Expose Yourself

“I’ve built my business around individualization,” says Karen Souza of Cranberry Signcraft, who did these graphics.

With the right graphics – the words, numbers and images that identify you and your owner-operator business – a truck becomes a rolling sales staff that doesn’t need training, works 24/7, gets paid only once and never calls in sick.

The right graphics can win over potential customers, other truckers, the general public and even law enforcement officers.

“A business with no sign is a sign of no business,” says Bob Stevens of Sky Watch Signs in Zephyrhills, Fla.

Well-designed truck graphics aren’t as cheap as, say, reflective letters from a hardware store. “If you want to go generic, then do-it-yourself is fine,” says Karen Souza of Cranberry Signcraft in Mattapoisett, Mass., who specializes in hand-painted truck lettering, striping and design. But in a competitive industry, especially for independent owner-operators, it helps to stand out from the crowd.

“I’m fortunate in that I have a very loyal customer base,” says Souza, who’s booked for the next six months. “I’ve had some of the same customers for 20 years, and now I’m doing work on their kids’ trucks.”

The best way to find a quality designer, experts say, is word of mouth. If another owner-operator has good-looking graphics on his truck, ask who did it and what it cost. Graphic designers are also on the Internet at Letterheads.com and other web sites.

But Stevens cautions against cut-rate “quickie-sticky” decal makers with no training in the basics of graphics communication.

“There are thousands and thousands of bedroom sign makers out there who are undercutting the legitimate shops and hurting them,” Stevens says. “He might have a $50,000 printer, but if he doesn’t know what he’s doing, you’re going to get garbage.”

Souza agrees, saying many owner-operators have done themselves no service by shopping for price alone. “You get what you paid for,” she says. “Anybody can buy a computer and be in the sign business. That’s why you see a lot of signs that are difficult to read.”

Even many skilled designers, however, have switched from paint to decals because of the decreased cost of computer-aided sign making, Stevens says. “There are very few designers who still paint,” he says.

If a customer brings in a rough sketch of an idea for a graphic, a good designer can develop it into professional-looking art. Designers are also ready to work with customers who don’t really know what they want.

“A good designer is going to ask a lot of questions to get a feel about what the customer wants, and then go from there,” Stevens says. “There are many, many variables that go into creating an effective graphic that’s going to work for you.”

Reputable shops sell according to customer needs and wants, not by price, which is why customers should not expect high-level service from sign makers who give prices over the phone, experts say.

“When drivers come in here I interview them to find out what they’re trying to do and also what their budget allows,” Stevens says.

Souza has customers look through portfolios to select pictures they like. She also quizzes them on their color preferences. “I’ve built my business around individualization,” she says. “If they want to look like everyone else, they can go to the truck stop.”

The cost for a vehicle graphic depends on how big it is, how many colors are in it, how complex its design is, what kind of material it’s made of, and the amount of work the artist puts into designing it, experts say.

“If you want a good job, middle of the road, you should spend $300 to $600,” Stevens says. “You’re not going to get a whole lot for $200 or less unless it’s something very basic, but for $500 to $1,000 you should get something really outstanding and dynamic.”

More expensive is the labor-intensive hand painting that Souza specializes in. “Depending on what somebody wants me to do, they can pay me $1,000, or they can pay as much as $3,500.”

Downtime is also a cost unless the owner can schedule the work during time off. “If someone’s getting a custom logo and pinstriping, I might have his truck two days, or I might have it eight days,” Souza says.

Owner-operators should keep in mind that part of the cost is for ownership of a unique design or logo. “They’re buying the design, and they can use it for anything: T-shirts, coffee cups, letterheads,” Stevens says.

Drivers can save a little cost by applying decals themselves, but if they mess them up, they have to pay to have them remade, Stevens says. “If it’s an easy installation, I’ll encourage them to do it, but if it’s difficult, I’ll tell them to let me.”

Owner-operators also have to think about getting the graphics off their trucks. Drivers who intend to sell their trucks within five years should consider decals instead of paint. “If you go with paint, then the guy who buys the truck will have to strip the door down and repaint it,” Stevens says.

Getting decals off can be a problem, too. One option is a drill-mounted wheel, made by 3M, that costs $30 and is said to remove decals without damaging paint or finish. “I might charge more to get the old decals off than to make new ones and put them on,” Stevens says. He uses a chemical to soften the adhesive and then heats the decals. “But I might tell a customer to try it. When he sees how hard it is, he doesn’t mind paying me.”

Even at the upper end, the cost of quality graphics can be a worthy investment. “You look at the cost of a small Yellow Pages ad,” Stevens says. “If you spend $1,000 on a sign for your truck and drive around with it for five years, you’ll get a better return on your money, because truck lettering is just a great way to advertise.”

Part of the graphics designer’s job is to educate the customers, says Bob Stevens of Sky Watch Signs. For example, buyers who opt for vinyl over more expensive paint jobs need to understand there are different types of vinyl.

Those shopping by price alone might settle for “calendar” vinyl, Stevens says. “It’s not going to hold up that long. It shrinks up to a quarter-inch a year.”

This exposes the glue around the edges. “Then all the dirt and dust and grime will stick to it, and you have that black outline you see around some of them,” Stevens says. “If you just invested over $100,000 in a new truck, you don’t want the lettering falling off in two years.”

Stevens’ recommendation? “Premium cast vinyls,” he says. “They’re a lot thinner, a lot more durable, and they come in more colors and finishes.” Mirror finishes, however, “won’t hold up long outside, not more than a year or two.”

Even cast vinyls are not good for all jobs. “Cast vinyl is horrible around rivets,” Stevens says. “It has a memory. When it heats up, it pulls away from the rivets and seems to try to go back to its original shape.”

Two new kinds of vinyl, 3M’s Control-Tac and Avery Corp.’s EZ Vinyl, “conform a lot better around the rivets and allow air to escape, so they will stay on the rivets without shrinking,” Stevens says. They are the vinyls of choice for those doing “serious fleet or vehicle graphics,” he says. “There are some shops that specialize in vehicle lettering, and that’s all they use. It’s more expensive, but it’s well worth it.”

More than 30 years ago, when Cliff Flora of Flora Signs started out, the tools were brushes and steady hands. Now Flora’s shop in Tuscaloosa, Ala., has computers, thermal four-color printers and high-precision plotters for cutting vinyl.

After the graphic is designed on computer, it is printed on decal paper. Thermal printers give the decal “longer outdoor life than inkjet or laser printers,” Flora says.

The printed decal paper is then computer-guided through a plotter for precise cutting. Masking tape laid across the front of the graphic makes it easier to handle once the backing is peeled off.

The change from hand painting to decals has made sign jobs faster and cheaper, Flora says. However, the wall decoration in his shop – a detailed rendering of Noah’s Ark hand-painted by local artist Willie Logan, who still plies his trade on trucks – is a reminder that the traditional method still has its merits.