A Sign for The National Goanna Pulling Championship

Wooli, New South Wales is a picturesque seaside resort town north of Coffs Harbour. It’s also home to a somewhat unusual annual sporting event – The National Goanna Pulling Championship. A goanna is a large monitor lizard that can be found throughout most of Australia, but ‘Goanna Pulling’ is a sport for humans, not lizards. It’s essentially a two-person tug of war, in which the neck of both contestants plays a leading role. Here’s what I mean:

This year, we were approached by the Clarence Valley Council to make a sign for the event. They wanted it rustic and maybe just a little outlandish, in keeping with the sport itself. Here are a few images of the sign being made:

Rolling Paint on a Sign Panel

Rolling Paint on the Background Sign Panel

Painting Faux Rust

Applying a Faux Rust Effect with a Sponge


Creating a Woodgrain Texture in the Paint on the Add-On Panel, Using a Broom

Painting Faux Woodgrain

Painting a Lighter Tone of Brown on Top

Faux Woodgrain

…And Rubbing Most of it Off Again!


Cutting gout the Script Lettering on a Scroll Saw


Painting the Letters


Gluing Everything Together

Gluing Letters


Wolli Goanna Pulling Sign

And finally, here it is installed & ready for next year’s big event!

Wooli Goanna Pulling Championship Sign | Danthonia Designs Blog

(image courtesy of bearomite)


Jon Contino, Alphastructaesthetitologist

Jon Contino

Jon Contino

To my knowledge, ‘Native New Yorker’ Jon Contino is the world’s only Alphastructaesthetitologist (a self-proclaimed distinction). From his home in the bucolic Hudson Valley, New York, Jon produces an astounding volume of gritty, hand-drawn letters for customers around the world. Jon’s is a distinctive style which draws inspiration from the Layered history of New York City and the Northeastern US. A few weeks ago, I chatted with Jon about his work and inspiration:

Basically, I’ve been designing as a professional freelancer since age fourteen. I was part of a band and I was the guy who designed all the T-shirts, logos and all that. Then my friends and family would refer me to other people, and it grew from there. Just little twenty-five, fifty-dollar projects, you know.

Jon Contino Sketches

(image courtesy of Logo Design Love)

I’ve always liked the clean, minimal sensibilities, but I can’t do that sort of design. I find using my hands to be a lot easier than using a computer, and so my work just always has that handmade, gritty look.

Jon Contino Lettering

(image courtesy of Allan Peters)

I’ve designed a lot of different fonts, but none of them are available commercially. Normally, I’ll design a font for projects that are just too big to be one-hundred-percent hand-lettered. Or, if it’s rolling out in multiple languages, that sort of thing. I don’t plan to make my fonts available commercially (at least not at this point), and I basically don’t use other people’s typefaces in my work at all.

Jon Contino Alphabet

A Font Jon Designed for an event Called ‘We Run’ (image courtesy of Satellite Office. See the whole project on their Behance Page)

I do my lettering with pencil, ink, markers…I gave up on tracing paper years ago. So, I’m constantly drawing, erasing and redoing. It’s a destructive process. A lot of my work has a patina effect, and I try to keep it as natural as possible. Sometimes I overlay a texture in Photoshop. I’ve been photographing different textures for years. Often the smaller clients are happy to just let things turn out how they turn out, but the bigger corporate clients are more detail-oriented, so having the ability to make those changes in Photoshop is a huge help.

Jon Contino

New York City has been a commercial place for so long. It’s been jam-packed with signage since the very beginning. It’s just part of the town and you can’t ignore it. I especially love the older signage that you can still see around. It’s so cool because it was just purely functional, just getting a message out there. There were no carefully crafted brands like we have now. It was just ‘Hot Bagels’ or whatever. I find that stuff totally fascinating. These old signs had personality, little mistakes… I’m obsessed with it!

Old NYC Signage

(image courtesy of Christopher Richey)

I now live in a small town called New Hampton, right on the Jersey border in the Hudson Valley of New York. It’s only an hour’s drive from Manhattan, but a beautiful place to raise a family. It’s full of history as well, and actually, although it’s less densely packed than Brooklyn, the historical stuff is better preserved out here in the country. We’ve got a lot of antique shops, old stores, creative people…a lot of stuff from the seventeen and eighteen hundreds. Our house is actually a restored schoolhouse.

Jon Contino's Studio

Jon Contino’s Studio (image courtesy of Freerange)

For a few of my projects, I’ve gotten signs made by okMitch Studio, here in Brooklyn. They’re a great little shop. They’re experts at what they do. They know how to do a wide variety of styles, and they get the job done, without slowing everything down with unhelpful suggestions or recommendations that some of the bigger, non-creative shops tend to do.

