When is a sign not a sign…?



...100 years of history has taught us the answer!

There are many people outside our industry that believe there is a hard and fast answer to this question. A sign is simply an illuminated fascia on the front of a building, a piece of basic wayfinding to direct visitors or the printed icon fixed to the front of a toilet door. Simple.

But what about the brand experience? Can signage support the emerging trends for creating that magical ‘experiential’ environment? Can signage actually create these environments? So, when does a sign become more than a sign?

Signage is such a key tool in driving us safely through this pandemic but maybe it is also yet another opportunity to use it to build our identities.



We’ve been working in this industry since 1918...and as you can imagine, we’ve seen a lot evolve over this time!

Back then, Wikipedia’s definition of signage being “...the design or use of words or symbols to communicate a message” was most certainly true, with limited production techniques and simpler expectations being answered in just 6 techniques and 17 fonts. The funny thing is, like most fashions, these traditional, craftsman skills of a signmaker are now experiencing a come back and are very much sought after to actually create new and emerging environmental graphics.

Astley’s Creative Account Manager, Rob Reid comments:

“Historically, the art of hand-painted signage was commonly found on both the high street and vehicles, however, with the development of modern day techniques and introduction of computer-aided design the use of CNC cutting machines and man-made products, such as standard and digitally printed vinyl, has become the norm.”

“Illumination and built-up lettering were developed and continue to be improved upon with more detailed manufacturing techniques. LED technology is fast becoming the market leader in both illumination and display technologies and due to the environmental benefits and pricing, will continue to play a big part in the signage and POS industry.

“As with all design, the signage industry embraces the latest trends, but we’ve found that most recently, we are being tasked with working on hand painted finishes again on all types of material from aged wood, steel and standard wall finishes - reverting to the traditional skills of the sign maker”

An instruction to go left or right, or a name plate on a door can’t be seen as a simple answer anymore. It’s an opportunity to make a brand statement, another method to promote a company’s values and to interact with the viewer, to convey the unsaid and stand apart from everyone else. Combining creative signage and brand graphics with statement architecture is just one way of creating that unique experience.

Astley’s Sales Director, David Forrester gives his views on the advances he has observed over the last 20 years:

“It’s amazing to think how much has changed over the years. It seems that following the introduction of mobile technology in particular, everything is now much more immediate. The ability to share images instantly, speed of communication and social media means that a brand can be communicated in so many more ways.

Our response as a supplier has had to mirror these advances to match clients’ expectations. I’m pleased to say we have continued to be one of the leaders in the industry by maintaining quality and offering innovation in all areas of the business. Our vast experience as sign makers and the traditional skillsets we continue to nurture however, sets us apart still from the rest. Signage plays just as vital a part in communicating a message as it always did, but the way in which our brilliant and multi-skilled teams at Astley now design and produce them has changed dramatically.”

The correct use of signage should be seen as an opportunity for a company to engage with its visitors but also its staff, maybe have fun with them, but still inform them and potentially now more than ever, keep them safe. The need to communicate safety messaging in any environment with social distancing signage has been answered with temporary hazard graphics and warning chevrons as an immediate fix.

But what impact has this had on a brand experience? Has it been lost by this ‘quick-fix’ solution? Does this approach run risk of permanently ruining all the hard work made by brands to create their own unique experiences? It’s a fine balance between delivering that very important message and also still engaging and encouraging back those lost visitors from almost every sector.



Since we acquired award-winning signage company Sign of the Times in 2016, we have added a unique industry asset to our own service portfolio - that of creative production. Being multiple award-winners for their work supporting creative agencies, Sign of the Times’ unique talent for bringing creativity to life and working with mixed media set them apart from competitors. But, they always struggled to engage with creative prospects potentially because of one reason…their name. The word ‘sign’ still dampened their opportunities for growth. This misconception of the word is still a barrier in the industry and ultimately one of the reasons we decided to bring them into our own brand of Astley.

Where is the industry going now?

We believe it is shifting rapidly yet again, having to respond to these new demands in retail, hospitality and leisure in particular, being tasked with clearly directing visitors through these sites safely, but still creating a welcoming space. Signage now needs to find a balance between the old and the new, build an identity in such competitive markets and take each and every opportunity to say more.

So ‘when is a sign not a sign..?’

The answer is simply when it goes beyond the basic solving of a problem, when it demonstrates personality beyond purpose and when it conveys a brand message in more than words and symbols. Signage should, and can be inspiring; it can be photographed and shared. It can still fulfil its remit but there is no reason why it can’t also be ultimately experienced and enjoyed.