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Barbara Schilling, owner of Sign Station in Anoka and a member of the Anoka Area Chamber of Commerce, is reaching a career milestone in 2015. Schilling is marking her 40th year as a professional sign artist, and Sign Station is marking it's 35th year in operation.

Schilling sold her first signs while a student in the Sign Lettering and Design program at Detroit Lakes Vo-Tech, now part of Minnesota State Community and Technical College. She was a member of the program's first class in 1974-75. Students in the 10-month program were able to gain on-the-job experience filling sign orders for the local business community in Detroit Lakes, Minn.

Forty years in the signage business has been ample time to witness and participate in a number of important changes in the industry, most notably in the role of technology in sign making, and in the advancement of women in what was traditionally an all-male work force.

For Schilling, completion of the technical program was followed by a number of jobs in the sign industry before opening her own sign business. Right after graduation she worked part-time for a sign shop in Osseo, then joined Cragg Signs in North Minneapolis. She later worked for Penthouse Signs (now Central Signs) in St. Louis Park, and for Suburban Sign Co.

She then spent three years as the art director for the printing department at B-Craft Fundraising Products in Brooklyn Park. She also handled that company's accounts payable and payroll, which gave her some necessary small business background to start her own sign shop.

In 1980, Schilling and her husband moved to Andover, and she started making and selling signs from her home-based studio. In 1984, she registered the company name, Sign Station. At that time her husband, Maris, joined the company full time in the production of signs.

When she started in the sign business, everything was done by hand in some form or another, Schilling recalled. Almost all sign work was done in paint, whether on wood, metal, banners or paper. The most technical step was using a projector to enlarge a pattern, rather than using a paper pattern directly. 
Today most signs, including banners and truck lettering and graphics, are produced by computer and printed on vinyl. While paint is still used on rough surfaces, like brick, most painting done on signs today is embellishment or trim. Schilling still uses traditional processes to apply gold leaf, however that is a specialty technique not often used on general commercial signs, she said.
I look at the computer as another tool to create signs, not a product in itself, said Schilling. "I am not selling computerized signs; I use a computer to create signs. The product line hasn't changed that much."

For both indoor and outdoor signs, the substrates (materials used as the base of signs) have changed over the years. Schilling has long used cedar and redwood for sand-blasted signs and still does, but she is now also using HDU or high density urethane. Other bases like plastics and aluminum are common now, but were not used as frequently 35 years ago.

Being a woman in the sign industry was also unusual in the 1970s, according to Schilling. Women often couldn't get jobs, and couldn't get into the union unless they had a job. The only way a woman could get into the sign business was to be self-employed or work in a non-union shop.

Schilling remembers that when she needed an industrial work boot with an oil resistant sole, she couldn't find any sized for women. She had to buy boots in the boys department.
But the winds of change were blowing. In Schilling's sign program at Detroit Lakes, half the students were women. "I think that was a surprise to the instructors."  Today, there are many women in the sign industry.

The use of computers to design and create vinyl graphics was something that really came to the fore during the 1980s, said Schilling. She set up her first graphic plotting computer in 1986 and for the first time in her career, was no longer spending eight hours a day in paint fumes. A plotter is a machine that cuts vinyl. In 1996, Sign Station added an Edge printer, a piece of thermal printing equipment that prints on vinyl and many other substrates in full digital color, and is rated for exterior durability.  In 2005 the large format inkjet printer was added to the shop.

Something that hasn't changed over the past 40 years, Schilling said, is that her favorite part of the business is still working with customers to help them meet their advertising and signage needs within their budgets and in a way that will really help them "Get Noticed".

One of the things Schilling has enjoyed most during her career has been her association with the Letterheads group, which she described as a "frame of mind" rather than an organization. 
Although it has been in existence for over 40 years and has had thousands of participants all over the world, Letterheads has no officers or dues. It does have meetings, a web site and a bulletin board where sign artists can share their talents and knowledge with one another.  Schilling attended her first Letterheads meet in 1982 and found that was where she was exposed to many more aspects of design. "I saw signs that did more than inform, that were more than words on a board. Over the years I've made friends all over the country and the world. That's a valuable thing, especially in an industry so filled with people who work on their own, or in very small shops."

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