Michael Doret

Michael Doret

Michael Doret (image courtesy of Astute Graphics)

As a boy, Michael Doret spent many happy hours in New York’s Coney Island amusement park. Now, as a well-known graphic designer, he can see the influence of all that flamboyant and colourful carnival lettering on his own design work. In this week’s post, Michael takes the time to tell us more about his life as a man of letters.

How & why did you first get into graphic design?

I don’t think there was ever that moment when I said to myself ‘I’m going to be a graphic designer’. It was more of a gradual process. I was lucky enough to have had some great art teachers in high school who believed in me and gave me excellent guidance and encouragement. That led me to apply to and get accepted as a college student by The Cooper Union in NYC. The ‘Foundation’ year at Cooper included Architecture, and for a while I thought I might pursue that but, in the end, art won out. Cooper had some graphics classes, but the Art School was more oriented towards fine arts. After a year or two at Cooper I realized I was not cut out to be a fine artist, and so looked to take more graphics classes. At the time Cooper offered those, but they were at night and more for people already working in the design field. I took those classes anyway, and that was probably the first indication of my commitment to graphic design.

Cooper Union Letters

Dimensional Letters on Cooper Union Foundation Building (image courtesy of Richard Tucker)

After college I held a series of jobs involving various levels of design expertise. I learned a lot at these jobs, and about five years after graduation made the decision to go out on my own and pursue a career in graphic design.

Graphic Artists Guild Wall Plaque

A Metal Wall Plaque for the Graphic Artists Guild New York Headquarters, designed by Michael

You grew up at Coney Island, NY. What effect did that have on your design style?

I grew up near Coney Island, not in it, like Alvy Singer from Woody Allen’s Annie Hall who grew up in a house under the Thunderbolt Roller Coaster in Coney Island! A few years ago I happened upon a 3-D slide of my brother and me enjoying a day at Steeplechase Park in Coney Island. This slide was a revelation to me and played a pivotal role in helping me figure out why my work looks the way it does. In the center of the slide are my brother and me—he’s looking very cool—and very aware he’s being photographed. But I’m off in my own little world, fixated on all that’s going on around me. Around us were all the sights and sounds of the amusement park that are burned into my memory. In studying this photo I realized something very important: all that signage, all those banners and lettering, all those beautiful, colorful graphics were impressed deeply into my subconscious, and many years later had resurfaced and had all come out in my work. They were my colors, my letterforms, my configurations of typography and borders—I’d have been proud to have created any of them! Then it dawned on me: somehow as a kid I fixated on all those graphics, and stored them all away for future use.

Coney Island Michael Doret

Michael and his brother

You run Alphabet Soup type foundry, designing lots of creative fonts. As someone who generally doesn’t use fonts in your design work, how did you get into type design?

I never did use a lot of fonts in my work, preferring to handle most of the typography as hand-lettering (except, of course, for body text). But while we all understand that lettering and font design are two very different disciplines, they do have a lot in common. As a freelancer my workload goes through peaks and valleys—it’s usually either feast or famine! So it was during one of those lulls back in 2003 that I decided to fill my time by creating my own projects that could generate income. Given my knowledge and expertise in designing letterforms for my assignment work, it seemed quite natural to me to try my hand at designing fonts. I soon discovered that I was right about that, but in some of my early attempts at font design I found that it wasn’t as easy as I had hoped. While hand-lettering and font design have much in common, there are also some significant differences as well. But those challenges are what made this new endeavor all the more interesting, and it proved to be a great learning experience. As it happens, I haven’t had too many of those in my assignment work, which has kept my font production fairly low—about one a year.

Michael Doret Pencil Sketch

A Pencil Sketch that evolved into Michael’s Powerstation Font

Designing a font is a huge project and obviously very different from designing a logo. Which sort of work do you prefer?

