Signs in Mind

Advanced composites and computer design are a sign of the times for John Floyd

by Molly Farrell

Photos: Jeff Clarke

The sign business has changed considerably since John Floyd, owner of Design Signs in Williston, began making them in his garage in Potsdam, N.Y., 23 years ago. Today, most of the signs he makes are plastic instead of wood, and he designs them on a computer instead of by hand.

Floyd's father, Roger, an amateur cabinetmaker, taught him woodworking as an adolescent. In 1976, Floyd quit his job as manager of a retail store and started making wooden signs. His first custom sign in Vermont was for Hunt's, a popular Burlington nightclub. He moved to Fort Collins, Colo., with his wife, Kathy, in 1978 to work in a sign shop. "After two years of being strictly self-taught I realized that I had to work for someone who could teach me some things about signmaking," says Floyd.

John Floyd

John Floyd's specialty at Design Signs is three-dimensional, hand-carved letters. The Williston shop designed nearly all of the signs at the Champlain Valley Exposition.

They stayed in Colorado for four years and moved to Burlington in 1982. "We're both natives of the Northeast and wanted to get back here," he notes. Floyd was hoping to take a few weeks off before he started working again, but was hired on the spot when he applied for a job at Kershner Signs in South Burlington.

In 1985, Floyd opened a shop in Burlington's South End. "I wanted control of my own work and to explore the potential income I could make from having my own business," he says. In March, Design Signs moved to a new location at 17 Blair Park in Williston. "The Burlington shop was one big room," says Floyd. "Now we have a clean room for doing painting and vinyl work and a separate room for woodworking."

To attract his first customers, Floyd did a lot of cold calling. "I knocked on doors, made phone calls and walked into people's offices and said, 'Can I make you a sign?'" he remembers. "I also looked in newspapers for information about new businesses that would need signs." Floyd joined the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce in 1988. "It's been a big help for my business," he notes. "In the early years it lent credibility that I was a serious concern and it's been a good source for networking and meeting potential customers."

The business grew and Floyd began hiring student interns from Burlington High School's building trades program. The students would work for two or three hours a day, cutting plywood, painting sign backgrounds and helping with installations. "I finally decided that I needed people who could work more hours," he says and started hiring full-time help. He has two employees: Jim Narsh, who started in January, and Jeremy McMullen, who started in April. "Jim has a lot of experience in the sign business and has worked in a number of different shops," notes Floyd. "This is Jeremy's first job in a sign shop but he has a real natural talent for hands-on work."

Computers have made Floyd's work much easier. He used to draw and paint his designs by hand. Six years ago he began noticing articles in trade magazines about software that would allow him to design and color signs on the computer. He went to a trade show in Boston to try them out and bought Flexisign software, which he says cuts his design time in half.

Some sign shops use computers to digitally print out graphics and letters on self-adhesive vinyl. "Digital printing is really big, but we contract out all of that work," he notes. "There are lots of one- and two-person sign shops in the Burlington area and we all have our niche."

Jim Narsh

Jim Narsh (pictured) started with the company in January after working in a number of shops; Jeremy McMullen is the business's other employee.

Floyd's signs feature three-dimensional, hand-carved letters on an inset background. Floyd now makes 80 percent of these signs out of plastics, such as urethane board and expanded PVC, instead of wood. "There are terrific new plastics that you can machine assemble and use like wood, but last much longer," he says. "Plastics are longer lasting because they don't weather as badly. Redwood and cedar are excellent outdoors because they're naturally weather-resistant, but wood only lasts a maximum of 10 years if exposed to weather and frequently less. Also, woodworkers have been using the best redwoods for those signs and there is a diminishing supply." Floyd says he doesn't know how long the plastic signs he's crafted will last. "I've been using plastics for six or seven years and they still look great," he notes.