Mitch, from okMitch Studio

Mitch, from okMitch Studio hangs the sign for Silk Road Cycles.

 These days there is such a growing interest in hand-lettering. Years ago, I couldn’t sell the hand-lettered stuff. Now, it’s all anybody wants. Actually, it’s a bit of an over-saturation at the moment. People who shouldn’t be doing it are doing it. Hopefully those who know what they’re doing can stay in business!

Yardsale App

But the internet provides so much inspiration now, with Instagram and all these design websites. I get inspired by so many people, I can’t begin to list them all…veterans like Kimou Meyer, Invisible Creature, and the guys at House Industries have been huge influences for so long, and now a lot of kids in their early twenties are learning how to do things right, like the old-timers. It’s great!

Jon Contino from Kevin Steen on Vimeo.

Which Direction Should Vertical Text Go?

Hi Danthonia,
I’m freelance designer, and I’ve done plenty of branding and logo work. Sign design is something I’m less familiar with. I have a question for you regarding a current project: On vertical signs, should the text read bottom-to-top, or top-to-bottom? Thanks for taking the time!

[Freelance Designer]

Hi Freelance Designer,

You’ve hit on a hot topic. I’ve seen this one discussed at length on forums such as Typophile. The quick answer is that there is no rule about text orientation on signage. It can go either up or down, so take your pick!

Architectural Sign in France

(image courtesy of Alpolic)

Having said that, I’ve noticed that most vertical signs and banners have the text running from bottom to top. I’m not sure if there’s any reason for that, besides that it looks better (to me, at least). When I’m standing on a busy city street, reading a banner that says ‘Sapphire City Festival’ (or any other message), I tilt my head to the left and run my eyes upwards. When I get to the end of the banner, I am looking at the sky and maybe a few trees. Generally, this is better than running my eyes downwards into the visual clutter of the street. Of course, for a smaller wall-mounted sign, the background would be consistent, so it wouldn’t matter either way.

Vertical Text Sign

(image courtesy of Freshome)

I used to think that downwards was the correct direction, since the text on book spines runs downwards. That was before I visited Germany and noticed that all the book spine text ran bottom-to-top, except on volumes so thick that space allowed for horizontal text (the ones that I wouldn’t attempt to read). Americans justify running the text downwards because that way it’s readable when the book is lying flat with the cover up. Europeans would argue that when a book is lying flat, the cover is plainly visible, so it doesn’t matter that the text on the spine is upside-down.


(image courtesy of Frank M. Rafik)

But I digress. Signs aren’t books, and they don’t have covers or spines. What’s more, signs have traditionally followed a slightly different set of rules than printed matter. Many of the old theatre signs, especially in the United States, are vertical. This is for the simple reason that vertical signs are much more practical to build and install on towering urban facades. Traditionally, these signs don’t use vertical text at all, but rather vertically-stacked horizontal letters. Stacked letters have an art and a science of their own.

Roman letters are designed to sit side by side, not on top of one another. Stacks of lowercase letters are especially awkward because the ascenders and descenders make the vertical spacing appear uneven, and the varied width of the characters makes the stacks look precarious. (The letter I is a perennial problem.) Capital letters form more stable stacks than lowercase letters. Centering the column helps to even out the differences in width.

– Ellen Lupton, Thinking with Type

Portland Theatre

(image courtesy of Treye Rice)

I’m not really sure why stacked text was so popular in days gone by. Possibly sign-makers simply couldn’t stand the thought of tipping text ninety degrees. Maybe they felt that rotating text was an affront to the dignity of respectable letterforms. Or they may have believed that stacked text is more readable. It’s not.

Art Deco Sign Miami

(image courtesy of Adam Sherbell)

I would only consider stacking text on a sign that is designed to emulate the Art Deco style of the early twentieth century – or at least a sign with a bit of historic flavour. For anything else, it tends to look bad (unless it’s a skateboard deck that says ‘Gnarly’ in decorative circus-style lettering).

Jessica Hische Skateboard Deck

(image courtesy of Jessica Hische)

Now I’ll digress a little. Since we’ve talked so much about vertical text, I might as well touch on the topic of angled text too. If you ever consider using angled text on a sign design, make sure that it always angles ‘uphill’ (with the right side higher than the left). It just looks better, and ninety-nine percent of angled text angles upwards.

Gilded Window Sign

Matt, of Sign Master Signs, paints a window in Vancouver, Canada (image courtesy of Old Faithful Shop)

As sign designers, our challenge is to fit the appropriate text into the available space, in the most beautiful and effective way possible. Obviously, most signs use horizontal text, since it’s the most readable and the English language is designed to be written in horizontal lines. On the other hand, the world is overloaded with horizontal lines of text. Sometimes, an angled, curved or vertical typographic design can catch people’s attention simply because it’s different.

