City Room: A Sign All Your Own

Posted By http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/12/07/a-subway-sign-of-your-own/

Trevor MacDermid, left, and Michael De Zayas have started a company called Underground Signs, which makes licensed New York City subway-style signs to order.

Trying to find a high-end New York-themed gift for the holidays?

Maybe your loved ones might want a customized subway sign. What New Yorker doesn’t feel the emotional pull of the iconic white Helvetica letters against the black background?

As of last week, the famously intellectual-property-rights-conscious Metropolitan Transportation Authority has given a license to a Brooklyn company, Underground Signs, to sell subway signs — both the standard ones that are hung in stations, like “125th Street” and “Queensboro Plaza,” and custom ones with whatever text the buyer wants.

As part of the arrangement, the transportation authority gets 10 percent of the revenue from the signs. And it can add up. Prices start at $99 for a small 12-inch square and go up to $400 for signs that are eight feet long.

When the company’s Web site appeared in October, it did not have a licensing agreement with the authority.

“One of the puns in our name, we thought we could get around by being an underground company,” said Michael De Zayas, who, along with Trevor MacDermid, started the company.

But within 24 hours of the site’s appearance, the founders got a firm but polite letter from the authority’s lawyers.

“I was crestfallen,” Mr. MacDermid said.

There are many famous stories about the authority’s efforts to protect its intellectual property. There was a back-and-forth over control of Metro-North Railroad schedule data. A Brooklyn store called F Line Bagels was forced to pull down the circular orange “F” train line symbol from its sign.

But in fact, the letter was also an invitation to apply for a license, saying the authority was “flattered” by the product. Once negotiations started, details were hammered out relatively quickly. “It was not the spiral of hell we heard of at F Line Bagels,” Mr. MacDermid said.

Now the business partners view the license from the authority to be a selling point. Not only can they make the black-and-white signs, but they can also use the colored symbols for the lines. This is going to be a win-win,” Mr. MacDermid said.

Mr. MacDermid saw the potential as well. “We’re like Dell Computer,” he said. “This is something we can do with relatively low overhead.”

The company makes each sign to order. The letters are cut from white vinyl using equipment at Mr. De Zaya’s clothing company, then applied by hand onto the metal.

The company has had 30 orders so far, with sales more or less evenly split between standard subway signs and custom orders.

There is something odd about seeing sterile subway signs with nonstandard text, such as a Breuckelen-bound train.

“The white Helvetica on the black — it’s a cold, straight, formal expression that is supposed to be clear and understandable by everyone,” Mr. MacDermid said. “When people take that and make it their own, it gives me a good feeling.”

Indeed, Mr. De Zayas made a sign for himself, a prototype, that said, “Verandah Pl,” for Verandah Place.

“It’s a street in Cobble Hill,” he explained. “It was my favorite street. I named my cat after it. ‘Verandah Pl,’ that’s the one for me.”

The two men have had a number of international orders, which was a bit unexpected as they had not set up a full range of shipping fees to account for international orders. An order from Luxembourg came in for a “Ettelbrooklyn — Central Station.” (The founders surmise it is the name of a rugby team.)

Underground Signs had charged that European customer only the standard $40 flat-shipping rate that applies domestically. But the cost in the end to get the eight-foot sign to Luxembourg? $575. “What a disaster,” Mr. MacDermid said. Chalk it up to the growing pains of a small business.

In New York City, Underground Signs will deliver and install the sign instead of shipping it. Among the potential local customers? Perhaps F Line Bagels. “I can sell them their F sign now,” Mr. De Zayas saiid.