Adding a New Income Stream to Your Awards and Engraving Shop with ADA Signs

Sharon Toji, aka “The ADA Sign Lady,” has been working with state and nationwide committees and organizations since 1992 to help designers, sign companies and owners of facilities to implement ADA signage standards. She originally represented the sign industry on the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) committee that writes the standards and now is the voting delegate for the Hearing Loss Association of America. She has written many articles on the topic, with the first one for NBM’s Sign Business Magazine back in 1992. Her manual “Signs and the ADA,” recently revised to include the 2010 revision of the ADA Standard, is used by people who want to learn about legal and accessible signs across the United States. You can learn more at http://www.accesscommconsulting.com/.

Note: This article appears in the September 2017 issue of A&E magazine. To ensure that you can access this and other industry-focused pieces, be sure to subscribe today!

What do successful awards and engraving shops and ADA sign shops have in common? A good sales force, a creative design staff, willingness to take on new kinds of materials and projects—and some useful equipment.

Put Your Current Equipment to Work

I checked in with Joe Drucker, owner of Costa Mesa, California, shop ADA Visual Products. He started out years ago doing awards and engraving, but now has even renamed his business to reflect his growing market in ADA signs. This is what he had to say about equipment: 

“If your current equipment inventory already includes an engraving machine and maybe a tabletop laser, and you are looking for a new income stream, you would be wise to check into ADA signage. Take advantage of your current loyal awards and engraving customers. They probably include institutions like municipalities and public schools who all have to comply with ADA signage rules. You will be doing your customers a favor and potentially double the size of your business.” 

Let’s take an inventory of your existing equipment:

  • Engraver: Check.
  • Digital color printer: Probably.
  • Laser engraver: Check.
  • Computerized vinyl cutting machine: Maybe.

Does your engraver come with an optional Braille program? If yes, you are on your way. Do you have a sophisticated design program like Illustrator? You are ahead of the game!

Drucker says exactly the same thing I would tell you: “Braille supplies are readily available from your existing suppliers and most will answer any questions you may have to get you started.” For instance, Accent Signage Systems, which purchased the Braille raster patent from the original owner, has always been thorough in its directions on how to drill exactly the right size holes for Raster Braille insertion. Over the years, if we had a question about a specific bit we needed, the correct appliqué Braille material, or adhesives, the manufacturers were there to assist us.

Knowledge Equals ADA Power

The final component, and one you shouldn’t skip acquiring, is some in-depth knowledge about the ADA sign standards, which you will find within the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design. Clients as well as consumers and code officials are becoming much more aware of the sign requirements, so you need to know them as well. In California, where a state commission keeps track of legal complaints, incorrect signs are one of the top 10 reasons for those complaints.

As you read through the standards, you may find them difficult to decipher. There is an excellent “Animation” on the sign standards that is now on the Access Board site. (Access-Board.gov) It was sent to me to check over prior to publication, and I think you will find it informative.

This article is going to concentrate, however, on designing and fabricating the signs, and how you can use your existing equipment to do that. As you become more skilled and sell more signs, you’ll want to branch out, and we’ll give you some helpful tips.

Not All ADA Signs Have Braille

First, let’s puncture one myth: ADA signs and Braille signs are not synonymous terms. Braille is probably the least used of all the elements on accessible signs, since so few people fall into the category of those who can’t see much at all and rely on the sense of touch to read signs. Even among functionally blind people, most of them don’t read Braille. Learning Braille is not simple, so it’s mostly younger people who become blind early in life who learn to read it. The raised characters required to accompany the Braille on room identification signs are there for the rest of the severely visually impaired population to read.

The majority of people who qualify as visually disabled can use their vision to get around. What that means is that there are many signs and portions of signs that are still made the old-fashioned way: with screen-printed, digitally printed, or vinyl graphics, or are engraved so that color-contrasting text is revealed on the sign plaque. 

The only signs that absolutely require raised text and Braille are those that identify rooms and spaces like exit doors, floor levels within stairwells and on elevator hoist way doors, and the labels on elevator control panels. All the wayfinding signs and informational signs as well as exterior signs are visual only.

The 2010 standards also allow dual-purpose signs that give the same message in two ways. You can have a visual sign section that says “Conference Room 200” and a separate tactile and Braille sign section that says the same thing. These signs can be one piece, two plaques joined together or adjacent to each other, or completely separate. The tactile sign could be adjacent to the door, and the visual sign could be on the door. Even if you didn’t have the equipment to make the tactile portion of those signs, you could still create the visual portions and purchase the tactile components to complete the system.

