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Pressures on Sign-makers

David Catanach, director of the British Sign and Graphics Association, considers the pressures placed on sign-makers to continually reinvent themselves

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Trade shows are great for picking up key trends, even if you are not looking to purchase

Jump on the bandwagon before it starts rolling

Some years ago, I visited a sign-maker as part of the ‘go and speak to your customer and find out what they want’ philosophy. I encourage anyone with something to sell to try this out as much as possible.

As we drank our mugs of tea, I asked the sign-maker how business was. He took a long sip from his Sunderland Association Football Club Division One Winners 1935-36 mug, swallowed, and said: “Well David, the phone doesn’t ring as much as it used to.” I sat there while all sorts of thoughts whizzed around my brain and the one that got to the top and then out of my mouth first was “and what are you going to do about that?”Another long sip of PG Tips. “Don’t know. Something will come along.”

Back then, I hadn’t honed my skills yet—well, any at all to be honest—so I just sat there and said if there was anything I could do, let me know. What can you say to a proud man who had built his business up to a level that provided for him and his family not to forget the four employees and their families. No one was coming to him for their sign needs and he was having a mini crisis as to what to do next. And what do sign-makers do next to find the next big thing?

I like to think that the smart ones have already put plans in place to avoid the trap of waiting for the phone to ring. Hopefully, they have already seen the future if not to be a trend setter, then at least be part of the trend before everyone has got out of bed and wondering what the day will bring.



A key to any business success is to anticipate what your customers and clients will want or need before they’re aware of it themselves. I doubt you can see into the future, but if we are to succeed, we need to become aware of what is going on around us. For example, over the last 20 years or so, we’ve now got sign systems, vehicle wrapping, wide-format printing, interior décor, and LEDs, to name a few examples. All relatively major changes in the sign industry, but they all had to start somewhere, and someone had had the foresight there was a need for these.

Trend spotting

There are companies out there that charge big money for reports and industry trend updates. Spotting these trends yourself then will save you a lot of money. But how? It may mean you have to rethink your business strategy and focus on what is to come tomorrow as well as what needs doing today. We need some sort of plan.

Set aside some time to read the publications and websites affecting your business. In this I include industry publications, trade association sites (of course), newspapers, and key business magazines. Add to this bloggers and industry leaders. Many trends start overseas, so make sure you read about what is going on abroad. I have spoken before about the virtual shop in South Korea where no produce is physically on the shelf, simply a touch screen, and you pay and collect by the exit door.

Set aside some time to read the publications and websites affecting your business


Use tools like RSS feeds, e-mail newsletters, or Twitter, and get the detail you want delivered to you. You will quickly learn which sources are valuable and which you can abandon.

Start by getting involved in your industry’s trade association as well as attend events both online and in the flesh. Tell them your needs and they may be able to provide something that is missing.

Network with other moguls from in and out of the sign industry. I get a lot of insights by having conversations with others from outside the sign industry—it gives me a sense of perspective and a reality check. Consider social networking tools like Linkedin and Facebook to start or join groups and read what people are getting excited about. Always ask questions of the ‘open’ kind that elicit more than a yes or no response.

I would also urge you never to turn down the opportunity to see new materials on offer when the sales rep calls, as even if not relevant, you will now have more knowledge of possibilities than you did before. I also advocate having a fresh look at the potential of products that have been around a while.

Take time to read industry publications, trade association sites, newspapers, and key business magazines


My favourite is talking to people (that’s old school me). It’s so important to talk and listen to your customers and prospective customers. Ask what customers are thinking, buying, needing, and doing. Ask them to be on your “advisors consortium” and get their opinions and ideas on new products or things they would like to see from you.

Get out in the marketplace. Trade shows are a suitable place to get trend ideas too—even if you are not looking to buy products, it is worth attending many shows simply to see what is ‘pushing that envelope’.

Trade shows are a suitable place to get trend ideas too—even if you’re not looking to buy product, it’s worth attending many shows simply to see what’s ‘pushing that envelope’


I am not saying any of this is easy. Running a business, let alone working for an employer, is always going to be tough where you are only as good as your next sale—but keep at it and it will become second nature. After a while, you will start to develop a “trend-spotter mind” and not an anorak in sight.

Absorb and contemplate what you have seen and heard, then you will start to make connections and observations that will lead to business-boosting insights. The news about a new product to illuminate signs, the new build of shops in town, and something one of your customers said last week will all come together, and you will have a ground-breaking idea for a new product line or even a whole new business. I have seen it work and more importantly, I have seen it work in sign companies.

There is a happy ending to the story about the sign-maker whose phone was no longer ringing, and that was a few weeks after my visit. He was reading some trade magazines and learnt about a new process in printing onto a variety of flexible materials. He took all that on board, did some more research, changed his prospective market (while still retaining the profitable ones), and is back to his old self—probably being more successful and profitable than before. He will not say exactly how good business is, but that is typical sign-maker mentality for you. We still take tea from mugs whenever together and talk about his football team—least said, soonest mended.


Public Notice:
  • Spotting industry trends yourself could save you money
  • Trade shows are a suitable place to get trend ideas
  • Set aside time to read the publications/websites affecting your business
  • Use tools like RSS feeds, e-mail newsletters, or Twitter


The British Sign and Graphics Association (BSGA) history dates back more than 70 years when a group of leading sign-makers formed the Master Sign Makers Association (MSMA) with the aim of promoting the sign industry and defending its interests.

For more information on the issues discussed in this article visit www.bsga.co.uk or tel: 0845 338 3016


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