(last updated July 2019)
What has been happening in the sign making sector
The sign making sector has altered in recent years as technology has enabled signs to be produced more quickly and easily. Traditional sign writing methods using brushes and paint are still popular in certain sectors of the market (such as pub signs), but have been replaced in others by modern production methods. Computer graphics packages are widely used to design lettering and logos. These can then be printed out or produced by hand or machine in a variety of materials.
Lettering and logos are commonly produced automatically by a computer connected to cutter/plotter machine (CNC knife), which cuts the design out of a sheet of vinyl. The vinyl design can then be stuck onto the sign board, window or vehicle side as required. This method enables signs to be produced quickly and easily, without the artistic skills that are necessary to hand paint a sign. CNC technology is also used for engraving and routing designs into materials such as metal, perspex and wood.
Despite technological advances, sign making remains a skilled trade and there is a large demand for quality signs made from a variety of materials. Aside from technical ability, artistic and design flair are still required to create eye-catching designs.
New technology has made the sector more competitive but has also expanded the market. A few thousand pounds will buy the equipment necessary to produce vinyl cut lettering and logos, enabling people to enter the trade more easily, but signs and banners can now be produced more quickly and more cheaply than before, which has broadened their appeal. Products such as self-adhesive vinyl letters, magnetic and LED signs provide new sales opportunities for sign makers. To reflect recent advances in sign making technology, a revised edition of BS559, the British Standard for Signage, was published in August 2009. This standard applies to all signs apart from road traffic signs, safety signs and fire safety signs which are covered by other standards. From 1 July 2013, the British Standard EN 12899 became mandatory for fixed vertical road signs to ensure compliance with changes to the EU Construction Products Regulation. This means that all vertical road signs must now carry a CE mark to demonstrate that they conform to the standard.
The economic downturn that began in the late 2000s and which continued in the opening years of the 2010s may have reduced demand for sign writing as a result of an increase in business closures, fewer businesses starting up and existing businesses choosing not to spend money refurbishing their premises. During this period, there was also a slump in the housing market, which is likely to have reduced demand for signs from estate agency businesses.
The second half of 2013 saw a recovery in both the economy and the housing market, with renewed confidence in many business sectors. The recovery continued throughout 2014 and into the first half of 2015 before slowing towards the end of 2015 and into 2016. As a result of the increased economic uncertainty following the Brexit vote in June 2016 consumer confidence in the economy fell. The decline continued throughout 2017 and into 2018 as household budgets came under strain due to inflation and limited real growth in wages putting pressure on consumers' disposable income. The poor performance of the economy is reflected in reduced opportunities for the signwriting sector. Little change is expected in 2018 and 2019. It is worth noting, however, that consumers have been prioritising spending on experiences and entertainment over spending on physical goods, so sign writers might do well to target businesses providing these services.
In 2014, after a number of signs had fallen from their fixings causing injury and damage, the British Sign and Graphics Association (BSGA) (now the International Sign Association) took the step of reminding potential sign buyers of their legal obligations and highlighting the fact that BSGA members were fully familiar with their own legal obligations as well as those of their clients. In the view of the BSGA this gave its members a clear commercial advantage over businesses that were unaware of - or chose to ignore - these obligations.
Keeping up to date with developments
Joining a trade association is an excellent way of keeping up to date with industry developments. The International Sign Association represents all businesses involved in the sign writing and making sector and provides a great deal of advice to members including technical guidelines, help with legal matters and a members directory. Visit the International Sign Association website for more information.
Trade shows, such as Sign & Digital UK, are an excellent source of up to date information about your industry. You will be able to meet manufacturers of equipment, potential buyers and suppliers of materials. The Exhibitions website also includes details of trade shows that may be of interest to you.