I still prefer assignment work over typeface design. There’s a certain satisfaction you get when you complete a project that you cannot get when designing a font. Font design is more of an intellectual pursuit in that there’s nothing you can really point to at the conclusion (other than a collection of separate letters)—there’s not really a moment when you can hold something up as a finished product and be proud of it. And then there’s always the disappointment of seeing your font misused by people who don’t understand good design. But when you design a logo or other piece of design, you can hold up the finished piece and be proud of it, and know that it’s finally done!

Powerstation Font

‘Powerstation’ in use

Was there a project you especially enjoyed?

Many projects through the years have been memorable and enjoyable to me. The title treatment for Disney’s feature ‘Wreck-It Ralph’ is the latest one that stands out in my mind. Among others which I have enjoyed are the cover art for the Squirrel Nut Zippers album ‘Bedlam Ballroom’, in which I recreated a neon sign in 3D, and the logo I created for a new Hollywood restaurant – ‘Sassafras’, and others. And going back a few years I created many ‘illustrated’ covers for TIME Magazine that I am still quite proud of. In all these projects I was given free reign by the client to pursue my creative vision and create art which I believed would be memorable.

Sassafrass Logo Sketch

Some of the original sketches

Sassafrass Logo

The Finished Logo

Sassafrass Logo

Another version

Sassafras Gold on Glass

Gold on Mirror

What would be your dream project to work on?

Actually I haven’t done that many designs that have actually been fabricated as three dimensional signage—I could probably count all that I have been involved with on one hand! I’m not sure why this is, but it is definitely the one area that I’ve always wanted to get into, but just haven’t had many opportunities to do so. What makes this especially ironic to me is that it was the signs and banners of Coney Island and the incredible giant billboards of Times Square in New York that were my first inspirations.

Coney Island Mid-Century

Coney Island Mid-Century

Are there any designers/sign-makers/artists who inspire your work?

The work that has inspired me the most has almost always been the work of anonymous artists. Not that they chose to be anonymous, but history has chosen to ignore them. It’s not sophisticated design, but rather the design of artisans who perhaps didn’t have the training to know what not to do. So consequently they designed without the reservations (or the sophistication) that their more educated peers had. To me this was a plus since the work that they produced was not clichéd or tired, and had many aspects which would be considered by others as mistakes. These ‘mistakes’ in their sometimes naïve work are what I find interesting and attractive. It’s most commonly found in the work I look to most—that which was produced in the US between the ’20s and the ’50s. It could be old matchbook covers, movie posters, theater marquees, cigarette packs, airline and hotel stickers, logos, et-cetera



Why is creative signage important to a business or town?

To see why creative signage is so important, all one would have to do is come to Hollywood and take a look around. The visual blight here is absolutely appalling. It’s as if business owners here just didn’t care, or have no pride in what their businesses project. Cheap plastic and vinyl signs proliferate without any restrictions. Almost none of them have any creative or interesting aspects to them, and the net result of all this is that you drive down the street here, and just want to close your eyes. If you ever look at photos of old Hollywood you’d realize what the potential was, and how far we’ve strayed from that ideal. I blame the businesses for this in that their only consideration is the bottom line, and I blame the cheap sign shops for churning out any kind of crap that’s requested.

Hollywood Signs

Hollywood in its signage heyday

Could you tell us about some of the signage projects that you have been involved in?

As I said there haven’t been that many. I guess people just don’t feel it’s worth it to spend money on design. So I can cite the work I did for master craftsman Blaine Casson in Toronto for his business ‘Iron Oxide’. He fabricated the signs I designed himself, and did a fantastic job of it.

Iron Oxide Sketch

Wooden Letters

Dimensional Sign

I did a sign for my local homeowners group ‘The Hollywood Dell’ which came out pretty nice—there were several of them which were fabricated dimensionally out of wood by one of the sign shops at Universal Studios. Several years back I did two signs for a local ephemera shop ‘Chic-A Boom’ which were affixed to the front and on the roof of their store. They were painted, and fairly cheaply done . . . the store has now closed and the signs are gone.

Hollywood Dell Sign

The Sign for Hollywood Dell.

Sign by Michael Doret


Where Can I Get Good Sign-Carving Chisels?

