Tom Wenzel is a graphic designer. He runs the design team for Toronto’s Exhibition Place. Almost every sign you’ve seen at the CNE or at a TFC game is his work. He graduated from George Brown in the early 80’s and has been working at the Exhibition Place sign shop since 1996.
This is one of the oldest sign shops in Canada. It’s close to 100 years old. There’s been a sign shop on the Exhibition grounds since 1919. I like the old stuff in here. The hand-painted queen is our favourite. We have pictures of her from the 1950’s.
It used to be sign painters in here. It used to be a trade, just like any other. It’s public art. There was 10-15 guys. Now, sign painting is coming back but it hasn’t been handed down. There’s a generation that’s been skipped and had to learn on their own. They’re learning it on the fly and applying it nowadays.
This sign shop is set up for the old sign painters’ way of doing things. All the cupboards were full of paints. Now, the core of the industry is graphic design. The graphic designer has taken out sign painters.
I started in the industry as a graphic designer. I own my own shop, in addition to this job. I’m getting back into hand painting and I learn from YouTube. I’ve had to teach myself how to do it properly.
I’ve always said, right from the beginning, the design world will never change when it comes right down to art. Art will always be required. That’s why I’m still here. They could have gone to outside printers to get everything done but they still need art. They still need creativity. Even an event like the CNE, even though what they do is cookie cutter, they still need creativity.
It looks like there’s been a lot of changes in computer design but the basics have remained the same. When you’re in a program like Adobe Illustrator, working with vector lines, it’s all the same as it was in the 90’s. All they’ve done is added bells and whistles.
As soon as I’m talking to a client, I know what I want to do right off the top and I know how to get there. It’s about knowing all those tools to build it. It’s not magic. It’s something learned. What helps is being an artist. I’m a fine artist, also. I started my career, when I was a kid, drawing and illustrating.
To me, the artistry is finding the emotion in the work. That satisfies me the most. That’s what I bring to graphic design: emotion. Every sign I do is, ‘How does a person react to that sign?’
I do a lot of greeting cards for people around here and I say that I do my job when I make them cry. Happiness, sadness, whatever. I do my job when there’s a tear in their eye. I try to take that to every level. If I’m making a sign for kids, I’ll put myself in the shoes of a toddler. What would they love? What would they like to see?
That’s how I approach my work and it works. People say, ‘That’s exactly what I wanted, that’s the feeling I wanted to get.’ When I hear that word ‘feel,’ I know I’ve done my job.
-Tom Wenzel, as told to Studio Beat
Photos by Courtney Vokey