A Conversation With An Artist Sign-Maker In Nashville: Luke Stockdale, Sideshow Sign Co.

What would a city built by graphic designers look like? One partial answer to that question is Nashville, Tennessee—home to full-service designers, fabricators and artisan sign-makers, or “signers,” Sideshow Sign Co.

Luke Stockdale, owner, creative director and Australian expat, is the driving force behind the company’s quest to “break up the tedium of modern plastic signage,” as their official website notes—or, as he put it in our interview, to dismantle our culture’s “scary level of comfort with making shitty stuff.”

Tour Music City and you can’t help but encounter their work illuminating building after building, denoting the most design-conscious brands in the city. But Sideshow’s work can be seen far beyond Nashville, and you need an even wider lens to appreciate their radical commitment to designing not just extraordinary signage, but extraordinary businesses and places. A graphic designer by trade, Stockdale became interested in the built environment after his family home in Australia was destroyed by the Black Saturday bushfires in 2009, in which he was a part of the rebuilding process. We talked typography, integrity and how makers like him can literally light the way to a more beautiful world.

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How did losing your home impact your career trajectory when you came to America shortly after?
Like everything, it was honestly more of an accident than anything. I can make up a romantic story about it, but you stumble into things: I was fresh off the boat in Tennessee in 2009, and it was pretty rough trying to find a job. I was lucky enough to have a couple of friends who were starting restaurants, and from working with them on their restaurant designs and brand identity, I realized that it was pretty difficult to get signage made that wasn’t just mainstream plastic signage. So, I made the signage for those restaurants, and those were my first commissions ever, really. It just started making sense.

I guess it all comes from a frustration of being a typography nerd and not being able to find signage that really translates typography properly. And then also, it’s a frustration with materials. The sign industry has six or seven materials that they use, but how on earth do you translate every different brand by using them? You can’t. A sign just isn’t an illuminated logo. It’s more than that. It has to represent you. You can’t just do that through plastic and paint.

How do you think we got to plastic and paint? How did the historic, artisan-style sign making that Sideshow is trying to resurrect fell out of vogue in the first place?
It’s just money. It’s like everything. You can’t blame the sign industry for compromising quality for speed and cost effectiveness. I know people who own big sign companies that only do vinyl and LED boxes who were very good signers in their day. They’re extremely skilled people, and some of them still do it on the side for friends, but they just had to make a move. They had no choice. Vinyl came in, and you can’t compete with vinyl. Last week, we just bought our first ever vinyl cutter after five years as a company. You can see how it just completely destroyed the sign-painting industry.

And then, of course, you’ve got the introduction of computers, and sign-making software, and the fonts that came with it. To make a sign, you used to need two things: a designer and a fabricator. The sign industry decided to absorb those two things into one process and make it as fast and as efficient as possible, especially when computers came along. The first thing to suffer was the design, as always happens when it comes to money. Design goes out the window first. You get these signage-industry magazines, and man, the way they talk about creatives is like talking about monkeys. Give them clay to play with so they stay inspired. They’ve got no idea, and that’s unfortunate. My theory is that—that was the demise. The separation of the design and the fabrication.

That’s really what’s remarkable about Sideshow: your total commitment to bringing design and fabrication back together, to bringing a designer’s eye to everything about the way a project is executed. It’s clear you think of your work as an integral part of the architecture, rather than an ornament on top of it.
Yeah, architects really respond to what we do. Because they spend years working on these buildings, and then someone comes and slaps a big old white box onto it. Even if it means talking a client down if they want something really big and I don’t think it suits the building, or [if] I think it’s disrespectful to the building designer, or if it’s obnoxious in general, I’m going to talk them down, or I’m going to just not do it. I’ll walk away from a project. It’s really important to maintain the integrity of the architecture.

Why is that integrity so important to you?
It’s just more important than that particular paycheck. We have to set a standard as a company, and we have to stick by it. It’s the only way we’re going to look the way we do. In the first two years of the business, all I was doing was building the portfolio, because it’s the most valuable asset we have—just the way the work we’ve done visually looks. In order to do that, I’d have to fight back against clients I didn’t agree with, no matter how much they were paying. And if a friend of mine came to me with an amazing design and amazing logo and less money to offer, I’d probably do that job. You’ve gotta practice what you preach.

