Which Sign Making Software Should You Own? Part 2
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Which Sign Making Software Should You Own? Part 2

Deciding which software to purchase for your sign making needs can be a difficult task.

By Mark A. Rugen

There are many factors to include in your decision such as, your budget, the type of signs you intend to make, the kind of hardware such as cutters and printers that you want to run and of course the difficulty in learning the feature set of the software. Other factors include your personal skill set, and what post-sales training the reseller will provide in addition to the software purchase. Will you yourself be using the software or will you hire someone to do the design and production? Are you just starting out in the business or is this a shop growth decision?

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  • This series of articles will take a comparative look at many of the solutions in the market and should provide you with some decision guidelines for your particular shop.

    Our last article, dealt with "shareware" software. This article will highlight software referred to as "bridge" software, the software link that connects your design software to your output device.

    What is "Bridge" software?
    A bridge connects one shore of a river to the opposite side creating a new path with which to simplify travel. If the river is narrow, only a simple structure is needed. However, if the river is deep and wide then the bridge will require more complexity to connect the two sides. Likewise, the sign maker's choice of "bridge" software is based on the flow of projects in the shop to determine the right solution for your shop.

    For the sign shop, the design software is one shore and the output device is the other, making the river your project. For many sign layouts, the project is simple and all that is needed is a simple bridge. For more complex projects, a more robust bridge may be necessary.

    Part of the attraction of "bridgeware" is its relatively inexpensive cost. Many popular "bridge" choices are less than $500, making them affordable to any size shop. Another popular reason is that many sign shops employ individuals who are quite familiar with desktop design programs such as CorelDraw, Adobe Illustrator or others.

    All that is needed is a way to "cross the river" to the output device. Over the last few years, bridgeware has gained popularity due in part to its low cost and relatively simple learning curve. Undoubtedly, bridges are here to stay.

    What kinds of shops might find bridgeware useful?
    Some shops may have started out in the print for pay business and as a result of customer demand, found they needed a simple vinyl cutting solution. Banners, for instance, are not all printed and can in many instances be more profitable when vinyl lettering is used.

    Other sign shops may only have a small budget to expand to a needed second design and output station, yet they have sufficient demand for that station.

    In both situations, staff members may be more familiar with desktop publishing software as opposed to dedicated sign making software. Bridgeware can always help in these types of situations.

    Finally, there are those shop owners who are simply angry with the "Big Boys" who make dedicated sign making software. Perhaps there were "bugs" or features that were needed and the software makers seemed not to respond with corrections or upgrades in a timely fashion. Whatever the reason, bridgeware has found a niche in the sign making industry.

    What are some negatives to bridgeware?
    While those who are successful in using bridgeware will tell you they are quite happy, some will also share some negatives. For instance, some users mention that the features needed for really complex projects may not be present, or that accomplishing these types of projects takes a lot of time and intimate knowledge of the bridgeware. Keep in mind, of course, that all software programs develop and evolve as a result of user requirements. Bridgeware is no exception. Another obstacle may sometimes be related to the purpose of bridgeware; to run an output device. Cutter manufacturers are constantly releasing new devices and occasionally a driver may not be available for your new device for several months, making it literally impossible to use your bridgeware with the new cutter or printer.

    Since many of the folks using bridgeware are actually designers or artists more familiar with design, coming face-to-face with a screen full of options needed to cut a job on a vinyl cutter can be challenging. Learning complex output options or seeing the use of terms directed toward manufacturing a sign can be confusing and slow production.

    Finally, keep in mind it's "bridgeware", meaning that you must have a design package to actually layout the sign. This is not standalone software. Versions of a design package change and can affect compatibility with your chosen bridgeware.

    --- Continue Below to See What's Out There ---

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    What's out there?
    CoCut: A quick search of the Internet for bridgeware like programs will reveal rather quickly that CoCut from EuroSystems designed for CorelDraw, Illustrator, Freehand & AutoCAD may be the most popular choice for bridgeware.

    This bridgeware comes in several flavors and it is important to carefully read about the feature set, output devices supported etc before choosing the right version for you.

    Since this software is used to run an output device, you will need to setup that device. Some cutters use either the parallel or serial port for communications, while others may use a USB or TCP/IP network address. Make sure that you get the right version of CoCut to support your cutter. The CoCut-Pro version may be a better choice in that it supports all of these settings.

    In the vinyl shop, cutting by color is important, and CoCut does support this feature. After looking at the two menus presented thus far, I think you can begin to see that even though the software is relatively inexpensive, it will require some time to learn in order to take full advantage of the products features.

    Indeed, a nice feature of this software is the ability to "see" how the images will cut on your vinyl, as well as an estimate of the amount of vinyl needed.


    SignTools: Another CorelDraw bridge is from a company in Australia, A Signs. They make the following claim: "SignTools is dongle (security key) free and will not affect any other sign making package that you may have on your system." One advantage to this software is that there is no security key to deal with, thus allowing for less interference with other software packages you may be running on your computer with a dongle.

    This solution is strictly for CorelDraw users, but with the low cost and a feature set that is adequate for many users projects.

    After installing, SignTools3 becomes a script in CorelDraw, and access is as easy as clicking on the script. After adjusting the design with features like outline, shadows and such, the drawing will be transferred to a cut menu through the HPGL export filter.

    I found the system a bit modular, but hey, it's also pretty cheap and it works!



    ProCut XP: This one is from Conclipse and I think what I liked the most was the interface; very Windows XP like and laid out well. In fact, one of the captions on their Internet site mentions that the learning time could be reduced by the mere fact that the interface is familiar to many.

    The interface is set up with a well-arranged set of options on the left and easy to understand tabs at the bottom, making this bridge one of the easier ones to use right out of the box.

    Most of the features needed such as outline, shadows and distortions are readily available.

    The company makes the following statement on their website: "ClikLink™ is a great function that will save a lot of time and work for you. One click and your image is directly moved to or from your open Corel Draw document. Conclipse ProCut XP is naturally compatible with most other graphics and sign software."

    Which Sign Making "Bridge" Software Should You Choose?
    The software reviewed here are for those of you looking for an economic and basic solution. Bridge software can be an effective, economical solution for many shops. Based on those reviewed here and the fact that there may be many others we did not have time to review, I'd say if you are looking for a budget solution for output to your vinyl cutters and you are willing to use a separate design software such as CorelDraw or Adobe Illustrator, you can probably get much of your sign work done with bridge software.

    Sign Making Evaluation Checklist

    Questions to ask:

    • Does the software support my cutter?
    • Does the software require a dongle or security key?
    • Will the manufacturer or reseller give me support?
    • Does the software have limited features?
    • How difficult will the software be to learn?
    • Can I import/export files to other software?
    • Am I looking for a temporary solution?

    Next Part Three - Evaluating Commercial Sign Making Software

    Mark Rugen is the President of Visual Communications Tuscaloosa, Alabama www.givemehelp.com, a consulting company specializing in the sign trade.

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