A Day’s Work: Sign maker

Howie Slotnick has been making signs in Rifton for the past 45 years. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

The signs are everywhere. And that isn’t just a turn of phrase when it comes to the signs created by Howie Slotnick that dot the Hudson Valley landscape and create a brand identity for so many local businesses and organizations. So many of the signs are familiar, in fact, that in viewing a slideshow portfolio of Slotnick’s work, one is inclined to think, “Who hasn’t he created a sign for?”

“I tell people, ‘I can get them into your place of business the first time; after that, it’s up to you,’” says the Rifton-based artist-turned-sign maker, who is entering his 47th year of business as Slotnick Signs & Designs. His company not only offers the aforesaid custom-made signage that draws people inside a location but interior signage — menus, directories and the like — and products and services that include logo design, vehicle lettering, window graphics, banners and show displays. Promotional advertising products are also in the mix — imprinted magnets and such that can be used as giveaways — as well as stock highway and traffic signage.

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Slotnick’s work can be found from Newburgh to Albany and points east and west; in short, “wherever I need to go,” he says. His studio in Rifton is adjacent to his home, and may be the only place in the region that doesn’t have a sign outside made by him. That’s because Slotnick prefers to maintain his privacy, discouraging any drop-in visitors to the location where he works but also lives. Clientele is invited in only by appointment, and even then, that’s often not necessary. “I like to visit a site to be sure that the sign will have the best visibility and legibility,” he says. “I need to be sure the lettering is large enough that people can see it from their vehicles, so I have no problem visiting a site and making recommendations.”

There is data from the American Sign Association that informs the decision on how large letters have to be to be seen from a distance by their intended audience, whether pedestrian or moving vehicles traveling at different speeds. But Slotnick’s background in art allows him to go beyond the science and integrate the artistry involved in making those type of determinations.

Growing up in Brooklyn, he was “always into art,” Slotnick says, even as a kid taking Saturday morning art classes at Pratt, the Brooklyn Museum and Brooklyn College. “I wound up going to school for architecture, then switched majors and went into art and commercial art.” He worked in the city for a while, but after coming up to Ulster County to visit friends, he says, “I just fell in love with the area. At my first opportunity, when I was about 21, I packed a suitcase and got on a Trailways.”

It didn’t take him long to settle into Rifton, where he lives today with his wife, Sharon. They have a son, David, who lives with his wife and their two children in New York City.

Recently we sat down with Howie Slotnick to ask a little bit more about what a day’s work is like in his business.

 

What made you decide to go into business as a graphic designer and sign maker?

Even when I was in the city, working as an assistant art director and art director in the publishing field, I started freelancing, doing posters and shopping bag designs for boutiques in Manhattan, and I got a sense of going out on my own at that point. When I moved up here, I realized everybody needs a sign, so I became a self-taught sign painter. I started doing that, supplementing it with carpentry work and stuff like that, and it eventually became a full-time job.

 

Do you have a typical day?

There is no one typical day; there’s always a variety of things to do. Some days I’m on the road, meeting people, looking at jobs, and some days I’m just here doing production work. These days I also spend a lot of time on the computer.

 

What is the most challenging thing about your line of work? What do you like most about it?

There are always new things coming up; new types of projects, installation challenges… the business is interesting and I just love it. You get to meet people and see what business is all about. It’s an adventure.

 

Do you like working for yourself?

That’s number one. I’ve had opportunities to grow, open up a larger shop, but I always passed on that. I like my independence. I’m a golfer, and if it’s a beautiful day and I get the call to join a group and go out and play, I will do that. I’ll put the answering machine on. And because I have a home studio I can get work done at night.

 

Are you a good golfer?

I’m an average golfer, but I do boast having six hole-in-ones!

 

That probably comes from having the good hand-eye coordination of an artist, right?

I’m also a former basketball player. It started with my eighth grade team winning the Brooklyn championship title in 1961 – Bernie Sanders was on that same team six years before I was and his team won the championship, also – and I played high school ball. We were division champs in Brooklyn and I had a college scholarship when I attended Pratt Institute. I played in the New Paltz men’s league for 30 years (was president of the league for 12 of those years) and played 33 years in the Kingston 30-and-over league, but injuries forced me to slow down. Nothing to do with old age!

