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Wednesday, September 19,2012

This is a good headline

Lansing's Eric Dennis invents the icon you can't refuse

by Lawrence Cosentino
Last week, a lady in an ankle cast stopped me at the grocery store. “Why don’t you write more about the good things people are doing?” Journalists are often asked this question.

Sorry I stepped on your wrist, lady. I was having a bad day. 

Here’s my real answer.

Perhaps you’ve noticed small, diamond-shaped, yellow signs reading “THIS IS A GOOD SIGN” sprouting up around town, at coffee shops and so on.

The sign is the brainchild of Eric Dennis, a Lansing man who — but I defer to WLNS-TV’s Jane Aldrich, “Your News Leader,” who, befitting her title, got to this story first.

“Since the beginning of time, people have been looking for signs,” Aldrich said on “Tell Something Good,” a series of spots designed to please people like the ankle-cast lady. “Signs that they were headed in the right direction, making the right choice, or even getting close to the promised land. Well, now, a mid-Michigan man … ”

Eric Dennis appeared on the screen, flashing a jumbo “Good Sign” at Lansing Community College and talking about a “movement.”

“He decided it was time to stop focusing on all the fear, anger and division in the world,” Aldrich explained.

I ached for more detail. Buddha sat under the Bo tree. Newton sat under the apple tree. Where did Dennis find enlightenment?

I visited with Dennis at his downtown Lansing apartment and asked him for some background.

“My name is Eric Dennis, and I’m the Good Sign Guy,” he said, as if he were a prisoner of war.

He was reluctant to talk about himself. “This isn’t about me,” he said.

Fortunately, I didn’t need to pull out Mr. 9mm to get him to open up a bit more. Dennis is from Connecticut. He moved to Michigan from Florida a year ago, via Atlanta. For a day job, he services photographic printers, but he spends much of his time running “Team Good Sign,” about a dozen staffers and volunteers, from his loft near the northwest corner of the Capitol lawn. Sometimes he hops onto the roof and “Good Signs it up” for the benefit of passing motorists.

The idea for “Good Sign” came to him in February 2010, not under a Bo tree, but in a shopping mall parking lot in St. Augustine, Fla. He was sitting in his car with his brother, brainstorming about coming up with a sign. “It has to be a good sign,” Eric said. Bing!

“It was an immediate lighting bolt moment, where you just know,” he said.

What bad things in the world drove him to this?

“Things I could see that didn’t seem quite right, whether you want to say, in society, or in general, with life. I noticed things, patterns, issues I thought should be addressed.”

That’s as specific as he would get. Specificity is kryptonite to the power of Good Sign.

“This is a completely universal icon as far as what it is,” Dennis said. “It’s created to be universal and totally impartial and it can speak to everyone. It kind of bypasses the intellect and speaks to the heart.”

Dennis is a nice guy. I could let this whole thing go if he and Team Good Sign weren’t so shameless about blowing big, wet bubbles of platitudes. On the WLNS spot, Good Sign team member Jessie Magoon told Aldrich that Good Sign is “about accepting and loving people for who they are.” 

Dennis asked me not to talk to Magoon, as he was no longer with the Good Sign team.

There’s no question Dennis is onto something. Shortly after thinking up the sign, Dennis wrote excitedly in his notebook of thoughts: “There is nothing negative you can say about this sign.”

Even a fortune cookie or a smiley face gives you something to argue with. Hell, a peace sign can get you tire-ironed in Ypsilanti. Have a Nice Day? Look at this lip sore and tell me to have a nice day.

Good Sign asserts only itself. It is a perfect rhombus of solipsism, the sign you will find at the vanishing point of human discourse. 

But it turns out that Good Sign is for something after all. It is for sale.

“The sign is fully trademark protected,” Dennis said. The trademark certificate is framed on his wall.

“It’s to keep that element of control and allow it to grow out into certain channels, like retail and design and that sort of thing,” he explained.

 “A Good Sign is a great promotional vehicle for YOUR brand,” reads the “Promote your business” tab on the Good Sign website. “It helps to create a faster, stronger more emotional bond with your customer. It will get your business TONS of positive attention; in person, on social media, traditional media etc … ” Et cetera. 

A Good Sign line of apparel is in the works. When I visited Dennis, he had four silk-screened shirts displayed on the floor. For now, Dennis passes the little yellow signs to businesses and people for free, but who knows how far Good Sign will go? 

“We’re looking for more Team Good Sign members,” Dennis said. “We offer them a way to help their fellow man out by carrying a Good Sign.”

Good Sign has already gotten a thumbs-up from Arnold Schwarzenegger (true) and hundreds of cell phone photos on Facebook. When it really goes viral — influenza-in-1918 viral — who knows how much businesses will pay to use Good Sign fliers and promos? 

“The best way I can describe it is that if you get on the back of a good sign, you’re going to go far,” Dennis said.

All right, so Dennis wants to spread hope and make a few bucks at the same time. Why not? He’s Obama and Romney rolled into one. You get twice the America.

Last week, Dennis’s team hired a licensing agent “to showcase our design world through retail channels like Target or a clothing manufacturer that sells Hot Tops.”

“That was a good sign,” Dennis said.

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