Sign-Makers Print Messages to Go

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Eric Johnson can spot his handiwork almost every time he drives around the area.

The Hubbard man owns and operates Pier Graphics, which designs, makes and installs vinyl signage for work vehicles, as well as banner and yard signs.

From his shop on West Liberty Street in Hubbard, he designs, prints and installs vinyl wraps, as they’re known, for companies, municipalities and school districts.

With a list of customers that runs well into the hundreds and probably the thousands, Johnson routinely sees his work pass by.

“It’s nice to see one of my signs while I’m out driving,” he says. “I’ll see one and say, ‘Hey, I did that!’ ”

His customers include small businesses, several police departments and the Hubbard school district.

Pier Graphics has been around 15 years, which puts it among the more established vinyl wrap companies in the area. It’s a business-to-business sector where word of mouth is the norm for connecting with new clients.

Matt Willoughby, owner-operator of Willoughby Paint Design, is another local mainstay in the field, with a workshop and office behind his home in New Middletown.

Willoughby began to paint signs by hand as an apprentice, after he graduated from Springfield High School in the ’80s. He long ago branched into vinyl signs, which are designed on a computer, although he still does hand painting for those who want it.

Matt Willoughby of Willoughby Paint Design has his shop in New Middletown. 

“My skill set got obsolete when the printers came out and I had to adapt,” he says.

Today, his business is split roughly 60:40 between vinyl printing and painting by hand.

Painting is a specialty for Willoughby, who has done a lot of custom detail painting and restorative paint on muscle cars, antique vehicles and motorcycles.

Like Johnson, Willoughby has worked with many customers over the years; but he has found a niche with the construction trades. He has designed, printed and installed the vinyl wraps for Mark Gentile’s MG Electric, Murphy Contracting, Gulu Electric, Youngstown Mirror and Glass, Lencyk Masonry, Centofanti Concrete, Dillan Well Drilling, CDT, SOS Security and TP Tools.

Currently, he is wrapping the boom of a crane for John DeCerbo Construction at the Rescue Mission job site in Youngstown.

Johnson and Willoughby work on a grass-roots level, providing 360  services for local customers. As one-man operations, they will design, print and install vinyl wraps for a single truck, if that’s what the customer wants.

On the other end of the spectrum is Jane Kenney-Heitman, owner and president of Design Mojo in Boardman.

Kenney-Heitman’s firm works on a national level, serving corporations that lease fleets of thousands of vehicles.

After Design Mojo – which has a staff of six – creates the signage, it subcontracts the printing and installation to thousands of smaller companies in cities across North America.

Her customers include Invisible Fence, ADT Security and ServPro.

“We could do thousands [of trucks or vans] per year for one customer,” Kenney-Heitman says, noting that her firm handles 3,000 to 4,000 vehicles annually for Invisible Fence, her largest customer.

Jane Kenney-Heitman is the owner and president of Design Mojo, which she started 35 years ago in Cleveland. Her husband,Richard Heitman, is director of operations. The company recently moved from South Carolina to Boardman. 

Kenney-Heitman started her company 35 years ago in Cleveland. She later moved it to South Carolina, but returned to Ohio in December.

“We moved to Boardman instead of back to Cleveland because my husband is from Boardman,” she says. “We are new to this area but not new to what we do.”

Although her clients are on the corporate level, Kenney-Heitman is looking to serve local businesses as well.

“Although we handle national clients, we can scale that expertise down and do one-off jobs for local businesses,” she says. “I would love to have the opportunity to help local businesses source out this product — and that goes for window and indoor wall graphics, and floor graphics, which are huge right now because of social distancing. We could facilitate those jobs for them. And we would source out all of it to local installers.”

Kenney-Heitman says experience and economies of scale are attributes she could also bring to smaller jobs.

“We went through a rebrand ourselves six years ago. And one direction I wanted to take the company in is to bring our level of marketing expertise to a  local level, for local businesses who can’t scale marketing  in an economic fashion. We can help them.”

Design Mojo, she says, has a partnership with SpeedPro, the largest graphic printer in the world. It gets attractive pricing because of the volume.

Kenney-Heitman has marketing materials aimed at smaller, local companies to show them how vinyl wraps can increase their sales.

For companies like Johnson’s Pier Graphics and Willoughby Paint Design, local has always been central to their practices. Both men buy exclusively from local ink and vinyl film suppliers, even though it costs a little more, because they like the personal service.

