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We sat down with Vinny Symes, head designer at FASTSIGNS Leeds, as he prepares to celebrate 20 years at the business to chat about his career, advancements in design and technology, and adapting to changing customer demands

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Vinny Symes is head designer at FASTSIGNS Leeds and is celebrating 20 years at the business

A Milestone in Signage Design

Tell us a bit about yourself...

My name is Vinny Symes and I’m the head designer at FASTSIGNS Leeds. I’ve been at FASTSIGNS for two decades, over 80% of my working life. Beyond my professional career though, I have a passion for walking.

We’re lucky that we have The Dales, The Peak District, and North Yorkshire Moors right on our doorstep, so it’s easy to step out the door and be met with picturesque landscapes. It’s the perfect detox from a busy day in the office.

I'm also a dad, so we love family days out to National Trust locations. I enjoy visiting different towns and cities nearby, going to museums and art galleries – I just can’t get enough of design!

I'm often asked what I love so much about the discipline and, for me, it's the fact it’s so open and free-thinking.

Just because I’ve worked on a particular aspect of design for 20 years doesn’t mean that I have any more ownership of it than the next person. I truly believe that a keen interest and enthusiasm are all you need to get going in this industry.

How did you come to be in the signage industry?

Back in 1996, I’d just finished up a year’s foundation course in Art at Dewsbury College of Art & Design. I always knew I loved design and had a passion for spotting things that others perhaps didn’t, but that course really ignited the possibilities of design and its effect on audiences.

From there, I spotted a course at The University of Lincolnshire & Humberside to study Museum and Exhibition Design – niche, I know, but I’ve always loved the design of museum spaces and the way they artfully showcase artefacts and paintings. The course provided me with an opportunity to immerse myself in 3D model-making and creating visuals.

I came out of those three years to a job at St James’ Hospital in Leeds acting as a porter. While I was there, I picked up some work experience at the nearby Thackray Museum of Medicine. Alongside my work as a porter, I spent my spare time as an in-house designer for the Museum, which eventually turned into a full-time job. I worked alongside a hugely talented illustrator there for three years and I learned so much.

It's those formative relationships that really demonstrate just how collaborative creative roles can be, and the value those relationships bring to someone’s career. Many of those lessons I learned I still carry with me today, in my current role at FASTSIGNS.

What has your career looked like at FASTSIGNS Leeds over the past 20 years?

There’s a real wealth of knowledge at FASTSIGNS Leeds, across all departments, accumulated over the years by the team employing and retaining brilliant staff.

I’ve been able to thrive and grow here as the company itself has grown around me. I started as a graphic designer back in 2003 and I’ve since worked my way up the ranks to head designer; something I’m hugely proud of.

I’ve learnt so much along the way, from everyone across the business, and I’ve worked on such a diverse range of projects to the point where you become almost an expert within that field. It’s one of the things I most love about the job because we get to embed ourselves within so many sectors from retail and finance, to hospitality, healthcare, and many more.

While much of my time is spent liaising with our customer service and production teams to make sure we’re meeting deadlines and giving customers the best experience and end-result, my role largely involves creating designs and preparing artwork that we receive for production. That’s where we get to really unleash our creativity to fulfil client briefs!

What changes have you seen from a design perspective over the past two decades, and what design trends are you noticing customers looking for?

Design is everywhere today. Thanks to the rise of social media, digital signage, print, and more conventional media channels like television, there are so many ways a user can experience design.

The challenges though, are to ensure your designs can cut through a noisy market and capture the attention of consumers who, today, demand immediacy. As well as those, there’s also the expectation from customers who want their brand image to be consistent across all platforms – from smartphones and digital boards, right through to print.

All of these challenges mean that your design has to be impactful and eye-catching. It also encourages us to think in a less linear fashion, instead, taking a more holistic approach to design.

The great thing about the discipline, though, is that it’s always evolving. But, the basic principles – certainly in my area of design – of being fit-for-purpose, clean, and legible will always stand the test of time.
How has technology changed and evolved during this time?

Every now and again, there’s one customer who will come in with a requirement that we’ve maybe never had to fulfil before, but our team is well-equipped with the knowledge to bring that vision to life.

In order to do that, we take steps each day to make sure our team is aware of the latest trends, changes in design, and innovations across our customers’ industries. In fact, we spend about 10% of our time as a design team on research and development.

Recently, we’ve been learning more about image enhancing and how it can benefit our business and our clients’ work.

Unlike when I first started, where much of what we did was done by hand and by eye, technology today really plays a fundamental role in our day-to-day operations. Our roles naturally demand an eye for detail, and a certain degree of skill, but the tech we have in-house really helps us to refine our work.

It’s not enough to say ‘I’m a designer for print’. You need to be able to use the full suite of applications – for print, for motion graphics, for 3D design, and for data merging. Customers constantly make new demands, which drives innovation.

Like everything else, AI (Artifical Intelligence) is playing a part, particularly in terms of image manipulation. Things that may have taken half an hour to do 20 years ago, can now be done in just seconds.

What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced during your time at FASTSIGNS leeds?

As a nation, we’ve just resurfaced from the pandemic and are now experiencing a cost-of-living crisis – two socioeconomic challenges that have made it very difficult for business owners across the country.

Signage, though, can play a significant role during times of crisis. While good signage can raise brand awareness of your business, it can also be the difference between someone entering your shop or walking straight by. If customers are looking to make an impact and stand out among the busy crowd, signage can often be the best solution – first impressions, as they say, do count.
Tell us your top five favourite projects and why...

As you can imagine, I’ve got quite a few from over the last two decades. But, here’s a snapshot:

• Tour De France – to celebrate the arrival of the Tour to Leeds back in 2014, using design collateral from the customer, we created a series of bike track graphics across the floor at Leeds railway station. It looked super effective and was a great way of bringing the tour to life for any visitors departing Leeds to watch the action.

• Atlantic Grappler – we’ve done hundreds of vehicles over the years, including helicopters and a microlight that was destined for Australia. But one that stands out to me is the graphics we completed for a boat being rowed, single-handedly, across the Atlantic.

• Timelines – these are always fun to work on. We once created one for an industrial bakery which ran seven metres along a corridor at its HQ, helping to illustrate its long history of baking. Another one for Ashville College in Harrogate charted their illustrious history and the achievements of former pupils.

• We have worked in partnership for a long time with an amazingly talented interior designer, Yvonne Thurley, director of Yugen Design.

FASTSIGNS Leeds works with interior designer Yvonne Thurley, director of Yugen Design, for school graphics [Above] Headfield CE Junior School [Below] Elements Primary School

Two projects that stand out are Headfield CE Junior School in Dewsbury and Elements Primary School in Leeds - the graphics were really impactful and helped towards a positive learning environment for the young pupils.