Oct 15, 2008

The Old Guard: Where Have All The Sign Guys Gone?

You may or may not know this, but in my heart...I'm a sign guy. Oh yes! Indoor signage, outdoor signage, political signage, directional signage, neon signage, engraved signage, vehicle graphics, etc., etc. You name it and I used to have a hand in producing it. In fact, my first job as a graphic designer was at Acme Sign Company, right here in Lake Charles. Now most college students don't have Sign Guy on their to do list after they graduate, but reality strikes and in our small market you take whatever available chair you can find. Of course, I didn't find a chair, or art supplies, or computers at my first "design" job. I found boom trucks, rivets, metal breaks, paint brushes and rollers, neon blowing...and often times I found a broom and dustpan. I guess you have to start somewhere.

Looking back, I wouldn't trade taking that first job for the world. That singular experience got me hooked. What I learned at Acme gave me a unique skill set and perspective that serves me well today. I learned how things work from the inside out. I learned that it's great to have a design idea, but you also have to consider how you're going to make it. I learned that the best work was the work that was well planned. You have to get down to the nuts and bolts of a thing to truly understand it. The surface is what we see, but it's the inner workings that make a thing what it is. But, the most important thing that I learned was that when all the tech breaks, when the software fails, we depend on the people because all the tech in the world is only as good as the person running it.

Years later, I decided to open my own sign company, which I ran with some success for nearly 5 years. And again, while I did learn more about the craft of sign making, I learned more about the art of managing people and the down and dirty nature of competition and business. One of the beautiful things about the sign business was rubbing elbows with the "old guard," the guys and gals who got in the sign business long before the computer came along and stole their craft. These Sign Men had a unique skill set,...a talent, that boggled my mind. Their ability to create letters and images with bulletin enamels was absolutely awe inspiring,...sugary sweet goodness for the eyes. While I had nowhere near the talent that this old guard had, I was still inspired to use the tools that I did have to create works that resembled their creations.

In my time in the sign industry, as both employee and owner, I was able to witness the fall and winter of many old guard sign men. As the years went by it was very clear that the world was speeding up (would anyone care to disagree). The customers wanted their products faster and ever faster. There was no time to wait for the neon bender, hand carver or sign painter. The craft was being replaced by computers, routers and large format printers. The digital age was here,...is here.

Now, working at a small advertising agency, I reflect from time to time on my days in the sign craft. What I saw happening then, to the old guard, I see happening now in my own industry. Faster, FASTER...no time for quality! Hurry, HURRY...we have to get out there first! No time for good creative. Click the button, move the mouse, pick a filter...RUN! No time for pencils and paper. No time for the right move. No time to step back for a moment and take a breath, to try and gain perspective, to see how things work from the inside out. No time to get to the nuts and bolts of thing. It is simply go, Go, GO!!

I often wonder where we are all running to so quickly? Where am I going? Will it all matter in the end? I really don't know. I think it's funny how contemplating your own profession and the decline of true craftsmanship can get you thinking about bigger things. I miss watching the sign painter paint and the sign carver carve. I wish that I could have experienced a world in which time was gauged by the rising and setting of the sun, and I with that the thunderous boom of a ticking clock was a far, far away dream.


kellie said...

ORAN!! hahah i think i was over at AA Sign working while you were at Acme! too funny! My Uncle Terry owned it and then My aunt Sheryl ran it for a while after he passed away. I learned to blow neon from my Grammy. BOY was that room FREKING HOT!! i loved to watch her... wow! i know what you mean, to be able to see the old schoolers work and think and make it happen..... oh and yes, rivets and all... maybe why i went to be a welder for a while... i love all that stuff... but no room or time for quality anymore.... point click and print is all they want these days. Its a shame. LOVE your blog! I can smell the PG thinner and the spray adhesive now.

Lantra Design said...

Full of truth man. I can't say enough how much I identify with this. Really hit home. The sign industry gives strong design roots, hell yes to what cut vinyl has taught me! And I agree... creativity seems to be the first thing cut, and thrown out the door in the creative industry... its sad.

Gillen said...

Man this post really hit me. When I get on the tables late at night I almost feel the spirit of the "old gaurd" filling the room. You type so many truths about the way the industry is now. Someways it is mind blowing and others it is a shame. I believe quality should always trump speed. Keep up the great posts.

BlogMeister said...

Greetings from Chester Springs, Pennsylvania:

I enjoyed reading this post, too. I thought it was well written, with lots of vivid, concrete images (rivets, boom truck, broom and dustpan) and parallel construction (I miss watching the sign painter paint and the sign carver carve). Some of the language in this post borders on poetry. Oran Parker is clearly a talented creative professional. I also really enjoyed seeing the illustrations, esp. the photos of signs painted on fences. Nice eye candy. This seems like a great way to use the new blogging technology. Keep up the good work!

Michelle said...

Awesome blog Oran. I absolutely love the last paragraph. I often ask myself those same questions. I'm sure many of us do. You couldn't have said it any better.

luke wright said...

Your writing has impressed me. It’s simple, clear and precise. I will definitely recommend you to my friends and family. Regards and good luck.
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