Sign Effectz takes joy in problem solving

Made in Milwaukee

Learn more about:

Sign Effectz Inc. 

1827 W. Glendale Ave., Milwaukee

INDUSTRY: Custom signs

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Adam Brown in the shop at Sign Effectz.

On any given day, there is a good chance you drive by the work of Milwaukee-based Sign Effectz Inc., whether it’s the large Stone Creek coffee cup along I-94, the Oscar’s Frozen Custard waffle cones, the Café Hollander signs or more recently, the Opus building occupied by Foxconn Technology Group in Mount Pleasant.

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“We design and build some of the coolest stuff out there,” said Adam Brown, president of Sign Effectz. “And we’re not a huge company by any stretch; most of those (contracts) go to the biggest in the industry because they have the resources to be able to throw at it.”

Sign Effectz started in Brown’s garage in 1996. The company has now grown to 25 employees and a 17,000-square-foot facility near Lincoln Park. Staple projects for Sign Effectz include channel letters, monument and pylon signs, LED lighting of signs, and custom, one-of-a-kind signs that border on art.

Brown credits his relationship with co-owner Rick Rossetti for helping the company grow. While Brown brings a creative approach and explores new methods and techniques for building signs, Rossetti’s analytical mind focuses on the details and makes projects work from a business perspective.

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“That’s what makes our partnership work so well,” Brown said. “There has to be yin and yang, there’s no doubt about it.”

A major turning point for Sign Effectz came after about 10 years of doing business. Brown asked his top employees where they wanted to be in five years. When Rossetti expressed a desire to run the operation, Brown knew he would need to step aside.

The change allowed Brown to establish AFX, a division within the company that works on research and development with new materials and techniques.

“The diversity of materials, and freedom, in a somewhat commoditized product allows you to add light and texture and really opens up that mosh pit of materials of what’s possible,” he said.

Ultimately, Brown said, the work is about solving problems. An artist or architect has an idea for a sign and it is up to Brown and his team to develop a solution that can bring the idea to life.

“We can commit to projects before we have any idea how to solve them and that’s primarily out of pure passion and joy of problem solving,” he said.

Taking on tough challenges can also make other projects possible in the future. In one case, lessons learned on a sign for a library in California helped with the waffle cone signs for Oscar’s Custard. The library sign was an ivy branch with different portions illuminating when books from different categories are checked out.

Brown said Sign Effectz probably would not have been as ambitious with the Oscar’s signs without the previous experience of working with changing lights.

While Sign Effectz does work across the country and even internationally, most of the work is in southeastern Wisconsin and the Midwest. Creative and custom projects draw plenty of attention, but the business is balanced out by installation work for larger national franchises.

Brown continues to explore new methods of manufacturing, diving into 3D printing in recent years. It could open up more ways of customizing signs, particularly interior elements, while also making it easier to produce small batches of custom products at a reasonable price, he said.

“Your fabricators on the floor now turn into (computer-aided design) modelers,” Brown said. “I did. I love it. I came from busting my knuckles and dropping stuff on my toes and wasting material to problem solve and figure out how to build something… to getting to the 3D CAD modeling world where you can do all of that stuff in a virtual world and make sure 1,000 pieces all match and align and run it through animation to see if it works.”

On the one hand, 3D printing represents an opportunity to attract potential employees who are not going into the skilled trades, but Brown also wonders if not working with their hands as much will turn some people away.

“I wonder if you’ll be able to maintain the level of interest and passion in 3D CAD modeling because there’s little pain associated with it all of the sudden. It’s just a mental math problem and you hit print,” he said.

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