such as cost­ing are valid points. But there are 350 mil­lion peo­ple in Amer­ica. If there’s even one per cent of those peo­ple who care about qual­ity and sig­nage, they’re our clients.

03 Cre­at­ing a sign with ex­posed light­bulbs can cause all sorts of lo­gis­ti­cal headaches, though this does de­pend on where you’re mak­ing it. 02

02 Stock­dale’s sign-mak­ing re­source, the Church of Sign Tol­ogy, needed its own sign.


01 Luke made the leap from brand­ing and ty­pog­ra­phy to sign mak­ing af­ter help­ing his mum build a home in the wake of Black Satur­day – a se­ries of bush fires in Aus­tralia.

10 An ex­am­ple of the type of neon sign that Stock­dale ad­mires – he ar­gues that they have an or­ganic feel that can’t be re­pro­duced else­where. 10

11 Stock­dale com­pares signs like this one for Ed­leys Bar­beque to the beauty of vin­tage cars. 11

12 Ty­pog­ra­phy in sig­nage needs to be im­mac­u­late, Stock­dale ex­plains. “In or­der for a sign to be di­men­sional, it needs to have straight edges. A dis­tressed aes­thetic comes from the look of 2D print.” 12

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