Posted by Jessica on 09.03.2012

My dad, Rob Wilding has been in the sign-writing business for 36 years and knows what makes a good sign. He started his sign-writing apprenticeship in 1976. In those days it was all about a paintbrush and the craft of manually creating signs. These days it is all about computers. I know, as I’m a graphic designer at ID/Lab. Close to 80% is computer work and only 20% or so hand sketching.

What sort of advice do you give your clients on creating an effective sign?

“Colour, design, clarity and information. A sign is nothing without the right information.”
He is also a firm believer in the old saying less is more–“Less wording, more impact”.

Rob has been through three major changes in the sign industry.

“The first 13 years I produced all signs with paint and brush. In 1989 I bought my first computerised vinyl cutter. In the last 5 years I have also been producing signs using digital printing.”

How has sign-writing changed for you?

“Less labour intense. Less working with your hands and too much time spent on the computer for my liking. It has gone from totally manual–all done by hand and brush–to computer and print based.”

Rob also explains how the art form has gone out of sign-writing. “The reason I became a sign-writer was because art and graphics were my best subjects at school. These days it requires less of an artistic talent.”

When you walk past an old hand-painted sign, you can’t help but wonder what clues to the past they hold, the things they’ve seen and the story behind them. In 1984 Rob travelled around Australia for 2 years hand-painting signs. He has kept photo albums of these signs and explains how they tell a story. From the people witnessed in the towns to still being able to recall all the free meals he and his friend would receive when sign-writing food stores.

A particularly memorable meal? 

“We were working on a seafood shop one night when a customer ordered five lobsters just before closing. The store would have usually been shut but stayed open for us to sign-write it. The owner said he wouldn’t have made the sale if it wasn’t for us, and he gave us a free lobster.” 

“There was also a night when the local sign-writers must have been unhappy with sign-writers from out of town taking their business, so they threw paint over a sign we were working on. We had to start again and re-paint it.”

on ladder

Do you miss hand-painting?

“Of course.” He admits it required a lot of patience and is not so sure if he could go back now and sit in front of a sign hand-painting for 5-6 hours straight. “I used to spend 2-3 days painting a sign. Even when vinyl was introduced, I still had to manually cut out the lettering”. At trade school they were taught the art of typography, and how to construct each letter. We had to paint alphabet after alphabet for practice. The teacher always said, how do you know the difference between a good and bad sign-writer? Easy, look at his S’s. S’s were always the hardest to write”.

These days when I need to do a readability font study for signage hardware, I just pick from hundreds of fonts readily available in my computer’s font kit. Print all the different options out and compare them. How times have changed!