To understand why this is a good thing, you do need to understand how the needs of tactile and visual readers differ. You can check it out yourself by testing out some tactile sign text the next time you are in a public space with ADA signs. The easiest raised characters to read have a beveled or rounded profile and are clearly separated from each other. The base of the character that is adhered to the sign plaque or molded from the plaque is wider than the top surface of the character so there is a clear profile.

Font sizes can be fairly small. People like their fingers to pass over the character shapes easily; they don’t want to be tracing the text. Readable text by touch requires all uppercase letters and sans serif fonts. Shapes need to be as close as possible to those alphabet block letters you played with when you were small. To people who read by touch, no contrast is required between the characters and the background. Glare does not matter either.

On the other hand, it’s pretty obvious that if your vision is not 20/20, or you have blurred vision, tunnel vision, or any other kind of deficiency that still allows you to get around visually, you need your text to be larger and bolder. Contrast (dark on light or light on dark) is important, and glare can make reading signs an impossibility, so almost all unpainted metals are out. It’s easy to see why signs with two completely separate kinds of text are easier for many people to read. These kinds of signs also offer a wonderful opportunity for creative design.

Put Your Creativity to Work

Use some of the frames you buy through your awards vendors, print a colorful background using your digital printer, and hide the tactile information in that section of your framed sign by using tactile characters that blend into the print. On a separate section of the sign with a plain, printed background, include the printed visual characters in a harmonizing color.

If you have a laser or an engraver with enough power, you can cut out all kinds of interesting shapes to use as layered backplates for smaller tactile signs made using the applied method with Raster Braille. If you feel uncertain about fabricating the tactile portion of the signs, put in an order to a wholesale manufacturer for just the tactile plaque, use your equipment to make the rest of the sign, and assemble it. All the visual signs can be produced in house using your engraver or laser and a digital printer. A small tactile sign, when used as a component of a much more elaborate modular sign system, is inexpensive; you will have added most of the value for your client and be able to charge for it.

Your Engraving Equipment Can Do the Whole Job

It’s true that there are several methods of fabricating raised character and Braille signs. As an engraver, if you want to make the entire sign in house without purchasing additional equipment, you’ll need a license for the Raster method. Most engraving machines will have available software for drilling the precision holes you need to friction insert the Braille rasters. To make signs that will hold up to most vandalism, be sure that you use sharp Braille bits and check them often. The rasters should not have to be glued in place if they are acrylic and you are inserting them into acrylic plaques.

For the tactile characters, use appliqué with top-quality adhesive. Remove the plaques from the engraver immediately and weed away the excess appliqué. Then run the finished plaques through a small cold laminator, which will ensure that there are no “holidays” or spots where the character is not fully adhered to the plaque. Let the plaque cure before you install it, and you won’t be embarrassed by characters falling off the sign, or people coming along to check them and being able to lift them by the corners or edges.

You may notice we haven’t mentioned using a laser to cut out the characters. You need to use a beveled bit to cut out the characters so the top surface is thinner than the base. Try running your fingers quickly over a set of laser cut characters and you’ll see why people who read by touch prefer the beveled characters. Using rasters for the Braille means you’ll have no problem with the shape of the Braille dots.

Speaking of Braille dots, don’t try to save money by avoiding the use of a Braille translator. The law requires that all Braille be translated into a form of shorthand. A translator is the only way to make sure that your signs are correct. Your engraving machine may come equipped with the translator. The Braille font, which is not the same as the translator, is another important issue. Although the California font is only required in California, it is legal throughout the country, and the increased spacing between Braille cells will make the Braille you produce more readable for beginning readers. Some engraving equipment packages also include California Braille fonts.

Add ADA Rewards to Your Awards

We’ve only scratched the top surface of everything you’ll need to know to add ADA signs to your bag of tricks as a successful one-stop graphics shop, but we think it is worth your effort. Drucker’s busy shop is a testament to the rewards you can add if you venture out from selling strictly awards and engraving and add ADA signs to your mix: “By simply questioning your customers, you may find these types of signs are an easy sale, a win-win situation. In my case, these signs are now 30 to 40 percent of my business. Your return on your initial investment in tactile materials and Braille supplies may surprise you.”

Note: This article appears in the September 2017 issue of A&E magazine. To ensure that you can access this and other industry-focused pieces, be sure to subscribe today!