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Sign-making in the 'Old Dart'.

Having recently come back from a sign related business trip to the UK, I am constantly reminded how good we have it here, and I'm not talking about the weather.


 Shane Drew has been involved in the sign industry since 1992. 
 Before that he had a very successful career in sales, winning several Sales Awards before deciding on a career change in his early 30's.
 Shane has been writing freelance articles since 2002 and is a sign industry mentor for sign shops both in Australia and Europe, is a regular contributor to Europe's biggest sign industry forum, and is well known in local circles for his passion about the Australian Sign Industry.
 Shane is Managing Director of Drews Sign It Pty Ltd, a family business who are supporters of several major charities and not-for-profit organisations, donating over $30,000 in signage in 2008 alone.
 A recent highlight is his appointment as a Green Guardian for his support of Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary, on Queensland's Southern Gold Coast. 
 He is an avid photographer of animals and landscapes, and also loves a chat, so be warned!

The first thing is obviously the huge population in England. The last census showed over 12,000 people live in greater London per square mile, and is rated as one of the most expensive cities in the world.

Such a huge population of people in a small area makes running a sign business in London for instance, an absolute nightmare, if compared to most mainland cities of Australia.

As a sign maker myself, I quickly learned that the UK has mastered WH&S red tape to a level that is akin to an Olympic Sport. They have a fee (tax) for just about everything. From listening to the radio (a radio tax) to driving through the city in peak hour (congestion tax).

One sign colleague in England was asked by the council to put a banner up across the road of a small village, and after the quote was accepted, the council then required him to pay a ₤500 fee to cover the costs of a council employee being available to answer the phone regarding complaints that may, or may not arise during the installation of the banner. The banner was only ₤200 in the first place While at the sign show, I met John, a traditional sign painter. He kindly invited me back to his place in London for a beer. After first consulting his diary for dates that didn't conflict with the playing days of his beloved Manchester United, a date was agreed to.

When the day arrived, John informed me that he would have to pay a 'fee' to park my car in his street, if indeed I could find a free space. He had to pay for his car to be parked on the street too, and if he can't find a park, his fee is not refunded. As a result, if you live in the bigger cities, you come to terms very quickly with doing your quotes via the bus. For ₤2 you can travel 1 stop or 10 stops, but every time you get off the bus it is another ₤2 to get back on. Most of the sign people I met knew their bus timetables like the back of their hand.

If they do have to take their vehicle, they have to pre arrange a parking space with the prospective client, and hope they can get a parking space when they get back home. A Nightmare.

The WH&S requirements can be a killer if you do a job in the city too. WH&S forbids use of a ladder in most London council areas as only moving platforms are permitted. Cones, Hazard Tapes, Platform Fencing, Hi Vis Vests, employee lookouts and Police must all be arranged on the day if you are signing a shop in the city centre. Each on-site job must have a written Risk Assessment done before you start, and the WH&S 'police' can close down a site if one is not produced on demand.

Unfortunately litigation is forcing all these procedures, and its ludicrous that we, in Australia, are also heading down that path. WH&S in the UK even dictate the room temperature the employers must provide for staff.

Something else I noticed is that sign shops are almost a cottage industry in England. Room is at a premium, and a lot of sign makers I met operated from bedrooms in their home, garden sheds, or small industrial sites. Most fitted vehicle signs on the street, and those that could afford undercover or enclosed fitting bays, had expensive gas or infra red heating to make sure the vehicles were at a workable temperature.

John, mentioned earlier, had his Computer, Cutter and Wide Format Printer in his disused underground Coal Bunker. It was impossible to stand upright, such is the limited space for these sign makers.

The sign show itself, SignUK, was reduced in size from previous years, but it was probably as big as our bigger Sydney Sign Shows anyway. What stood out for me was that the sign show displayed all sorts of ancillary items for our industry. Drills, circular saws, drill bits, cnc bits, knives and not just Sign Cutters and Printers. I accept that they have a bigger market there, but I met over 40 sign shop owners, and only a handful employed more than 2 or 3 people. Most were in the market for something. Just about everyone I met had purchased a Zapkut folding vertical panel saw. Australian distribution for this unit is being finalised now I believe, so it will be interesting to see how it goes here.

And finally, unlike here in Australia, the relationship that the sign makers have with each other in the UK was great to see. The emphasis was clearly on improving their industry as a whole. They have some great forums, and good communication with each other. Something Wide Format Online is keen to pursue here.

Some manufacturers put on 2 day training days, other manufacturers and wholesalers have regular  communication with the sign shops directly. The reps I spoke to have been in the industry for many years, and are not just salespeople. All reps that I met can vehicle wrap, so if the sign shops are having issues, the reps have the experience to answer problems first hand. We can only dream of that level of representation here.

My last piece of advice is this. If you put a beer in their hand, the English will discuss anything. Only advice I'd give anyone traveling from here is to avoid subjects like the Cricket, the Rugby and Football (Soccer). I kept my conversation around generic things like kite flying, marbles and weather. At least I was assured of not starting any arguments, but I think they thought I was strange.