Signing Team Duo Creates Community Connections through Store Graphics
Military members shopping their local Exchange store will notice a local touch to the graphics that adorn the walls—each mural is designed specifically for its home installation.
The murals are created by the dynamic duo of Ryan Howerton and Sydney Bierman, and each project begins with a lot of research.
“Wikipedia will only get you so far. We really have to do a deep-dive,” Bierman said. “I’m learning so much about the history of our installations.”
Howerton added: “Library of Congress, National Archives, DVIDS [Defense Visual Information Distribution Service]—we exhaust every image database we can find. And you have to read everything. Not every caption is accurate, sometimes the dates are wrong, or we can’t confirm the information.”
Howerton joined the Exchange as a contractor in 2015, becoming full-time in 2017. Bierman is a third-generation Exchange associate: Her grandfather was a general manager, and her mother was a buyer. She joined the Exchange in the Merchandising Directorate in 2015. When a designer spot opened up in 2017, she jumped at the chance.
Customized murals became a focus around 2016, with the new Fort Cavazos (then Fort Hood) store being one of the first to get the personalized touch, meaning Howerton and Bierman have designed the vast majority of the Exchange-created murals at stores worldwide, including all Express 2.0 updates.
“Ryan and Sydney are both extremely talented. A ton of work goes into these murals,” said Art Director Michael Jerome, who supervises the murals team. “It’s not like they can do photo shoots where they choose the content of the images. They have to find photos, then develop the design around what they find.”
Often, many hours of research turn up…nothing, meaning Bierman and Howerton have to switch approaches.
“If we can’t find historical images to use, we have to do a conceptual approach and start from scratch,” Bierman said. “At Minot Air Force Base, for example, there were not a lot of great images I could find, but it’s known for the B-52, so I started focusing on history of the B-52.”
Projects often include five to 10 murals per installation, and the team works to ensure the images all flow together and tell a story.
The biggest challenge of the job is staving off creative burnout and keeping designs fresh.
“Sometimes you have 15 murals working at a time. You need a lot of creativity,” Howerton said. “I want to make them educational and multidimensional. Historical military imagery can look very similar from place to place, so I might focus on the installation’s mission statement first and design from there.”
It’s a priority for Howerton and Bierman that each design be unique, even when they get requests for duplicates from managers or command who saw something they liked at a different installation.
“We try to push back when people want exact copies,” Howerton explained. “We don’t want to do cookie-cutter murals.”
The goal is to design graphics that connect shoppers with their individual communities.
“Military families move all the time, so if they’ve just arrived, they might not know much about where they are,” Bierman said. “I like when I can help them learn about the place they’ll be living.”
Shoppers notice and appreciate the customized touch.
“Shoppers seeing themselves inside of our facilities ties to our family serving family core value,” said Fort Sill Consolidated General Manager Hollie Heft Morales. “They’re not just walking into any convenience store or mall that looks like one outside the gates. This is theirs; they own it.”
And by highlighting the history of the installation, the murals honor the current generation as part of that installation’s continuing legacy.
“The murals at Edwards Air Force Base are a standout reminder of past accomplishments and an ongoing inspiration for current and future warfighters to continue pushing boundaries and breaking records,” said Edwards BX General Manager Courtney Escobedo. “The Chuck Yeager mural [at Edwards] highlights his accomplishment of breaking the sound barrier—a sound our shoppers now hear almost daily and lovingly refer to as ‘the sound of freedom.’”
The murals are not just for shoppers—Howerton and Bierman design the murals that adorn associate spaces too.
Each mural goes through a rigorous review process that includes installation command to ensure authenticity and accuracy before the final product is installed.
“The murals add life and vibrancy to stores, as well as giving customers a sense of pride in where they’re stationed,” Jerome said. “It’s a way to tell the customers that the Exchange sees them, and we’re grateful they’re here.”
One of Bierman’s favorite moments was when she discovered that a mural she made for the Joint Base Lewis-McChord Exchange featured the son-in-law and grandchildren of an Exchange associate at MacDill Air Force Base 3,000 miles away.
“That was a cool coincidence,” Bierman said. “It happened unknowingly, but that’s what we want to do with our art: bring people together.”