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You’re clearly committed to that idea as a citizen of the design community, too. I saw that you’re in the process of creating a learning resource for other designers to understand sign-making better: the Church of Signtology (love the name). Does that sense of responsibility change your approach to design itself?
My motivation has changed, definitely. It’s now almost sort of like a rebellion. I’m really driven by the comatose state that the sign industry is in; I really want to change it. I don’t think it’s going to be easy, but there’s a way of educating designers so that they can handle sign projects. Sign-making is complicated stuff. It involves engineering, it involves the law as you get into city permitting—so many things. That’s my drive: to put sign-making back in the designers’ hands, instead of just leaving it up to sign companies and their pathetic excuses for design departments. I think once we start doing that, we’ll see the bar being set a little bit higher, and when that happens, that’s when we’ll see a culture of good signage grow within an industry.

I’ve visited Nashville, and I feel like that culture is already evidenced there. When I glanced through your portfolio, almost every place I visited had a Sideshow sign.
I can’t take much credit for that. Nashville’s changing at a really unprecedented speed. And also, it’s just timing. Like the maker movement—I didn’t set out to become a part of the maker movement [when I arrived in the U.S. in 2009]. I was just making things during a time when the country happened to be starting to question its consumerism habits and started appreciating the way things used to be done. I just happened to be doing things at that time.

I want to talk about your love of materials. What are Sideshow signs made out of?
Let’s just talk about architectural signage, because interior signage can really be made out of anything. But architectural exterior signage is a whole other ball game. It needs to be weather resistant, it needs to be able to be painted, it needs to have electricity on the inside and be water sealed; it needs to be fairly light weight—it has to [check] so many boxes. Sign-making is so complicated. You can’t just use anything. You also have to be able to access the inside of the sign after it’s been made. You’ve gotta be able to change out LEDs or neon. That adds a whole other layer of difficulty. You can’t just seal it all up.

So I can understand why the industry has tried to reduce the amount of materials it uses. But at Sideshow, we have the luxury of having clients who are open to paying a little bit extra to use a material that they can’t get anywhere else. So, I can get inspired by the architectural world and by industrial design.

Would you say you’re moving away from the reclaimed materials and barn doors and rusted steel? It seems like those used to be Sideshow’s signature.
Definitely, definitely. That was fun, but Nashville kind of overdid that style and aesthetic. As a designer, I don’t want to be milking something forever. That kind of weathered material thing, we’re departing from it in a way unless, of course, it’s what the brand is calling for. But maybe it’s kind of just a personal thing. I’m tired of it. I want to move on. European design inspires me as a designer; more refined things are appealing to me lately.

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It seems like the nature of sign-making would almost demand that you keep evolving. Almost everything you do is a one-of-a-kind piece.
Yeah, everything is a one-off, unless you’ve got a contract with McDonald’s or something. As a designer, it’s a much more appealing way of doing thing. You have a fresh challenge every week. As a business owner, it makes things incredibly difficult. It’s not easy to make money off custom fabrication. You have to wear so many different hats. It’s not fun. The final product is fun, but it’s a real struggle in business. We’re trying to solve that issue by building a network of fabricators who can do that for us, and we just design.

Tell me more about how Sideshow is evolving as a business. I know you’re doing more and more brand implementation for companies that initially come to you looking for signage.
Yeah, definitely. We’re working on a project right now for Olmsted Chamblee, a multi-family boutique apartment building outside of Atlanta. We’re actually pretty involved in this project. We started out doing a big rooftop sign, and now we’re doing interior design for them—we have an interior designer full time—and a zine for their marketing, so we’re really doing a full brand implementation.

Usually a project will expand like that once they get talked into it. [Laughs.] Especially now, I’m trying to really expand the range of our portfolio. A business will come in the door and they’ll just want signage, and I’ll talk to them about different ideas. It often grows to two or three times what they were expecting. They came to a sign company and they wanted a sign—that’s all—but we get involved at a much larger scale.
That’s the ideal project, for me. I think it’s really important to have as much autonomous control as possible over the physical implementation of the brand. And we even do actual branding as well—as we’re designing the brand, we’re thinking about how it’s actually going to be applied to the physical space. That sets us apart. Most of the time, that’s happening over three or four different design agencies, and these generations of quality are being lost every time it gets handed over from initial concept to fabrication to installation. The idea, even though it’s harder—to have that all under your scope—makes for a better final result for the brand. That’s where we want to go.

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