I tried to buy chisels at a hardware store yesterday here in Sydney, and no luck… just sub-standard ones for sale and no V-groove chisels…any suggestions?

Thanks & keep up the good work!

[a sign-maker]

Dear Sign-Maker,

If you’re serious about making hand-carved signs, chisels are the first investment to make. When we started in 2001, the very first item we ordered was a set of Swiss-made Pfeil chisels. Since then, our collection of chisels and gouges has only grown larger and more eclectic: we’ve acquired tools from other sign shops that closed, had tools given to us as gifts, and bought more here and there for specific projects and purposes. Like any collection, our family of chisels seems to have taken on a life of its own – tools appear that you’ve never seen before, others are gone for a while, only to show up again later…We made good use of that first chisel set, perfecting our techniques and making the shavings fly on some of our first sign projects. But we soon realised that we would need some larger sized chisels, too.

Carving a Sign | Danthonia Designs Blog

Pfeil makes a good range of chisels, gouges, and V-Tools. Here in Australia, they can be purchased online at Carba-Tec. At our local farmers’ market here in Inverell, I’ve also seen some quality English-made chisels and gouges for sale at the vintage hand-tools table. At the Armidale markets, a similar stall exists. I imagine these tools are collected from auction sales at properties around the area. Some of them are of a quality that simply can’t be found anymore, and they’re going for very reasonable prices. I’m sure similar vendors could be found at some of the markets in Sydney, or probably anywhere around the country.

Chisels at Inverell Markets | Danthonia Designs Blog

A nice array of chisels and other hand tools at the Inverell Sunday Markets

Are you looking for chisels to practice you carving skills? Unlike surfing, where the bigger boards are easier to use, carving is easier if you start with a smaller chisel. 8mm & 12mm wide chisels are good for practicing the techniques. That way you won’t go through so much wood, or HDU, or whatever material you’re using. Later, you can try the bigger sizes, which move more material but tend to be less maneuverable.

Carving a Sign | Danthonia Designs Blog

If you’re planning to carve wood, try to get vertical grain (although it’s not essential). You can practice carving into 2×4 planks, which are cheap and generally made of Radiata pine. It’s a nice soft wood, just avoid the knotholes. When you get more serious about it, New Guinea Rosewood is a beautiful carving wood, and Huon Pine is excellent but hard to get. Of course, HDU has the advantage of having no grain, so it’s great for sign-carving practice. It’s also more expensive than most timbers.

Wooden Sign Panel | Danthonia Designs Blog

A Panel of New Guinea Rosewood, Ready to be Made into a Sign in Our Shop.

Once you’ve bought a few chisels, you’ll need to sharpen them regularly. In our shop, we use a Makita electric horizontal wheel sharpener and follow up with a Japanese water-stone and a honing strop. You might already be familiar with the particulars of chisel-sharpening. If not, there’s a plenitude of videos and blog posts out there to help you. I might even write a post on this blog one day. Just make sure the chisel is sharp enough to shave with, or you will be endlessly frustrated in your carving practice.

Sharpening a Chisel | Danthonia Designs Blog

Speaking of practice, you’ll need a lot of it before you start making carved letters, grooves, and flourishes that actually look professional. Don’t get discouraged. Some of us churned out hundreds of shoddy-looking practice letters before starting our first real carved sign for a client. For carving techniques, check out the following blog posts:

Posted in Q&A

Frisso: The Norwegian Sign-Painter from Denmark


Frisso (image courtesy of Make-Skilled Hands)

Carl Frederik Angell, more commonly known as ‘Frisso’, is one of the new generation of sign-painters that are making their mark on the walls and windows of progressive businesses, in cities around the world. After teaching himself to paint signs, and honing his skills for a year at Best Dressed Signs in Boston, he’s back in his homeland of Denmark. This week, he tells us about his life as a sign-painter so far:

My background is basically the fact that I’ve just been drawing my whole life. As a kid growing up looking up to my brother, I always did the things he did. When he was drawing, I sat next to him and drew the same things he drew and I think that helped me develop my drawing skills a lot. Then I just kept on drawing from there.