Design Signs' customers are generally commercial real estate firms, restaurants and property management companies, but many are small businesses. "I'll do a job for them and not see them again for five years," notes Floyd. During one two-year stint, which Floyd jokingly refers to as his 'church period,' he made signs for six area churches, including St. Francis Xavier Church in Winooski and Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Charlotte.

Floyd says some customers have no idea what they want when he first meets with them and others come in with a complete design from a graphic designer. "My approach is to ask a lot of questions about what they want the sign to do and then make recommendations about materials and techniques," says Floyd. "Some things just don't work, like three-dimensional, dark-colored letters on a light background because the letters will cast a shadow and blend into one mass."

In addition to signs, the company makes banners, A-frames (also known as sandwich boards), building directories, and graphics for vehicles. Design Signs used to hand-paint all of Ben and Jerry's trucks and now does the hand-pinstriping and vinyl lettering on the company's truck cabs. Floyd designed and made the exterior aluminum letters and directories for the Gateway Square building in Burlington, owned by Investors Corp. of Vermont (ICV) as well as signs for other multi-tenant buildings owned by ICV.

John Floyd

In addition to signs, Design Signs makes banners, sandwich boards, building directories, and graphics for vehicles.

Design Signs has made promotional signs, banners and A-frames for Perry Restaurant Group's three restaurants: Perry's Fish House, Sweetwaters and Sirloin Saloon. Linda Gilbert, the group's marketing director, provides Floyd with a sample design and he adds color and graphics. "John is great as far as creating the signs and banners I need in a timely manner," says Gilbert. "We've found that he has a wealth of knowledge. We wanted a particular style for one of the restaurants that wasn't just white with black lettering. He was helpful in creating a different type of look that looked less like a sign and fit in with the decor of the restaurant. He also takes the signs right over to the restaurants and installs them. I don't think that's standard in the sign business, but he just does it."

Floyd's largest sign, 22 feet high by 14 feet wide, graces the entrance to the Champlain Valley Exposition fairgrounds in Essex Junction. David Grimm, general manager of the Champlain Valley Exposition, has been hiring Floyd to make signs for 11 years and estimates 85 percent of all of the signs on the grounds were made by him. "We're very impressed with John's ability and the quality of the signs he produces," says Grimm. "Over and above the quality, he's a great designer. We don't have to hold his hand and nine times out of 10 he gets the idea right the first time." Grimm says he often asks Floyd to make last-minute signs for the annual Champlain Valley Fair. "We spend an enormous amount of money on signage because it's one of the best things we can do for customer service," notes Grimm. "We go right down to the last week ordering signs we're missing and John never complains or gets ruffled. He just does it."

Some of Design Sign's more challenging assignments have included an exterior directory system with custom-made stop signs for the Basin Harbor Club, and interior and exterior directory systems for Timberlane Medical Center in South Burlington. "The part I like best about my work is solving problems like these," says Floyd. "Basin Harbor Club management said that first-time guests were having a hard time finding where to go so I went out there and figured out the best ways to get people from Point A to Point D. The Timberlane project was particularly challenging because it involved two driveways and six doors leading into one building." Floyd is also known for his unique touches, such as the three-dimensional plastic tooth that hangs in the middle of the sign for South Burlington dentist John L. Wolff.

The Essex Health Center in Essex Junction, which recently returned to being a private practice after an affiliation with Kaiser Permanente, hired Floyd to make new signs to reflect the change. "John had done work for us before and he was the first person I called when we needed new signs," says office manager Louise Jodoin. "We share a building with Champlain Obstetrics and Gynecology. They have a very attractive sign and ours had to complement it and blend in. John put something together and we were pleased with his first shot at it." Floyd also solved a problem with theft. "The building had a freestanding sign, but is so secluded that on several occasions the sign was missing the next morning." Jodoin asked Floyd for ideas and he suggested mounting the sign right on the building. "It's still there," she adds.

Molly Farrell is a free-lance writer living in Burlington who specializes in business, law and environmental issues.