Too Small For Good Design? Check Under The Hood.

By August 18, 2016Something to Say

Many people believe that great design is a luxury only big organizations get to enjoy. Sure, Apple, Procter & Gamble, and that mustachioed baseball team downtown are big enough to have slick-looking design. But not our humble organization, with its tight budget and overworked staff.

But what about your humble organization’s auto mechanic? If they can do it, why can’t you?

You see, I’ve been taking my trusty Prius to this garage on Montgomery Road for a few years now. They’re throwing a monkey wrench into this entire way of thinking about design. And it must be working for them, because they’ve been in business here for a quarter of a century.

One thing I noticed on the very first visit (you can’t really help but notice) are the posters. They don’t look like what you’d see in any other auto shop. They’re really nicely designed. I mean REALLY nice. And they’re not posters from auto manufacturers or parts suppliers with the local shop’s name slapped on them in black ink. No, these are too unique. Too… cool.


Then you notice the big frames filled with post cards and letters thanking them for their great service. And when you’re leaving, you get a T-shirt. Or a pint glass. Or some other design-savvy promotional product. Just…because.


I expect this kind of thing from marketing companies, design agencies, and the organizations that use them. But when whimsical graphic design shows up at an auto service place, I sit up and take notice.

Who are these guys? Auto4N. And they are awesome.

Now design wasn’t the only thing that attracted me to this place. I started using them because they specialize in foreign cars like mine, and I stayed because service is top-notch. I can make an appointment for an oil change, and they’re ready to take my car when I get there. I go across the street to grab lunch at Gold Star, and when I’m done, my car is ready. Really. Everyone’s friendly, and we can talk about the car, or the weather, or whatever.

Yet design is an integral part of the whole experience. Take the posters. I figured there was a graphic designer somewhere in this organization. Someone’s spouse, maybe? A friend? A mechanic by day, artist by night?

Turns out some of their marketing materials are done by an independent graphic designer and illustrator, Dave Miller. Like their latest T-shirt that I picked up at my last oil change. He also did the mural on the side of the Metro Scooter building next door.


But one of the owners DOES like playing with Photoshop, and he’s the one responsible for the fantastic posters and clever promotional graphics. He even did some exterior graphics (that’s their mascot and “paid spokesperson” Otto Forrin on the side of the garage):


He gets his inspiration from classic automotive posters and ads. You can find these images on their Facebook page:


Now you visual communication snobs out there may notice that they violate some of the conventional rules — the logo often looks completely different, each color scheme is different. BUT, the consistency in the branding comes from the vintage Americana look — and the coolness — rather than more commonly accepted branding standards. Despite the varying visual styles, there’s still a single unifying voice behind everything. And there’s enough use of their logo and colors in their emails and website and signage that you get where it’s coming from.


By taking a very non-garage approach, Auto4N has made itself distinctive. Even though the owners spend most of their time getting dirty under the hood, they understand that their business has a distinct personality. They’re also not afraid to go completely outside what’s standard for their industry.

There are two takeaways here for the rest of us. The first is that no matter how big or small you are, your business can benefit from clever design if you’re willing to embrace it.

The second is to be true to your voice. Know who you are and don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. Auto4N has one shop in a highly-competitive and commoditized industry. Yet they’re still going strong after 25 years, and their design strategy is part of that success.

This design strategy works, and I’m sold.


  • Julie Rothe says:

    Nice, Doug…really neat designs and your explanation super. We still use Whitie’s on Madison Rd. but am happy to know about Auto4N! Just got a 2015 Prius V and like it as much as the 2006 Prius we held on to. Hugs to you!

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