Typography Pencil Sketch

One of Frisso’s many typographic doodles

When I finished high-school I pretty much knew that I wanted to be a designer. My older sister was working as a graphic designer and my brother was studying furniture design at that time, so there was never a doubt in my mind that I was going to follow their footsteps. I just needed to find out what kind of designer I wanted to be.

Handpainted Thinner Can

Handpainted Thinner Can

I first got into sign painting when I was applying for an internship as part of the school program at Kolding School of Design. I stumbled across a video of Dan Madsen painting a sign for his shop and I immediately felt that this was it. I wrote him an email and asked if he would be willing to teach me this old craft as a three month apprenticeship, but he wasn’t able to because he was going on a trip to Europe at the time I was planning to do the apprenticeship. Fortunately I had also written to Josh Luke and Meredith Kasabian of Best Dressed Signs in Boston who were interested in having me as an apprentice. This was a whole year before I had scheduled to do the apprenticeship, so I bought some lettering brushes and 1-shot paint, and spent that year practicing so I was well prepared.

You did an apprenticeship with Best Dressed Signs in Boston.

My apprenticeship with Best Dressed Signs was an amazing experience, and from the moment I met Josh and Meredith, I knew that this was the right place for me. After a year of practicing and guessing my way through the process of painting letters, it was great to finally have a real sign painter to show me the right way. And Josh couldn’t have been a better teacher and mentor. They taught me as much as possible in the three months I was there, from making patterns to how you price each job. This gave me a great foundation to build on and keep practicing when I got home. You can’t fully learn how to paint signs properly in just three months, so I’m still learning and that will probably never stop. When you master a technique, there’s always something new to learn right around the corner.

Best Dressed Signs

Frisso and Josh Luke, of Best Dressed Signs, paint a wall in Boston

Do you have a favourite project that you’ve worked on?

I don’t really have one favourite project in particular, but one that stands out in my mind is a reverse glass gild I did for the vintage book store in Oslo, Cappelens Forslag. The reason it stands out is because of the freedom I got with making the design, and probably because of how nervous I was before laying down the first strokes, as this was the first real gilding job I had to do solo.

Frisso at work

Gilded Glass Sign

The Finished Piece

Another project is the last sign I did at the port of Kolding. It’s a 24 x 3.60 metre wall, that says ‘Welcome’, and it’s obviously a sign to welcome the boats and ships that enter the harbour. This was a very fun project because of its size and its visual impact on the area around the sign. Here’s a video of the project by Petter Spilde:

At the moment I’m working on some hand lettered quotes for a series of prints. I’m also starting on a storefront sign job for a coffee shop. Other than that, I just finished school so I’m trying to get some jobs here and there, and see if I can manage to make a living on just drawing and painting letters.

Nellie's Coffee Shop Signs

Are there artists or sign-makers who inspire your work?

I would say I find inspiration in a variety of artists. The Victorian lettering and glass work of David A. Smith. Stephen Powers‘ huge projects like the old Macy’s building in Brooklyn. Kenji Nakayama‘s beautiful styles of single-stroke brush lettering. Aaron Horkey‘s amazing eye for details. And my mentor, Josh Luke has been a major inspiration ever since I first got my eyes opened for the world of sign painting. There’s a lot of other great inspirational sign painters and letterers out there and I find inspiration everywhere.

Poster by Aaron Horkey

Poster by Aaron Horkey (image courtesy of Aaron Horkey)

You taught some lettering workshops in Berlin. Can you tell us about that?

I was contacted by Otto Baum and Elena Albertoni who are arranging Berlin based workshops and events. It was a two day workshop where I taught basic brush lettering. Started with Casuals, then Plain Egyptian and then we finished it off with some Script. Hopefully I will do a lot more of these kinds of workshops in the future, as it’s important to learn how to paint letters if you want to work with lettering. It’s the best way to develop an understanding of the structure of each letter.

