CoSign: Educating Artists and Business Owners

29 November
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CoSign Covington - A Shop for Gentlemen

Written by American Sign Museum Founder, Tod Swormstedt.  Photos courtesy Queen City Project.

The museum continued its educational outreach objectives in completing the third segment of CoSign, a nationally funded program.  This past September 28, we unveiled nine new signs for Covington, KY area businesses in conjunction with the annual Art Off Pike celebration.  This third segment represented a departure from the two previous CoSigns.  For the first time the project moved out of the trendy Northside area of Cincinnati and across the Ohio River, testing the CoSign concept in a very different neighborhood.  Also for the first time, CoSign included illuminated signs.  CoSign One and Two had offered business owners only a non-illuminated sign option, so that the signs were primarily fabricated from HDU foam and wood, taking on a very sculptural form.  The addition of illuminated signs obviously expanded the diversity of the signs, but also added more work relative to permitting and inspections.

Kung Food

CoSign was originally envisioned by the American Sign Museum, in conjunction with the Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile, Jr./U.S. Bank Foundation, a Cincinnati area private foundation that largely funds projects involving the arts community and economic development.  CoSign brings together small business owners, local artists and professional sign fabricators for the purpose of designing, fabricating and installing a critical mass of signs which will foster increased sales for a defined business district.

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The process from alerting the specified business community to the availability of funds for new signs, to the Call to Artists, the workshops, selection of signs, permitting and finally fabrication and installation is a six-month process—very aggressive by most grant standards.  CoSign 2012 and 2013 were largely funded by the local Haile Foundation, but in the case of Covington, funds were provided by a national foundation, ArtPlace, in conjunction with support from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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Each successive CoSign project has been a learning experience, allowing for further refinement of the CoSign concept.  In CoSign 2012, we started from scratch: Nothing had even been done like this before, so there was no model to follow.  Our goal beyond just the successful creation of a set of new signs had a strong educational component: First, we wanted to educate the small business owners about the value of signs to their bottom line, but we also wanted them to learn what goes into the designing and fabricating of a good sign, and create an awareness of the zoning and permitting considerations.

The same held true for the artists, but we also wanted to perhaps introduce them for the first time to the specific principles of good sign design as well as the proper use of materials.  Although most artists and certainly graphic designers are familiar with the specifics of print design, the shift to designing three-dimensional products to be used in an exterior environment is significant.  My own bias is that artists are going to be designing signs whether qualified or not, so let’s use CoSign to educate them in the principles of good sign design and the specifications and options for fabrication.  In CoSign 2012, we suggested both business owner and artist visit the fabricator, but the following year, we insisted on same, formally setting up a schedule convenient to all so this could happen.  This was reinforced in this year’s CoSign project.

CoSign Covington - Save Discount Drugs

A second primary goal was to create and be able to document the economic impact of new well-designed and fabricated signs.  It’s one of the reasons we early on decided that CoSign funds would be available to a defined and relatively small business district—in the case of both Northside projects, approximately six blocks of the major business district street and one block either side of the same street. Critical mass would be important to demonstrate economic impact.

Quite honestly, in the first round, we had to be content with getting through the process in the allotted six months.  Although many of the business owners noted improved awareness of their business, and also cited increased traffic and sales, there was little in the way of hard, statistical data to back up the subjective observations.  In CoSign 2013, we developed specific questionnaires for the business owners, so as to more objectively collect data.  We also had brief surveys for the business owners to pass out to walk-in customers, with incentives for the customers to respond, and while we did collect some data, it was not the hard numbers of increased walk-in traffic and increased sales that we would have liked to show.  The small business owners were simply not savvy enough—or if they were savvy, reluctant–to provide a baseline and/or to collect the needed data.

CoSign Covington - Braxton

CoSign 2012 and 2013 were conducted in an ideal environment: The business community is strong and closely-knit with an active business association composed of locally-owned and non-franchise businesses.  Again, the physical parameters of the business district involved a single street and side streets one block in from that street.  Thirdly, the CoSign team included a retired city official who still had rapport with the seven city departments CoSign needed to work with in meeting zoning and permitting criteria, so we were able to navigate this part of the process with relative ease.

In deciding to move across the river to Covington, we sought to test CoSign in a different, albeit less favorable environment.  The business community was largely fragmented, and the physical area of the business district although defined, was not as linear as Northside.  The pool of businesses within the defined area were often less established, and despite the favorable benefit that CoSign offered, sometimes less responsive.  Lastly, we did not have the same inherent rapport with the city officials: Although those involved made every effort to support the project, many of the policies and regulations we were initially told would not be a problem, became more complicated as deadlines approached.  But we got through it, and the unveiling of the nine signs on September 28 were further proof that CoSign works.

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What’s next?  With the ArtPlace grant, we are creating a CoSign toolkit so that the process might be replicated across the country.  CoSign has already elicited interest in Niagara Falls, NY and Cleveland, and we think there will be more interest once we promote the concept to national foundations.  Again, the move from Northside to Covington was an initial test to see if CoSign was flexible enough to work in other, perhaps less conducive environments.  With some more refinement, we think it can.

See all the signs here.

Read more about CoSign and previous CoSign projects here

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