It Started with a Bunch of Bananas

Small chalkboard signs promoting 19 cents bananas at Trader Joe's.

Take a picture of these,” said a fellow crew member after I put up my first two-sided chalkboard sign I drew for a banana tree at Trader Joe’s Oklahoma City.

Looking back, I do appreciate the advice as the side that says “We’re a Happy Bunch” pretty much summarizes my sentiment having been part of this grocery chain.

Here’s a sampling of the various signs I have the privilege of creating by hand; some of which are permanent while others are a figment of my memory (but thankfully captured on camera).


A set of larger sign art that belongs to a series promoting digital content.
For larger permanent signs like these, I usually start with a sketch on paper. After which I would do a miniature mock-up to test colors and composition (left) before drawing the elements on the final board. I loved using black marker to achieve the final look meant for this set of signs.

This is the most recent set of signs I created to promote the various digital content that Trader Joe’s has. As you can tell, there is a recurring look-&-feel in the two examples you see above from a total of five.

A unique headline combined with relevant images are used to highlight a specific digital content; like “Sail the Seas of our Grams” with seafaring vessel and creature featuring Trader Joe’s Instagram account. Can you guess what “Explore the Land of our Pins” is promoting? Visit the OKC store to see the rest!

how fast can I go

Chalkboard signs promoting specific product.
These signs on the ends of a product aisle get changed out regularly and the goal is always to create them efficiently while clearly highlighting the product name, price, and an interesting fact.

Unlike permanent signages, the art team on a regular basis has to create sign promoting a specific item that will be displayed on each end of the product aisle. I enjoy drawing these especially if the product packaging has some fun colors and elements.

It is also a personal goal to break my last recorded time to complete such a sign. 23 minutes is the current personal best for a sign that I am pleased with. My goal? 15 minutes.

the two-buck chuck

A three dimensional sign made of foam core.
This 8+ feet sign has various elements that I have to cut out with an electric jig-saw before painting and assembling.

October 2018 was a “historical” moment for Oklahoma as grocery stores all across the state are able to sell wine and beer. I had the chance to create a 3-dimensional sign that’s almost 9 feet wide to highlight the sought-after Charles Shaw wines from Trader Joe’s.

Like with the signs promoting digital content, sketching the idea out is necessary before cutting the elements using an electric jig saw. The pencil sketch and final sign look slightly different due to some adjustments I had to make during installation.


A large floor display made to look like a watermelon patch.
A floor display made to look like a watermelon patch as we usher in Summer and introduce delicious watermelon recipes.

This is one of the largest projects I had to take on in terms of the size and the number of components needed. Being placed near the internal entrance of the store, I had to create sign elements at three levels to draw customers’ attention; on the floor, at eye-level, and from the ceiling.

IT’S MORE THAN A hand-drawn SIGN

A selection of quick turn-around signs done on foam core.

It has been very satisfying returning to the art of hand-drawn illustrations and letterings since I have primarily been designing with the aid of computer softwares. Unlike zoning out when I am designing in front of a computer screen, the act of creating shapes, adding colors, and forming ideas directly on a surface with the occasional splash of paint on my clothes or acrylic stain on my fingers are incredibly cathartic.

Hand-drawn illustrations are far and few in between in the retail industry nowadays. Furthermore, one can create similar look-&-feel with the right computer software. However, I have learned that for a brand like Trader Joe’s, the casual and unpolished look of an actual hand-drawn sign reflects her culture and the nostalgic personality of a neighborhood store.


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