They have also built their businesses from scratch.

Johnson got started out of frustration when he was still a youth.

“When I was racing motocross, I wanted to get my trailer decaled up,” said the 1997 Hubbard High graduate. “I went to see the guy but he never returned my calls. And it took forever. So I said, ‘I could do this’ and I bought a printing machine and did it.”

While attending Youngstown State University, he and a business partner started Pier Nautical, a T-shirt line. Within a few years, the 2002 YSU grad bought out his partner, changed his focus to vinyl signs, and renamed the company Pier Graphics.

Johnson’s long-time customers include police cars for Sharpsville, Sharon, Hermitage, Hubbard, Lowellville, Craig Beach and Coitsville.

Some of his oldest clients comprise Metalico metal recycling, Hubbard Chevrolet, Millcreek Park, Jeswald Towing, the Martino drag racing team, and the Hubbard School District.

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced Hubbard High School to cancel its commencement ceremony, Johnson made congratulatory yard signs and gave one to each of the school’s roughly 150 graduates.

Johnson has had a passion for drawing since he was a child and his shop reflects his artsiness.

Drawings, photos of graphics he designed, models of dirt bikes and some odds and ends adorn every space in his colorful yet industrial shop. A child’s bicycle hangs from the ceiling.

His counter space is actually a segment of a bar that once graced a local tavern.

A vinyl film printer that can produce sheets almost five feet wide and 10 feet long takes up one end of the room. The printers, by the way, range in price from $16,000 to $25,000.

Designing, scaling and printing vinyl signage takes a lot of talent and know-how.

The same goes for the process of sticking it to the side of a truck. Handles, molding and doors have to be taken into account when designing and installing.

Errors can mean wasted time and materials that eat into profits but Johnson has been doing it so long that do-overs are a rarity.

Removing a vinyl wrap to replace it can also be tricky. Usually the wrap can be pulled off by hand. “But if it’s been on there for a while you have to use a heat gun to get it off,” Johnson says.

Hand-painting signage on trucks hasn’t been common for decades. But Willoughby, of New Middletown, is the area’s go-to guy for those who insist on it.

Last month he found himself in Kittanning, Pa., to hand paint the lettering on a fleet of refrigerated milk delivery trucks for a dairy farm. “The owner wanted the same look as when his grandfather ran the company,” Willoughby says.

Willoughby has also done restorative painting for the antique vehicle collection in the museum at TP Tools in Canfield.

He extends his job flexibility to vinyl wraps. “A full wrap is about $5,000. But a partial wrap is between $1,000 and $2,000. And that is what most want,” he says.

Willoughby has an eye for creating clean designs; they must be easy to read in the few seconds that it takes for a truck to pass by.

“[The signage] only needs to say three things: who you are, what you are and where you are,” he says.

One change he’s adopted over the years has everything to do with smartphones.

“I used to tell clients not to put their phone number on the wrap because people won’t remember it anyway,” he said. “But now we do, because someone can take a photo of it.”

When it comes to delivery trucks on streets and highways, Willoughby said vinyl wraps are a cost-effective way to advertise.

“A box truck is like a rolling billboard. And its impact, dollar for dollar, is great,” he says. “It reaches a lot of people. And it’s cheaper than any other form of advertising.”

Although he sees a lot of signage that he says is too busy for passersby to absorb, Willoughby notes that not all of it is bad.

“I see the rules [of sign making] broken all the time,” he said. “It’s just too much and you’re not sure where to look first.

“But sometimes it’s good. It pushes the envelope. I’ll say, ‘I never thought of that.’ ”

There is a difference between advertising and simply identifying your company. The latter is what most contractors want for their trucks, Willoughby says. “It’s critical to identify yourself on a job site. And not just for legal purposes,” he says,.

“A contractor needs to identify his vehicles with artwork or a logo and his workers with shirts and hats,” he says. “It identifies him as a professional and builds confidence in his company’s capabilities. Also, general contractors and developers keep a close eye on projects in their territories, especially large-scale projects. I know of many instances where my clients were contacted to bid on future projects because they were seen on similar-scale projects. When a contractor is seen on job sites, they become familiar to the communities they work in. And people associate positive growth in their community with the contractor they see over and over again.”

Pictured: Eric Johnson owns and operates Pier Graphics in Hubbard.