2 EUHS grads transform sign shop into design/art studio

By Reggie Ellis

At first glance, the pink walls with floral trim send a message of a small town business, but there is no short supply of big, global ideas from the two young men working within the pastel confines of Signs and Such.

Mark Symanski and Steve Cox, both 1996 graduates of Exeter Union High School, took over the business from Steve's mother, Beverly, in February 2003. Steve said his mother had "lots of things come up" during last year and had less and less time to run the company.

Steve said the two only had $150 between them when they took over Signs and Such. The young entrepreneurs used their tax returns to purchase updated equipment and designed and built their own drafting tables from wood purchased by a family member. Other downtown businesses helped out as well and soon they were able to pay the bills that had been falling behind for months.

"August is supposed to be slow in Exeter but it was our biggest month," Steve said. Or at least it was until the end of October, with November looking better each passing day.

Signs and Such has been making business cards, signs, decals, banners, and clothing for more than five years but the two childhood friends decided it was time to expand their horizons and the store's clientele. The difference was the addition of Emerald Knights Studio, a full service art and graphic design studio that creates original artwork for everything from tattoos to Web design. Since its inception in February, Steve said the studio production has helped the business see a 3,000 percent growth.

"If we were working in the millions of dollars we would have been a Fortune 500 company," Steve. "At least we know what we are doing is working."

Now as you walk in the door, original artwork and sketches drape the entrance into the sign shop/design studio. Both Mark and Steve are professional and published artists who have copyrighted all of the studio work. Through their artistic talents the store now offers business logo creation or logo redesign, something for which many companies charge $50 to $150 an hour. Emerald Knights Studio only charges $20.

"There isn't anything that a business can't get when they walk through our door," he said, regarding design.

The studio is also looking at producing several comic book titles, a Web design business and a massive on-line role playing game called "Legacy: Quest for the Throne." The game is an on-line version of the "Dungeons & Dragons" board games that became cult favorites in the 1980s and early 1990s. Similar role playing games, like Sony's "Everquest," already exist on-line and allow players to build and name characters -- such as elves, dwarfs, wizards and knights -- and play against other people's characters in a virtual fantasy realm. But Mark claims their game puts together what the others are missing.

"I follow the gaming industry rather closely and I know what gamers want," he said. "No one has successfully completed what we plan to do. We are ready to go to development but are waiting for additional investors."

The two have also hooked up with Stephanie Whitmore, who has written more than a year's worth of material for several independent comic book titles. The primary collaboration between artists and writer will be Dark Castle, a story following a hero set in a reality similar to J.R.R. Tolkein's 'Lord of the Rings" trilogy. If it takes off, they also have plans to create a video game version of the comic book for Sony's PlayStation 2. Mark said the book will also combine traditional Western comic book art with a specific Japanese art style called anime, a combination he has been refining for several years.

"Hopefully it will appeal to traditional comic book and anime fans alike," Mark said. "Hopefully it will appeal to everyone and make a lot of money."

Even with their visions of grandeur, the design wizards haven't forgotten who their neighbors are. Steve and Mark both said community service is important, which is why they have done projects at less than cost for the football parent organization PASS Club, Exeter Youth Football and U-Turn, and free projects, such as providing the lettering and decals for the Exeter Senior Center's new van. They are currently in negotiation with EUHS to redesign the school's logo and become the exclusive provider of Exeter Monarch uniforms and apparel.

"Our work here is a stepping stone to get our name out there and get plenty of exposure," Mark said. "But we won't forget how this community helped us get started."

Friends for more than 13 years, Mark and Steve got their start in design and art doodling and playing video games in elementary school. Then in high school they were part of the original Pathways program at EUHS. The program places students in four categories -- communication and art, agriculture and technology, business applications and health and fitness -- based on their career path they are most interested. Without any formal art training, Steve and Mark said the high school program was crucial to putting them on the right career path.

"We don't have any formal training except what we learned in high school," Mark said. "We are proof that if you want to succeed and put your mind to it you might actually do it."

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