Berlin Sign-Painting Class

Frisso oversees a sign-painting class in Berlin. (image courtesy of Make-Skilled Hands)

Signs by Frisso

Frisso Carved Stamp


I Can Get a Cheaper Sign Somewhere Else!

Your signs are nice but I found a place that can make them cheaper. – Prospective Client

Dear Prospective Client,

There are times when it is good business to choose the cheapest sign. Political posters, for example, get tossed right after an election, and it would be overkill to pay for hand-carving on a label for your fire extinguisher. When a cheaper sign gives you the best value for money, by all means, go with a cheaper sign!

But there are times when wise investment gives you the best value for money. Think of a car purchase: a Ford Ka will cost a lot less than a Rolls Royce. But if you run a prestigious limo service, a fleet of second-hand Kas won’t bring in new customers. It may even turn off your old ones. And signs – like limousines – can earn back the initial investment many times over. Even residential signs can increase a property value far beyond the price of the sign itself. Just like luxury cars, handcrafted signs are all about that all-important first impression.

The vast majority of cars do not need to be Rolls’s. Most folks get around just fine in much humbler vehicles. And the vast majority of signs do not need to be hand carved, either. But in those applications where a fine handcrafted product will improve your ‘brand’, your message, and your return-on-investment – the cheapest option is not the best.

If you’ve decided that you really do want a handcrafted sign but price is a concern, take a careful look at the cost drivers:


All else being equal, a  large sign will cost more than a small sign. But how big is big enough? When we design a sign, we use various formulas to determine reading distance, speed of traffic and other important factors (I plan to write a separate blog post about that). We’ve also been doing this for the past thirteen years, and during that time we’ve accrued a good many awards for our sign designs. We can help you figure out the right size for your sign. There is no sense paying extra for a sign that is too big. Much worse, however, is the mistake of ‘saving money’ on a sign that ends up too small.

Number of Sides

Most signs are one-sided. But sometimes a two-sided sign is installed perpendicular to the road so traffic can read it from both directions. At Danthonia we charge about 50% extra for the second side. This can be a good investment, since it often increases viewer readability by 100%.


Sometimes, a highly ornate design is what’s needed (for a five-star Art-Nouveau-inspired ballroom entrance). Other times a clean and simple design is the way to go (Don’t Park Here). Obviously, the sign’s complexity – or lack thereof – affects the price. Many of our clients come to us because they’re after something ‘a bit special’, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t able to make simple signs either. The simpler ones cost less. But we’ll never undercut that flimsy plastic election sign in your front yard.


This is an important consideration when comparing sign prices. Many signs look great when they are new, but the paints, hardware and substrates used will determine how your sign holds up to the elements. When looking at price, compare apples to apples. Carefully evaluate materials when choosing who will make your sign. Vinyl letters will fade and peel, long before painted ones. The longer your sign looks great, the better your return-on-investment.

We once had a client who took our sign design to another shop. They made the sign out of a lightweight HDU, which was the wrong material for such a large panel. Not long after the sign was installed, it came down again in a strong wind (luckily no-one was injured), and our phone was ringing once again.

Turnaround Time

True hand-carved and hand-painted signage is an art form. Although there has been a resurgence of interest in the craft, shops making quality handcrafted signs are still an elite circle. Most of these modern-day craftspeople have a backlog of work and waiting lists of up to several months. If you need a sign in time for a birthday, grand opening or any other deadline, there is always the risk it will not get to you on time. At our shop, we use a team approach. Often, various crew members will be working on different components of the same sign, at the same time, almost like mechanics at a car race pit stop. Our normal turn around is a 21 day delivery. For a modest rush fee we can promise a 15 day delivery. Dependable delivery adds value to your purchase. Our quoted prices include free delivery to any address in the USA or Australia.

As you can see, not all signs are created equal. Cheapest is not always best. Our shop excels on those projects where fine design, a long-lasting handcrafted product and fast, dependable turnaround are important enough to invest in. If these factors are not crucial for your sign, go to somebody cheaper!


(image courtesy of Lorraine Purcell)

Posted in Q&A