 

Do you do any type of artwork for your own pleasure now, or any other reason?

Before I started making signs I drew and painted regularly, but it became too much sensory overload once my time was involved with sign creation. My escape now is physical activity — gym and sports.

 

Do you have any staff?

Just a part-time helper for installations.

 

What changes have you seen in your field since you began?

I think the basics are still there: somebody goes into business and needs a sign. And people still wait ‘til the last minute a lot of times! But I have noticed that some of the townships are harder to work with these days. Every town has different sign ordinances, and some towns keep people waiting months for approvals on sign applications. Whereas in the old days, it would take one or two days, as long as you’re compliant with the regulations. A lot of times now, there’s a review process by committee, there’s the bureaucracy and paperwork, the boards that meet only once or twice a month, the business owner waiting to get seen… things like that.

 

How has technology changed your business?

Back in the ‘70s and into the mid ‘80s, everything was done by hand. Hand-lettering, murals… then slowly, computers started offering digital solutions. First it was cut-vinyl, now it’s digital imaging. And it’s nice to be able to design on the screen. The communication is much simpler now; you can email designs back and forth, which makes working out of the home environment that much better. You assimilate, you learn new technology… you’re never too old! The bottom line is, signs have become less expensive, because they are easier to manufacture. And you have cleaner hands and clothing!

 

Do people ever give you a sign design that you think is awful?

Sometimes people give me something that maybe someone in their family designed, and I’ll try to show them examples of why it isn’t in their best interest, and how it can be improved. Ultimately the customer is right, but I try to give them the best solution. And I’m finding now that we’re in the digital era, more and more I’m getting files sent to me from businesses that have their own graphic designers, and they want to make a sign out of a graphic file. The designers are well-intentioned, and many times it’s a fine design that relates well to print work, but it’s for stationary viewing; it’s not suitable for pedestrians or moving vehicles. So I always weigh in on that and make recommendations.

 

Beyond word-of-mouth, how do you generate work for your business?

I’m an advocate of networking. I was the founder and am the president of the Esopus Business Alliance. We’re a nonprofit group. This June will be our ninth anniversary and we’re holding steady at about 85 members; we have monthly meetings and mixers, and it’s fun. It kind of gets me out of the shop and into more social activities. Sometimes we have guest speakers on all types of subjects, and membership is open, you don’t have to be an Esopus resident. We have probably two dozen members from places like Highland and Kingston.

And I am also chairman of the Town of Esopus Economic Development Committee, which was started about a year and a half ago. We’re trying to develop Esopus with smart growth and bring more business in, lower the tax base a bit. We work hand-in-hand with the Comprehensive Plan Committee, meeting monthly and working with the new supervisor, Shannon Harris, who has some good ideas. So I encourage networking; I realize what it can do for any business and what it’s done for my business, and that’s what it’s all about, bringing the community together.

 

What attributes does a person need to be successful in your line of work?

It’s a combination of artist and businessman. You do need both. Technology opened the door for a lot of people to buy into turnkey digital sign businesses, but these folks aren’t professional designers and they may not know about good design. So ideally, put it that way, somebody going into this business would have a sense of both business and aesthetics. As well as being able to communicate with people; all kinds of people.

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What advice would you give to someone contemplating going into your line of work?

Stay with it. Stick with it. Nothing happens overnight. Pratt Institute’s motto says it all: “Be true to your work and your work will be true to you.” And it’s great if you can do what you like. If you have the luxury to do what you like, that’s an advantage.

 

Do you plan to retire?

No, I don’t think so. I can see myself slowing down but not completely stopping. I like what I do. I chose to stay small, in the sense that I can control things and don’t have to worry about feeding other mouths; it kind of buys me my own freedom. Living here, with all of the great things to do in the Hudson Valley, is almost like semi-retirement, because I can create the time to enjoy myself right here.

Slotnick Signs & Designs may be reached at (845) 658-9805 or visit http://slotnicksigns.com/home.html.