Hand-Painted Sign | Danthonia Designs Blog

A Hand-Painted Sign by the Author, Demonstrating Angled text

Hope that helps!

Posted in Q&A

Will Lynes of Lynes & Co.

Will Lynes

Will Lynes (image courtesy of The Design Files)

Have you noticed a growing number of gilded logos on cafe windows around Sydney? It’s likely that they’re the work of Sign-painter Will Lynes, of Lynes and Co. Will is one of only a few glass-gilders in the country. His work has an air of well-established quality that is all the more impressive when you consider that he has only been gilding professionally for a few short years. This week, Will was kind enough to answer a few questions for us: Who did you learn the craft of traditional sign-painting & gilding from?

When first starting out I looked into courses at Tech but they were mostly geared towards vinyl and computer based signage, something I wasn’t really interested in. So I got down to practicing…. having no one to learn from first hand I jumped straight into trying to paint letters and quickly realized there was a lot more to it than just banging out painted letters. I started reading as much as I could and drawing loads.

Will Lynes Painting

About a year into it I came across the work of now good friend Dave Smith from Torquay in England. I was familiar with Glass gilding and had tried some of the techniques but his work just floored me… So technically on-point and awesome to look at! So I saved up for a while and went to see him for a week-long intensive gilding course which was unreal.

Gilded Whiskey Bottle

Gilded Whiskey Bottle by Dave Smith (image courtesy of David Smith)

I learned so much from that one week and have just been excited to keep going and try and progress in every aspect of it from there. I really enjoy the whole process of glass work, the smell of the size, laying of the leaf, blending colours. The list could go on!

Which projects are you working on now?

We have just finished up fifty mirrors for Stella Artois that had their logo etched into the glass and then water gilt with 12 Karat White Gold Leaf. A couple of bars and cafes around Sydney, and a few commissioned  glass panels in the workshop.

Stella Artois Etched Mirror

Stella Artois Etched Mirror, reflecting Will’s shop

Are there artists or sign-makers who you take inspiration from, for your work?

Absolutely. I think there are a lot of great artists and sign painters out there who are doing great things! Its inspiring to see the differences in approaches and techniques from these guys, they are all using similar mediums and processes yet the work produced is vastly different due to their individual style.. it blows me away sometimes the creativity that people have! Just to name a few…. Dave Smith, Nathan Pickering, Ken Davis, Shannon Peel, Revok, Josh Luke, Greg Heger… these guys really inspire me and keep me driven to keep pushing and working hard!! There’s too many to name really though.

A Sign by Josh Luke

A Sign by Josh Luke (image courtesy of Follow The Honey)

How much of your work is self-initiated, as opposed to commission work?

I guess most of my commercial work is commissioned. I’m constantly working on my own personal artworks and signs in my spare time though… not that I really have any so I guess that stuff is all self initiated. I think that answers the question?

Sign in Paddington

A Sign for ‘The London‘ in Paddington, Sydney

You did a piece for Colossal Media in NY. How did that come about?

We follow each other on Instagram actually, and my partner is originally from the states. We were there a couple of years back for Christmas seeing her family and I contacted Paul from Colossal to catch up and check out their workshop. He took me on a shop tour and introduced me to all the guys there.. even bought me lunch! Those dudes are super nice and their work is really on point. Its amazing the scale they work on. A month or two later Paul contacted me asking if I was interested in doing a bespoke glass panel for their shop… I was stoked! He gave me creative freedom with it so I just had fun with it and it made it there in one piece!

Gilded Sign for Collossal Media Why is it important for small businesses to invest in hand-crafted signage?

This is a funny one. I think unfortunately a lot of people still don’t see the relevance and importance of a hand-crafted sign. A lot of small businesses are really going back to that hand-crafted aesthetic and putting a big investment into their fitouts. Real timber floors, copper piping, hand made tiles…and then a nice vinyl sticker for their shopfront signage! There doesn’t quite seem to be that connection made yet in a lot of cases that a hand crafted sign is beautiful and lives in that world. It too deserves that same attention to detail and respect.

Lobby Bar Sign

Painting a sign for The Lobby Bar, Sydney

I think having a hand-crafted sign really makes such a huge difference in engaging people on a daily basis. It’s not sterile and lifeless like vinyl, you can really see a human connection to it and I think that’s what draws people in and makes them feel comfortable which ultimately is what a business is after and besides that they just look cool!

Signwriting Easel

Will’s Easel

Do you see a growing interest in hand-made signs in Sydney?

