Wednesday, August 08, 2007


As I was walking to work the other day it suddenly occurred to me how many damned signs there are on the way, and the wide range of styles they represent. There are signs which date from the 50's to just yesterday and as I wandered along I took pictures of them and wondered if there was any conscious effort to their design. Obviously someone designed them, but how much of that design was just drawing shit and knowing material specifications and how much was what I would call "bullshit?" That is, how much was a designers way of actually making something work - attempting to signify things? Did the odd and mismatched shapes of some signs represent "futurism" or "consumerism" or something else that I can't see as I try to peer back in time?

The signs are very different and use space very differently. The earlier ones, for instance, seem very cavalier about "wasting" space. That is to say that they don't utilize all the space they take up. This particular sign is one of that kind. I'd date it to the 1950s, but that is the rankest speculation. The first thing I noticed is that it really tosses space away - each 'signlet' is surrounded by space, no two are shaped the same, and even the signlets themselves don't use all the space they might have - Look at that second one from the top - it bows in on itself on the top and the bottom. This looks like a very 50's sign to me and you can attribute the lack of concern about space to optimism (there will always be more signs and more space), to waste (after all, there was no reason not to waste things, space included. In the 50's we had it all, from the A-bomb on down). Anyway, as the blanked out contents indicate, this sign is probably not long for the world and there's not much I can say about the use of fonts on it. ;-)

You can compare that use of space to what I think is a more modern, but odd and transitional, sign. This is a sign at a small strip mall by my house. At the top it has the same disregard for conservation of space that the previous sign does, but at the bottom it begins to become more "traditional" in that it is tightly gridded and filled (perhaps the epitome of this "efficient" approach is the realtors sign tacked on the bottom of the blanked out sign. Colliers isn't about wasting space!).

The same shift occurs in font as the top has two fonts for a mere two words, one script and one print, and the leding on the word "center" is ludicrous. In the bottom section the fonts are unified, easy to read, and fill the space without stretching.

The other weird thing about this sign is its remarkably religious appearance. The sign is in the shape of a cross and the top resembles a sacristy arch. Even the dark adobe-like color of the thing lends to its religious/missionary look. Too bad the shopping mall has dive food, liquor stores, pool, and bars. ;-)

The end of this transition is to the purely "functional" sign. It maximizes its space and probably cost per square inch as well. It is the most formal gridded approach - rectangular. Here is an example of a relatively maximized/functional "monument" style sign:

Somewhere between the Woodhams sign and the purely "functional" sign, is the Safeway sign. The Safeway sign is also a very formal call to the grid, but also wastes a great deal of "see-through" space. At least, in traditional ways, it bounds the space it wastes. That is to say that even the "see-through" sections of the sign are clearly of it and function something like "white space" in a print advertisement. This also looks like it was probably one of the more expensive signs to design and build, so I'm sure there was a lot of "bullshit" behind it's design - I'd have loved to have been a fly on the wall when the architect proposed and sold this design.

This isign s also interesting because one element of that grid is the logo itself, pulled out of the rest of the sign, signifying on its own. Safeway, in this way, is on the way to another sign tactic, the logo as the sign (or the sign as the logo, whichever works better), which I'm sure I'll get to someday soon after I go out and find more of those 50's flying V type signs.

Cause they rock!

The Cost Plus sign puzzles me. The sign is modernish in use of space in that the text fills it and is dead easy to read (other than that mysterious "+" in the "C" which is, I think, supposed to indicate that pharmaceuticals are sold inside), but the shape of the sign is 'wasteful' in a purely functional sense, and the fact that the pediment is as impressive and featured as the sign bothers me. It's like building the base of the Statue of Liberty and then tacking a Garden Gnome on it. Proportion is somehow lost.

Finally, at the end of my walk, is the mighty Winchester sign, which calls to an entirely different time. It completely 'wastes' space - the higher you go on it the more it fades into the sky and has design elements which make no formal sense (what is with that descending "V"?) The font is also a bit weird, particularly the "Winchester" script, which is difficult to read. The picture doesn't show it, but this sign is not only old by design, but by material as well - the text is outlined in neon, and approach that is almost never used now that LCD and other lighting is cheaper and easier to use.

So, this one wins the coveted "coolest sign of them alls for today" award. ;-)

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