These signs speak volumes
by Chris Farnsworth
About a year ago Justin Dennis moved the operations of his company, JDDesign, from Shelburne to a studio near his home in Montgomery Center. There, he can fully fabricate the custom signs he makes for clients.
From the window of his studio Justin Dennis can see Jay Peak, capped with snow. With scant signs of a human presence, he looks to the mountain and all of the natural beauty surrounding him for design inspiration.
“It’s been my dream,” Dennis says of moving out to Montgomery Center. “I love woods, I love that I can see the mountains or walk down to the river. In Shelburne, I couldn’t disconnect. Here I can do that very easily.”
It’s been less than a year since he took JDDesign, the company he founded in 2009, out to the mountains. He operates from a studio built near his house, where he has expanded his company to be not only a design shop, but a fully functioning fabrication house where he can craft his custom signs.
“I tell clients that I can take it from paper to installation,” he says. After years of soft-goods design, he wanted his legacy to be something more. “I want to be known as a craftsman.”
It all started when Dennis realized he had an affinity for design. “I’ve always doodled,” he says. “I just enjoy the free-form of making graphics.”
Growing up in Connecticut, he found himself fascinated by old cars and their elegant line work; their Old World craftsmanship. Though he initially sought out an architectural degree from New Hampshire Technical Institute, he was soon drawn to graphic design. By his own admission he didn’t know graphic design even existed, but his growing fascination with it led him to transfer to Champlain College in 1999.
An internship at Burton Snowboards started the process, but he didn’t finish what he considers his first proper, professional work until after he graduated from Champlain in 2002. His girlfriend, Joanne DellaSalla, was moving out to Colorado to get her master’s degree, and Dennis knew he had to make a life choice.
“I was going to lose her if I didn’t go, so I went out there with her, but I couldn’t find a job in design. I became a ski bum!” They would marry in 2007.
Dennis did eventually land a job, taking pictures of the Arapahoe Basin as he hiked, then adding in graphics later. The design ended up on some sweatshirts, and Dennis’s career had officially begun.
Like many graphic designers, he found that the field wasn’t exactly chock-full of jobs upon his return to Vermont in 2005. He took a job in design and production management at a hemp clothing company. It was a cool job, he says — he got to travel to China sometimes — but the market dropped out. The job, and the company, were gone, leaving him back at square one.
Gathering every last dollar he had saved, Dennis decided to take matters into his own hands and formed JDDesign.
Things weren’t easy at first. In addition to getting his studio up and going, Dennis had to find a way to make an impact with the local community as well as navigate the ups and downs of a business he was only just learning about.
“There were definitely times where I asked myself, What am I doing?” he says. “You can’t just open up and say, ‘Hey, I have a sign shop.’ You have to put your time in to show people your craftsmanship.”
Dennis’s first chance came when doing work for a chiropractor’s office in Shelburne. At the time, his work was almost exclusively designing business cards and brochures, something he didn’t love. His client approached him with a mock-up that a sign company had sent him, and Dennis felt a familiar frustration.
“It wasn’t the same style or colors [as the other design work], it was totally different. That’s when I said to myself, ‘Oh, my God! I need to control this so it isn’t confusing to the client and his customers.’ Not everyone realizes how important consistency of brand identity is. I really like all that stuff — brand identity and logos — and I wanted my work to match up with everything. I realized making the signs goes hand-in-hand with that.”
It was a lesson he would remember while working with Tree Bertram, owner of El Gato Cantina. Together they worked out the design and aesthetic for the restaurant, from the signs to the menus to the windows. It was the iconic logo, however — a slender black cat peering out at the would-be customer — that showcased all Dennis had learned about brand identification.
“When you see this cat, you know it’s El Gato,” Bertram says. “You want that to be special, to be instantly recognizable. And it is.”
Indeed, the metal sign is a favorite of Dennis’s: A version of it hangs in his Montgomery studio.
“He goes above and beyond, and stays on the timeline he gives you, which is just really great,” Bertram adds.
“I want it so that when people aren’t sure how they’re going to make something work, they say ‘Oh, JDDesign! Those guys can make it happen,’” Dennis says. “Because once I create that identity, it’s on a card, it’s on your menu, it’s in your doorway. What I’m creating is your customer’s first impression.”
With his new philosophy of doing everything in-house, even handling the often arduous permit process, Dennis found that as the jobs got bigger, his studio space — his garage in Shelburne — wasn’t going to cut it anymore.
“I did some work for Dealer.com and they wanted to come by my shop,” he says. With a smile he recalls having to shuffle the dirt bikes and clutter to try to make the garage feel like somewhere he could showcase his work to clients. That couldn’t last, and he knew it.
The answer was a camp he and his wife had owned for some years, a tree house out in Montgomery that was completely off the grid. Dennis looked at his seven-year-old business and recognized it had grown to the point where he no longer needed to stay in Shelburne.
“I work all over the state,” he explains. “Burlington, Hinesburg, Jeffersonville, White River Junction … I didn’t need to be central anymore. I knew I could make this happen.”
They built his shop first and lived in that while they tore down the tree house and replaced it with their home.
The move hasn’t isolated him or his work, though. His designs can be seen all across downtown Burlington, from El Gato to The Istanbul House to the Burlington Segways Tours logo. He does all the sign work for Smugglers’ Notch Distillery, as well as a huge current project for a restaurant in White River Junction.
While spreading his portfolio across the state, Dennis collaborates with other graphic designers and sign makers, such as Roger Sammel, owner of Sammel Sign Co. in Essex Junction.
“We were introduced by a mutual acquaintance/graphic designer,” Sammel says. “We’ve been friends and collaborators ever since.”
Together they have helped each other, each using the other as a creative sounding board, even doing installations together, perhaps rare for competitors.
“It’s nice working with him,” Sammel adds. “He’s talented, for one. Like us, he pushes the envelope. He’ll send me an idea and we’ll say, ‘How can we do that?’ We’ll figure it out together. It works out really well for both of us.”
Just as crucial to Dennis, the move to Montgomery has given him all-important family time. He and Joanne have two young children, Jonah and Jude, as well as their “first baby,” Sancho, a Levitt Olde English bulldog.
“I re-live my childhood with my kids,” Dennis says. Along with the design and fabrication materials in his office is a set of vintage Legos he kept for the day when he had his own children. “My wife is a stay-at-home mom, so I can be with my kids a lot. We hike and fish, and I’m getting them into snowboarding and biking now.” Joanne also helps the business with back-office work like bookkeeping.
The mountain is crucial to his creative process, he says, offering him serenity and flexibility the urban area could not.
“I’ll start my work early, like 5 a.m. to 8, go to the mountain for an hour, then come back and work,” Dennis says. “It’s an incredible way to clear the mind.”
Now settled on the foot of the mountain, Dennis can look ahead to where he wants to take JDDesign.
“I want to keep pushing to the next level. I want to push the levels on materials and on creativity,” he says. “There’s this whole world of custom fabrication out there, and you can pretty much make anything you can think of; you just have to know how to get it.”
“What I want to build are high-quality signs, signs that people remember,” he says. “I want the three-dimensional signs with 24-karat gold. This past year alone, I’ve done three, whereas in the beginning, I don’t even know how I would have sold that.”
He stops and looks for a moment out his window where the mountain looms, a snowstorm gathering behind the peak.
“I’d love to make a sign that never fails, a sign you never need to replace.” •