Less is more in exterior signage, in The Urbane Franchisor
Photo by Nicholas Upton
I’ve read enough issues of Dwell to cultivate a potentially unrealistic dream: being one of those effete, creative types who sits down with an architect and tells them not what I specifically want and where, but rather how I want to feel in various rooms of this hypothetical home. As I’ve read time and again, giving one’s designers a long leash is where the real magic comes from. I’m already practicing my intonation as I describe the intent and childhood roots of my Eames chaise and fair trade wallpaper.
Back here on Earth, that’s actually a smart strategy for a design project—like refreshing an individual store or an entire brand—leave the expressive stuff to the experts. Signage is a good example, with a hyper-abundance of bad signs in the world at large and plenty within franchising. I wonder about the creative process that produced such dreck and I want to know more.
What’s old is new again
There’s also a lot of terrific signage, especially in gentrifying areas where funky old buildings have been repurposed in this era of tighter municipal controls. Without leeway to paint a huge billboard on the side of the building like days gone by, designers have gotten creative to make buildings or individual businesses stand out from the herd.
It might be too much to declare a renaissance in cool signs, but I’m seeing more high-style signage for restaurants and retailers evoking the heyday of theater marquees, colorful neon tubes and flashy blade signs that make it interesting to stroll the sidewalks of shopping and restaurant districts.
A fast-casual equivalent to New York’s famous Taboon restaurant, Taboonette (top photos) is a concept that’s new to franchising. Below, exterior signage from Shea, a national design firm based in Minneapolis.
Within the realm of what’s allowable, designers like to push the envelope. In franchising, where businesses may have units within countless different neighborhoods and cities, there’s a tendency to ask designers to create signage that will work for all locations. That might sound efficient, but it can result in what Tanya Spaulding of Shea Design calls designing to the lowest common denominator.
“People have really come to the realization that signage, in order to be effective, has to represent your brand appropriately, but also has to be as impactful as it can be,” she says. “The challenge we all have is understanding what the allowances are, both from the landlord and city, and really maximizing those allowances.”
For anyone starting a new brand or refreshing an existing one, Spaulding suggests taking the subjectivity out of it. Don’t tell your designer what you like, per se, but instead focus on what your guests will like. From what she calls “a spirit standpoint,” it’s smart to focus on the feelings and experiences your guests will have when they walk in, while they’re browsing and even as they’re leaving or driving past.
Rather than coming to a design firm with a laundry list of specifics, focus on the end goals, rather than the individual steps you will take to get there. Most designers, like architects, will assign clients some fun homework that includes taking pictures of storefronts and branding you like, cutting images out of magazines and, yes, even scrolling through Pinterest if that’s your bag.
“It’s not just showing us the image. What hit you about the image, what do you think will work about that image?” Spaulding says. “If there is any imagery that you’ve run across that you think demonstrates that, then bring those kind of inspirations and ideas and let us do the rest. We’ll walk you through and lead you through the rest of it.”
Back to square one
The streets of New York City have more signs than anywhere else in the U.S., with a vast number of stores and restaurants competing for eyeballs among the crush of vehicular and sidewalk traffic. In 2004, Danny Hodak founded Taboon, a Mediterranean restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen without any signage to speak of. A lifelong New Yorker, he felt all the best restaurants played it cool and low key with minimal branding.
“I said, ‘You know what? I don’t want a sign,’” Hodak says. “I wanted to be the place you have to know about it; if you don’t know about it, you’re not cool or you don’t have your finger on the pulse of what’s going on—so no sign.”
While that worked well for a single-unit fine-dining establishment, he knew iconography and branding would be much more important for his second restaurant concept, Taboonette, which began franchising in 2018. Thinking that nobody knew the concept better than he did, Hodak designed his own logo, menus and signage for the first locations.
Shortly thereafter, he met Gustavo Stecher, a graphic designer and branding consultant behind the Menos es Más firm with offices in Argentina and New York. The two hit it off, and Stecher soon convinced Hodak to scrap his homemade branding and start over.
“He told me your branding needs to work for you, it has to serve a purpose, and your branding here is very weak,” Hodak recalls. “I lost all that time where I could have opened in a much stronger way with real, strong branding.”
The two spent an entire week together, talking about the global roots of the cuisine, how to simply communicate the flavors and ambiance, and settled on a simple, but memorable flame icon and scripted font that felt like a revelation to its founder. They also collaborated on exterior signage to take advantage of the endless vehicle traffic passing between uptown and downtown.
For anyone reviewing their existing branding or starting fresh, Hodak recommends making a list of words that reflect who you are and what you’re trying to do, and also speaking with more than one branding expert until finding somebody that you have chemistry with and who sees the business the way you do. He adds that his rebranding work was a $10,000 expense, but included a new logo, menus, signage and in-restaurant graphics to set the right tone with Taboonette’s customers.
“It’s something you should absolutely take seriously from the beginning. Even before you do anything you should develop your branding so from the time you begin, you are building your brand from that first day,” Hodak says.
A never-ending focus
For any business owner, regardless of the category or location, Spaulding says it’s important to focus on little details such as readability for iconography that will show up everywhere from business cards to billboards. Mock up all serious proposals, put it on a wall, and view it as pedestrians and motorists would to avoid spending serious money on hard-to-read signage.
“You really have to make sure to catch their sightline when they’re walking down the street and then note where the door is,” she adds. “That’s a common mistake people make, because there’s nothing worse than confusing a guest or customer by not making the door obvious.”
Noting that city approval will be an important obstacle in most locations, she also suggested revisiting your branding every year to keep up with changing consumer behavior and the competitive landscape in the neighborhood.
“You need to re-look at that often enough, maybe even on an annual basis because traffic patterns are changing,” Spaulding says. “We always advise taking a look at what your contemporaries and your competitors are doing, too. It’s not only you competing for attention coming down that particular road, but how are they innovating, what are they creating and how do you continue to differentiate.”
Tom Kaiser, pictured on opposite page, is senior editor of Franchise Times and writes about urban tales in franchising in each issue. Send story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org