Certain things simply make sense to certain people. To chefs it’s food, to musicians it’s musics, and to Freeland resident Nora Harrell it’s drawing and designing signs.
“I don’t know how she sees what she does with all the fonts, sizes and materials she considers, but her signs are gorgeous,” Kim Bailey, owner of Pickles Deli said. “I don’t need to say much to her, she just sees it in her head and knows exactly what I want. Some people have that vision.”
Even if South Whidbey business owners may not know Harrell by name, there’s a good chance they’ve heard of her nickname, “The Sign Lady.” She’s been the go-to source for handmade signs in town for nearly 10 years, and her artistic touch can be seen across the South End. Along with Pickles Deli, businesses such as Dancing Fish Vineyards, Prima Bistro, Rocket Taco and Abundant Earth Fiber have called upon Harrell to advertise their brand. There’s more, too.
Harrell has been creating signs for roughly 40 years, even prior to moving to South Whidbey from California 13 years ago.
“I know what I do is pretty much a lost art,” Harrell said. “Everything I do is hand-drawn; I don’t use a computer for anything. That doesn’t happen that often anymore since graphic design is the more common method.”
Harrell says she has a gift of being able to look at something and draw it perfectly to scale — or as close to perfect as it gets. That’s useful for her business, since much of her work is based off an initial logo design given to her from the business owner. She typically follows that design closely, but is given creative license to roam and always leaves a personal touch on her work.
Many of her signs are visualized in her mind first, where she considers font type, size, space, materials, etc., before she sketches those thoughts onto paper. She then finds the proper board made from quality material, before cutting, sanding and priming the board herself. The drawing and painting follows from her workspace in her living room, which overlooks Puget Sound from Bush Point. That’s the fun part that has kept her churning out signs for the better part of 40 years.
“Even though I’m often designing signs where the business owner is particular about what they want, it’s all artwork to me,” Harrell said. “I’m still drawing and painting every day, and to me, that’s my dream job.”
The dream job, albeit a side gig, pays pretty well, too. Harrell wouldn’t provide a price range for her services due to the varied sizes and materials of her signs, but says there’s plenty of room for growth. There’s lots of work too; merchants want signs made when business is good, and also when business is bad.
Harrell can be hard to find; she doesn’t advertise or have a website. Her success has been solely word-of-mouth. She can be found, however, every Tuesday at Red Rooster Antique Mall in Freeland where she works a side job as an antique dealer. She can also be reached at 360-331-2119.
According to Bailey and Abundant Earth Fiber owner Lydia Christiansen, her marketing is done all by word of mouth and personal connections. She meets many of her clients while frequenting South Whidbey businesses and reaches out to the owners if she notices work needs to be done on their business’ signage.
“She came into Pickle’s as a regular customer, and noticed the signs my husband and I made were outdated and wearing,” Bailey said. “You don’t really know what you’re doing when you just start out with a business, so we didn’t know how to properly make a sign. She offered to do that for us and has been fantastic.”
Business owners have been going to Harrell for their signage for a number of reasons. Of course, they’re supporting a local craftsman rather than outsourcing the work to businesses on the mainland. The cost of her work is also comparable to sign designers from the Seattle area, and often cheaper, according to Christiansen.
Yet it’s the handmade element of Harrel’s work that is the hook, line and sinker for her clients. People who love her signs say they are durable, have personality and generally are more appreciated than those designed by a computer.
“The general demographic here and my clients appreciate things made by hand,” Christiansen said. “It’s not mass produced, it’s not at all sloppy and it’s very professional. You can see someone took care with the work.”