Pure Imagination

Dan Sawatzky, co-founder of The Sign Invitational, channels his creativity into one-of-a-kind sign projects.
Dan Sawatzky of Imagination Corp.

Dan Sawatzky of Imagination Corp. (Chilliwack, BC, Canada) is co-founder of The Sign Invitational, an annual competition among signmakers. The final of the next invitational is to be held at Signs of the Times’ booth (#2135) during the 2019 ISA Sign Expo.

Why did you become a signmaker?
I wanted to be a professional artist for as long as I can remember. Signs are where the rubber hit the road. My first jobs came when I was 14 years old, painting window splashes for the Christmas season. At that age, I discovered I could have fun and I could make really great money. I’ve never been away from it, though I’ve been on the edge of it for many years.

What’s the origin of Imagination Corporation and its lovely name?
I worked under the name Dan Sawatzky Artists for many years. As our jobs became more complex and we got higher liability, we felt we had to form a corporation. We thought about a lot of names, and Imagination Corporation allowed us to fit into the theme park industry very well and into the sign industry, but not the mainstream sign industry, the portion where we got to do really creative stuff. In the old days, sign companies … if you needed anything creative or artistic, that’s who you went to. We wanted to take our business back to that.

I listened to your interview on our Signs Unscripted podcast, and you mentioned that you primarily do dimensional signs. Do you enjoy being limited to that?
We don’t have a digital printer in our shop. I’ve laid very little vinyl in my life; I’m smart enough to know I’m not good at that because I don’t do it very often. In my book, a sign is anything that attracts attention to our customers’ product, service or business. That allows us a lot of leeway. But we’ll only do dimensional; it has to have three dimensions, a sculpture or something attached to it.

So do you essentially start from scratch with each project?
We’re not a production shop at all. Very seldom do we repeat ourselves, even on the same job. Everything is custom. Occasionally, we’ll bend that rule. We did a bowling alley last year that was 52 lanes, so we had to repeat ourselves a number of times there. But that’s unusual.

With the Sign Invitational, people might think, ‘Why create a sign that you don’t make for a customer?’ You would counter that it provides an example of a shop’s creativity.
If a customer walks into our shop, they’re blown away because there are more than 150 samples – and some of them are very, very elaborate and required weeks of work. And that’s our investment in our future. Those samples have sold millions of dollars worth of work, so I’m a huge believer.

What are some other things that should attract signmakers to The Sign Invitational?
Through our workshops and conventions I attend, I bump into hundreds and hundreds of signmakers who are very artistic and got into the business to be creative – and are doing anything but that. A lot of them are looking for ways to get back to that. The Sign Invitational is a way for us to make the rubber hit the road – we’ll provide a deadline, we’ll provide subject matter, we’ll provide a venue. Winning is not so important; what’s important is that we force you to create a sample and you take it back to your shop. 

What are the some of the typical reactions of passersby when they see the creations for The Sign Invitational?
The Sign Invitational turns heads immediately because it’s so different than what they’re seeing down those many, many aisles. We get the odd reaction where someone says, ‘Tell me how that’s a sign!’ because it’s a building or a machine or something crazy. No. 1, I made you stop, so therefore it’s effective. And No. 2, what message am I trying to tell? If it does all that, then it’s an effective sign. Yes, it breaks all the rules of what a sign is, but so what? That’s what we do in our shop every day.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Sawatzky’s entry for the 2019 Sign Invitational – the time is “time” – is a timepiece factory.

Sawatzky’s entry for the 2019 Sign Invitational – the theme is “time” – is a timepiece factory.

Signs of the Times March 2019

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