What's Your Sign?: It's about more than just fancy truck graphics and logos


Published: 06/01/2011

by Allan T. Duffin


            Every interaction with a customer or prospect makes an impression of some type. If you and your staff answer customer questions clearly and honestly, that will be appreciated. When you complete a towing or recovery job efficiently and safely, motorists and other responders will spread the word. If your employees are sharp, clean, and professional, your company will be remembered.

            Then there’s the visual aspect of your business — the signage that conveys the nature of your work. Are the signs and graphics on your shop and vehicles colorful and easy to see from a distance? Are they so memorable for their artwork or logos that customers can’t help but notice and remember them?

            But there’s yet another angle to signage, especially for private property towers, that has little to do with the flash and dash of logo design and cool truck art — the size, placement, and wording of certain towing signs may be governed by law or regulation and strict compliance will help keep towers out of court.


Property Signs


            Many states and local governments have specific guidelines with regard to signage, said Michael McGovern, an attorney and former tower in Knoxville, TN, who recently published his new book Towing and the Law: A Collection of 101 Informative Articles. According to McGovern, regulated items include the size of the sign, reflection, size of lettering, precise language on the sign, and the placement and number of signs.

            “Even in those states or cities that do not specifically require signage prior to removal of trespassers, I recommend the use of them,” said McGovern. “It can avoid a lot of later confrontation if the vehicle driver ignored a plainly posted ‘No Parking’ sign.”

            In Sligo, KY., the Burrows family has dealt with signage issues since their towing company opened in 1917. “It is imperative that signs be posted according to the legal requirements of the jurisdiction that has authority over the parking areas being posted,” said Scott Burrows.

            He offered the following tips for private property signs: “[They] need to be plainly legible, and that — almost always — mandates plain block lettering, of a size readily readable from the parking area. This may be stated in the regulations that apply to permit parking.” Also, said Burrows, consider the language requirements of the people who will read the signs you’re posting. In areas where people don’t speak much English, bilingual signs are extremely useful.



Design Standards


            Jeanette Rash, owner of Fast Tow in Houston, Texas, has dealt with private property towing — and all of the related ups and downs — during her many years in the business. Texas mandates a standardized design scheme for signage dealing with private property towing. Rash referred to Chapter 2308 of the state Occupations Code, which deals with vehicle towing and booting.

            The point of the law, said Rash, “was to have uniform signs for private properties statewide so that when a person saw that ‘red-and-white sign with the tow symbol,’ you would know that towing on that property is possible. We passed the uniform signs here in Texas years ago and they are specific — no other signs comply. All sign companies caught on long time ago. The only problem is that occasionally a property owner doesn’t want red and white as it doesn't match their decor.”

            If you hunt for regulations and can’t find any, said McGovern, “I would recommend that the tower follow the sign guidelines set forth in those jurisdictions where there are specific criteria.”  For example, he said, the state of Tennessee has no statewide guidelines. “A tow operator in Tennessee in a town with no local requirements might want to look at the Florida statute for guidance.”


Avoiding Court


            “Also, there are several towing sign companies that could be of help in designing a sign,” said McGovern. For example, as part of its service to customers, Anchor Graphics, Inc., in McKinney, Texas, does its best to keep track of each state’s signage requirements.

            Towers who blow off state or local legal requirements or fail to follow the law carefully could find themselves in court. For private property towing, proper signage can avoid lawsuits,” said McGovern, “and can [help you] avoid being sued under the state consumer protection laws, which often allow for treble (triple) damages plus an award of attorney’s fees. I have also represented towing companies in California that have been charged criminally for violating that state’s private property tow-away law, including the signage rules.”

            The best mix of qualities for effective signage: attractive, eye-catching design that complies with local and state regulations. In some cases, balancing these two requirements can be quite a challenge for towing companies.


Seeking Balance


            Sign*A*Rama in Leesburg, VA, touts itself as the largest full-service sign center in the world. The company has created paint schemes for a number of local towing companies. “As with all design,” said John Voigt, president of Sign*A*Rama, “a good sign comes from understanding the message it needs to present and the audience its intended for.”

            According to Voigt, clarity is achieved by using clean, easy-to-read fonts and by using color combinations that give good contrast. “Incorporating logos to increase branding and adding playful or unusual elements gives a sign that is memorable,” added Voigt.

            Minimizing clutter is also important, according to Leslie Goolsby, president of Anchor Graphics in Texas. Goolsby’s company creates signs and graphics for towing companies across the country. “We have found that less is more,” said Goolsby. “The less you put on the sign, the more likely they are to read it.”

            Customers may indeed turn away from your shop if they can’t find the name of the business over the door, or if the signage looks amateurish or tattered. Towers may work on asphalt, in dirt and grime, and in all sorts of harsh weather conditions, but it's still critical to keep outward appearances as cleas and welcoming as possible.

            In a down economy, with customers keeping a tight hold on their wallets, keeping your signage looking good could even mean the difference between staying open or closing down, or at least avoiding downsizing.


Truck Graphics


            According to Voigt, creating signage for tow trucks can be a challenge due to the lack of flat surfaces on the vehicles, but “incorporating the interesting vehicle shape into the overall graphics design helps leave a lasting impression,” explained Voigt. “High contrast (including perhaps reflective graphics) increases readability and safety — particularly at night.”

            He noted that the two most important elements in a tow truck graphics scheme are the company name and phone number. When towing companies contact Sign*A*Rama to discuss decorating their trucks, Voigt reminds his customers that graphics need to be readable when the vehicles are moving at high rates of speed, so excess visual clutter around the company name and phone number is best avoided.

            “Many tow operators display their personality, their achievements, their aspirations or their inspirations in truck graphics,” said Burrows. “One needs to look no farther than advertising pages in this or other towing publications to see a painter’s palette of colors, styles, and themes.”

            Burrows felt that it’s important for the company name and phone number (or web site) to be prominent and in contrasting colors. “Some motorists may only get a glance,” said Burrows, “so the name and a catchy contact number or Web address — i.e., 1-XXX-WE-TOW-YOU or www.hook-line-and-sinker.com — may be remembered much longer than an eye-grabbing graphic.”

            Finally, added Burrows, “Nothing shows up better in night photographs than the boldly placed name in reflective materials. An otherwise dark photo has the name and/or phone number jump off the page of a photo of a well-marked tow truck!”


Design Help


            In an industry where multiple towing companies compete for business in the same city, getting the word out can be tricky. Here, sign companies can also help. “To increase branding,” said Voigt, “the first question is usually about any existing trucks the company has in-service and whether there is an existing logo.” If there is no logo, Voigt continued, his company tries to help the customer decide if he or she wants a logo designed — either by Sign*A*Rama or by some other commercial logo designer — or whether the customer just wants a basic text design.

            Text designs are simpler and cheaper because they involve selecting fonts and colors to represent the company. By contrast, logo designs involve the creation of artwork in addition to choosing fonts and colors. For example, an artist might draw or paint one or more elements of the design. While this approach is more labor intensive and expensive, the end result — an original, designed-from-scratch logo — can be a more effective piece of advertising than a sign with just text on it.

            “Some customers come in with clear ideas about what they want; others have no idea,” said Voigt. “We always try and steer customers to a design that will help them be successful. We also ask for their budget as it can be a major [issue] in how complex a design they can afford.”

            But again, don’t lose sight of this critical factor: “Before you have signs made, check with your local city, county and state to make sure there are no requirements or that you are in compliance,” said Goolsby. Good design and compliance with the law will ensure that your signs are noticed and are an effective tool in your day-to-day business.