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Industry Insights

"Free Design" is a Bad Sign


I know some people in the sign business. They’re good people. They work hard. Some are in fact quite creative. They’ve seen remarkable innovations in their industry in recent years, innovations that have significantly changed both the urban landscape and the way brand messages are communicated for both large and, particularly, small organizations.

Although I have nothing against this industry or anyone who works in it, I am going to advise that you should never entrust your brand, your identity, your message or your marketing results to a sign company.


While most sign shops, and print shops for that matter, are good at what they do, they do NOT do the work necessary to develop a meaningful connection with an audience. Sign guys are not business strategists, marketing experts, design professionals or storytellers. Even if the odd few are, their effectiveness is severely limited by their pricing structure.

Sign guys sell vinyl. They are not motivated to look at your brand in depth and from all angles, to understand your business, research your market and then combine both intellectual and emotional intelligence to help you make a connection with your audience. They are motivated, by definition, to sell you more square feet of vinyl.

I shouldn’t pick on sign shops. They are not alone in this.

  • Sign shops sell vinyl.
  • Printers sell inked sheets of paper.
  • Magazines sell ad space.
  • SEO practitioners sell traffic.
  • Web shops sell programming hours.

The nature of these transactions are typically too small and limited in scope to warrant any serious examination of their client’s positioning, message or marketing strategy, nor provide any meaningful or effective advice. But more importantly, vinyl, paper, space, traffic and programming alone do not persuade people to buy your product or service. People buy from people they can trust. Not from paper. The messages and stories the paper carries are far more important and should be considered first — not as an after thought.

So when production companies like sign shops, print shops or SEO shops offer free marketing advice or free design as a lure to get you to buy their products, BEWARE.

Free design = No design

It takes a lot more than some vinyl to get noticed by the right people at the right time, and to convert that attention into profitable sales.

Written by Jason Bouwman, RGD

June 13, 2013