Playing the name game in a recovery

Wayne Osborne paints a sign
Image caption Wayne Osborne hand paints a sign for a local bakery

At the beginning of any economic recovery, new businesses will be trying to make a name for themselves. That is where traditional signwriter Wayne Osborne comes in.

Self-employed Mr Osborne, 36, who set up his business in a shed at the back of a Sussex pub 16 years ago, hand paints everything from shop fascias and pub signs to vehicles and glasswork.

And his work provides a weathervane for the economic wind.

Ahead of the housing market dip, the demand from new developers for hand-painted signs and adverts suddenly disappeared. Retailers were also reluctant to revamp their stores.

"There was lots of make do and mend during the recession, but things have been picking up in the last month or two," he says, while working on a replacement sign for a local bakery.

"Now there are more orders for new shop fronts than for a long time."


The market town of Midhurst, a trading centre since the Norman Conquest, is a gallery of Wayne Osborne's work.

There is livestock painted on the board outside Jefferson's butchers. The eagle-eyed will spot the small painted figure with an umbrella on the sign for wet-weather clothing store Rainmac.

Mr Osborne says he has been helped by the conservation area status in the centre of the picturesque West Sussex town, as well as regeneration grants handed out by the regional development agency.

The agency and Chichester District Council each invested £40,000 to fund improvements to shop fronts, signage and buildings.

It says the money also paid for training for retailers in product placement, shop design and customer care.

A well-kept retail centre is vital for any area hoping to maintain healthy commercial activity especially during tough economic times, according to Tony Burton, of charity Civic Voice.

"There is no doubt that it is a very important part of the strategy of any town centre - to make it look as though it is not in decline," Mr Burton says.

Ideally, shop signs should be bright and have an impact but should fit in with the character of a town.

"It is no good when each shop front tries to shout the loudest and it just leads to a cacophony," he says.

Empty shops too should be put to good use, Mr Burton argues. In Peterborough, empty stores are being used as spaces for local students to display their art.


The art of signwriting goes back centuries. In Mr Osborne's Midhurst studio there are dusty old books explaining the traditions of the profession.

Image caption Historical figures feature in some of the work

Many signs and names are based on key moments in history. His pub sign for the Royal Oak pub features the head of Charles II, who hid from Cromwell's army by concealing himself in the branches of an oak tree before fleeing to France.

They also offer the chance for humour. One London shop bombed in the Blitz put up a sign explaining that the store was "more open than usual". Another - at a barber's - read: "We've had a close shave, now you can have one."

Nowadays, signs made of plastic dominate the typical High Street owing to the cheaper cost and the opportunity for mass production.

But while there is no evidence of a mass nostalgic revival for hand painted signs, Mr Osborne says there is still a market for his work which can cost anything between £300 and £1,500 for a shop front sign.

One of his customers says he can see the financial benefits of a unique and eye-catching sign.

At Jefferson's butchers, shop manager Jason Jacobs says about half of the passers-by who stop to take a photo of the sign will then come into the shop.


Having left school at 16, Mr Osborne's own business was set up in the shadow of the recession of the early 1990s and was built on a childhood fascination for signs and packaging.

Image caption Specialist paints are used in a signwriter's work

"It was not what was in the box, it was what was on the box that interested me," he says, dressed in a paint splattered apron.

Initially he had work painting old steam engines. His own business started with painting pub chalk boards, but now the internet has revolutionised his research and his ability to advertise his work.

Honours boards for sports clubs help turnover, and there is the occasional glamour request - such as a sign for an exhibition at Kensington Palace in London.

His most unusual job was painting the underside of a tortoise's shell. The pet had kept wandering off, and its owner wanted to mark it with the address and postcode so the animal could be returned home when lost.

The variety, Mr Osborne admits, is the fun of the job. Only the joke from passers-by watching him paint is predictable. They tell him he has spelt the shop's name incorrectly.

But he worries that there are few opportunities, and few enthusiasts, for the next generation to continue the trade.

He hopes that the writing is not on the wall for traditional signs.

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