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Signwriting in the sixties
In 1965 and aged fifteen, Brian Robertson began his long career at Allison’s Transport; a haulage company in Dundee. As an apprentice coach painter at the haulier’s Clepintgon Road depot, his duties involved sanding panels, washing brushes and mixing paint. He was paid two shillings and sixpence (twelve and a half pence) per week.
With a natural artistic flair, he was interested in the letterforms on the lorries and how these were created. Thus, began a lifelong involvement with commercial vehicles and hand lettering.
Brian continued to learn the craft of hand lettering in Dundee and in 1972, he joined Dundee Corporation Transport. As a coach painter and signwriter, Brian would hand paint adverts on the buses, learning the power of effective outdoor advertising.
With an already established reputation and steady flow of private work, the decision was made in 1988 to leave Tayside Buses and start his own business. I too, gradually learned the tricks of the trade, often helping Dad out at weekends and school holidays. Growing up, I sanded panels, mixed paint and washed brushes.
The vinyl frontier
Almost all of Brian’s work in the late eighties and early nineties was hand lettering in Dundee and the surrounding areas. Mainly on commercial vehicles, shop fascias and painted plywood signs.
Working from home until 1990, he then relocated to workshop premises. The building was on an old farm on the edge of the city at Drumsturdy Road.
Around that time, the sign industry was changing. Computer aided signmaking was taking over and hand lettering was considered dated. Competition was increasing and clients expected quicker turnaround for less.
In 1996, for his business to remain viable in the signage industry, the decision was made to purchase our first computer and sign software. With a Roland cutter, we now combined traditional signwriting and painting methods with vinyl lettering.
I was always interested in art and drawing since a young age, but didn’t seriously consider a career in the sign industry. Still helping Dad out part time whilst attending high school, I officially joined the business in 1998 at age 15.
Confronting the computer
Over the following years and with no desire to learn computing, my understanding of computer aided signmaking had to broaden. The software was primitive. Fundamental sign design principles were vital to continue making signs which were effective.
Without an understanding of layout, eye appeal and typefaces (all relevant to the work that I produce on every single project), a mundane and generic style is often produced. To this day, I consider the aid of a computer as merely a tool to which my ideas can be constructed with. I also know that without the technology, we would not have survived the huge shift in the signmaking industry.
Hand lettering in Dundee was become scarcer too. Signwriters were hanging up their brushes and apprenticeships disappeared.
At 18, I began studying graphic design at Dundee College where I discovered a passion. Learning about visual aspects of branding and print production, I was taught how design agencies operated. With advancing technologies within the sign industry too, new opportunities were arising.
Pivoting and wrapping
My vision for how our business would position itself was changing. I sought to focus more on creating visual identities for our customers. We would not only letter their vehicle or shop sign, but provide logo and stationery designs for their marketing too.
For many years, a large portion of our business’ turnover involved bus advertising. We removed and installed posters on large fleets across the north east of Scotland. Our contract involved travelling regularly from Perth to Inverness and along the east coastal route; visiting bus depots at all times of day and night, throughout the seasons.
Vinyl wrapping buses in advertising was a major part of the contract. A new set of skills were learnt, and a new industry was emerging from signmaking. The increasing interest for vehicle wrapping meant learning more about materials and application techniques.
Mainly in Aberdeen, we wrapped hundreds of bus rears and had a team of installers. The team now also covered Fife bus depots as the contract increased in capacity.
I concentrated on what we called ‘The Workshop side of things’ (signs, vehicles, shops, graphics) whilst my dad worked mainly on the bus advertising.
In doing so, I developed a keen interest in logo design. As well as experimenting with type and painting techniques. The creative aspects of signmaking and design is what I enjoy the most.
In 2018, I decided to alter the trading name for Robertson Signs. This was in part, due to momentous changes in the business. Brian retired, I began to restructure and we downsized, leaving the Drumsturdy Road workshop. I felt that the name change portrays a concise description of who I am and what I do.
I’m Barry Robertson – I make signs – Robertsign. Genius.
Today, Brian still helps me with hand lettering and painting projects. He volunteers at Dundee Museum of Transport; painting, hand lettering and restoring vintage vehicles.