V&A Dundee

Read

Sign of the times

Signwriter Rachel E. Millar was set to lead an exciting course at the museum in March. Unfortunately, it had to be postponed, so we asked her to write a sign for us instead. We asked Rachel a few questions about her process and how she became a signwriter.
Photo of a studio set-up with a white paper sign on an easel on which has been painted the words "V&A Dundee" in bright lettering.
The beautiful sign Rachel painted for us.

Hi Rachel! Can you tell us how you first got into signwriting?

I got into signwriting through a mix of higher education and my own research after I finished art school.

I studied graphic design at Edinburgh College of Art and spent a semester studying at Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston. I took a class in Boston called ‘Hand Lettering for Design’. I was taught a huge range of basic lettering skills, such as calligraphy and Trajan letterform construction in seven-hour long classes each week for five months. It was intense. There was a lot of homework, but it was so valuable. I learned a lot.

I saw so many hand painted signs in Boston and knew that's what I wanted to do. When I returned to Scotland, I contacted a signwriter just outside Edinburgh, the late Robin Abbey. He very kindly gave me a day’s masterclass and told me all about the craft.

My first official piece of signwriting was my degree show piece! After art school, I moved back to Glasgow and started helping out Ciaran Globël of Globël Signs a few days a week. I also practiced painting pieces regularly. Once I started getting my own enquiries, I got a studio space, worked hard and built up a portfolio.

Watch Rachel paint our name below 🎨

When designing a sign from scratch, what's your first step?

My first step is always to ask my client a few questions. Where will the sign be? What size is it? What should it say? What do they want to convey to their audience?

I also ask if they have any particular colour scheme or style in mind. When I have most of these questions answered I can go straight to pencil and paper and draw up thumbnails of different layouts and rough styles.

A lot of the aesthetic decisions of a job come from what the client wants to show their customers. These days I get more people coming to me asking for something they’ve seen in my previous work, such as a certain lettering style or colour scheme. This makes it easier to design as it’ll be a style I like to paint, making the job more enjoyable!

A bright pink sign with blue letters saying "She is fearless".
Rachel bent over as she paints a huge OK on a wall.
Rachel up a ladder painting a large shop sign that reads "Glasgow Zine Library".
  • One of Rachel's stunning signs.

  • Rachel signwriting.

  • Rachel working hard on one of her signs.

What's the most daunting or challenging part of signwriting?

I’d say the most challenging thing is juggling lots of projects at the same time and organising my time so that my business runs smoothly.

People think that signwriters are just painting constantly but this isn’t the case. Some days I spend the whole day drawing and designing on my laptop, other days I’m meeting new clients about potential projects, picking up materials, going to sites to measure up, sending emails and working out estimates. On average, I probably only spend two days a week properly painting. There’s so much to the job that doesn’t go on Instagram.

What do you enjoy the most about it?

The best thing about signwriting is that there’s such a variety in what I do. Even though juggling tasks and projects can be a challenge, the fact that every job is different and I have so many different roles to play within my business keeps it exciting. I am constantly learning.

Rachel kneeling beside a black van painting a sign on the sign that says "Wunderbar".
Rachel stood in front of a tattoo shop window where she's painted the sign in blues and yellows.
Colourful sign on the wall that reads "This world belongs to the brave".
  • Rachel's work includes painting signs on the side of vehicles. (Photo by Kevin J Thomson)

  • Rachel stood in front of one of her creations.

  • Another one of Rachel's beautiful signs.

Was it more challenging creating this sign for us during lockdown?

Creating this piece for you hasn’t necessarily been more challenging, but it’s certainly been different to how I’d usually work.

I can’t use my space at Mount Florida Studios just now (there are more than ten of us who work there). I’ve had to make a temporary studio space in my flat. I’ve had to switch to using specialised acrylic paints and working on mixed media paper as I couldn’t bring my (fairly toxic) white spirit-based paints home. This has been a challenge but also a nice change for me as I don’t usually work with paper.

The lockdown also forced me to do a lot more drawing by hand. We live in a fast-paced world and to keep my business profitable I have to use many processes to speed up the time I spend on projects. It’s been nice to slow things down a bit and get back to the fundamentals of drawing and painting letters.

The most challenging thing about the situation we’re in is that I can’t get outside to paint. Eventually I won’t have client work to do so will need to create my own projects. I’ve just set up a poster swap with a few other sign painters so that will keep me motivated for the next few weeks.

Why did you choose these colours for the sign we asked you to make?

I chose this colour combination as I was looking through photos of the museum and really liked the sunset shots of it sitting beside the water. The warm reds, oranges and yellows were a nice contrast to the steely grey of the building.

A painted sign on white paper that reads "V&A Dundee". The letters are red and yellow and grey.
The sign Rachel painted for us, inspired by the sunsets over the Tay and the grey of the building ❤️

Where or how should someone start if they’ve never done signwriting before?

It's best to go to a workshop run by a veteran signwriter. There’s definitely nothing better than learning from a pro first-hand!

However, in the current situation your best bet is online courses, videos and reading books. There are so many resources you could dive into.

There isn’t a fast track to learning signwriting, though. You need to love it and, above all, have a lot of patience and dedication.

Rachel E. Millar is a signwriter, gilder and lettering artist from Glasgow. Follow Rachel on Instagram or visit her website.