Yeah there is absolutely a growing trend in Sydney at the moment. Its worldwide. Both businesses and craftsmen/artists are engaging in it more which ultimately I think is a positive thing.

Gilding Brewtown Newtown Window

Gilding the window of Brewtown Newtown

A Sign Made from Old Pallets | Danthonia Designs Blog

A Sign Made from Old Pallets, by Will (image courtesy of Josh Pinkus)


Can You Make My Sign Look More Like This?

Hi Danthonia,

As a sign-maker, I’m wondering how I should deal with customers who take my designs and make them look ugly (usually in Photoshop) and then send them back to me, asking if I can ‘make it like this’.  Maybe that never happens to you?

Any advice would be appreciated!

[ A Sign-Maker]

Dear Sign-Maker,

Probably everyone involved in graphic design, commission art or sign design runs into the same problem. So the good news is that you’re not alone! Since the advent of the computer, it’s a fact that clients have had the ability to be more involved in the design process. Sometimes this can be frustrating to the designer, but  more customer involvement can also push us to a better result.

When a client decides to take things into their own hands and ‘have a crack at it’, there are several courses that you, as the designer, can take:

1. You can take offense at the lack of respect for your work, and ask your client why they even hired you in the first place, since they obviously feel able to design it themselves.

2. You can follow the old adage ‘The customer is always right’. Just swallow hard and make the thing exactly how they want it.

3. You can take it in stride and realise that the client enjoys the process of getting a logo or sign designed and wants to ‘be involved’. Motorbike mechanics also have customers who like to hang around the garage and ‘help’. Some get annoyed, others have a blast.

The first option is a good one if you have more work than you can deal with. If the whole world is beating down your door, why waste time with a client that doesn’t appreciate your style? There are ten others that do, so save yourself the heartache!

The second option is what many cheap-and-cheerful vinyl shops do all day every day. After all, it’s certainly the quickest and easiest option. Hence the visual blight of poorly designed signage, squashed and poorly-aligned text, bad kerning, and hideous colour combinations that can be seen in cities around the world.

In regards to Option Three, I’ve heard it said that amateurs complain about their customers, while professionals educate them. To continue my earlier analogy: Like a mechanic, you can take the client’s suggestions into account while steering the project in a direction you’re happy with. “Sorry sir, I can’t put a ball-hitch on the back of your Harley-Davidson. It won’t work. What about a sidecar?” Remember that although you know more about design, they know their business better than you do. The challenge is to come up with a solution that doesn’t just look good, but works.

Educate them as to why Old English, set in all caps, isn’t readable and why clip art around the edges of the design doesn’t lend an air of artisanal quality to their distressed yoghurt shop shingle sign. In the end, most clients will understand that you know what you’re talking about and will go along with it. When Michelangelo was commissioned by Pope Julius II to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling, he was unimpressed with the pontiff’s planned design and negotiated until he was allowed to paint his own. In the end, everyone was happy. In other words, learn how to sell your idea to the client and everyone’s a winner.

So, what do you do if the client won’t see reason, and insists on the all caps Old English/clip-art design? You can’t possibly make the ugly thing, can you? We mostly write an email something like this:

Dear Client,

Here is the latest sign design for your yoghurt shop. As you strongly suggested, we’ve used uppercase Old English with clip-art decorations around the edge. From a design point of view, this particular piece won’t be very readable, and may not convey the rustic vintage feel of the yoghurt shop itself. Aside from the readability issue, it is also a fact that when Old English fonts like this one are set in all caps, it calls to mind a tattoo studio or motorbike clubroom rather than a family-friendly yoghurt shop. For all of these reasons, I have also attached an alternate design for you to consider.

All the best!

Don McKernan

You would be amazed how many clients will follow your advice when you give clear reasons for your decisions. It is true that a small minority will doggedly insist on the ugly design. At that point, we would go ahead and make it for them, making a mental note not to post the sign on our website portfolio.

On the topic of portfolios – make sure that you’re proud of every piece of work that you post online, whether on your own site or on social media. As you continue to upload pictures of stunning designs, you’ll get more enquiries from people who have already seen a lot of your work and trust you to make something equally stunning for them. Don’t promote the signs you aren’t proud of, and it’s as if they never existed!

For the record, the vast majority of our clients have a great appreciation for well-designed signs. Often, their branding is very professional and looks classy when rendered as a dimensional sign. And, as I wrote at the beginning, sometimes a picky/discerning client can push you, as a designer, out of your ruts to try something new and better. Meet the challenge!

Hope that helps!

Funny Sign by Ken Davis | Danthonia Designs Blog

A hand-painted sign by Ken Davis

Posted in Q&A