by Art Chantry (email@example.com)
as far as i know “signage” isn’t a word. although it’s in use (and may have been recently added to the dictionary – i don’t keep up) it’s basically professional “lingo” that is entering our vocabulary.
“signage” is generally considered to be carefully thought out designs and full planned applications of signs as rendered by “signage” professionals. usually it refers to signs made by “graphic designers.” you know the stuff – dull boring helvetica set up in corporate colors that somehow get lost into the background enough that you don’t see them until you are passed them? you know what i mean (vern)? that stuff. that’s ‘signage”. the stuff that instantly sucks your soul out of your eyeballs when you enter a shopping mall.
signage has it’s history though. sign painting is (for my money) the true secret brotherhood of graphic design everywhere. when pompeii and herculaneum were excavated, guess what they found painted on the walls of those ancient buried cities? murals? beautiful artworks? no, they found ads. painted by professional sign painters.
for the last 150 years, sign painting has been the bedrock of american graphic design. without it , there would have been no training, no skill set, no place to learn the aesthetics of typography and design. where did “graphic designers” (a term that wasn’t in common use until the 1950′s) and ‘commercial artists’ learn their trade? why, in the back of those popular mechanics pages, those little ads in those little trade magazines that said “learn sign painting in your own home.” that was the training ground for american design for generations. it was a mail order business.
one thing that was guaranteed was that if you could paint a decent sign, you’d always have work. it was true, too. until the advent of the computer “cutter” systems, signs were the province of the artisans- the lone gunman of advertising. every wonder how woody guthrie managed to eat while he traveled the country on boxcars and played his songs at the very height of the depression? he painted signs. no joke. woody guthrie was an itinerant sign painter. all you needed was a kit and some know-how.
sure, there were printers. and the printing industry contributed mightily to the profession of design. most rules of design that we practice are based on the physical properties if wood and lead type as they are arranged on a printing press. but, that was all business. it was even unionized. it wasn’t a ‘free’ craft practiced by “artisans and hustlers.” it wasn’t ‘graphic design’.
this is one of my favorite home-made signs. it was fastened above one of those 1920′s vintage cement one-car garages that pepper the seattle environs. it was on california ave in west seattle. it was there for years (this photo is over 20 years old). some of you may even remember it.
the pest control biz (my brother is a major professional in the field) is often plagued by little one-man shops like this. imagine caustic chemicals and pesticides stored in a leaking ancient garage on major thoroughfare. it’s a recipe for disaster. little guys like these are the reason my brother is beaten into the ground by arcane and abusive laws and ridiculous fees and restrictive rules that control his industry. these little guys are just short of crimina
their practices. but that’s another story.
so, this guy, this fly-by night operator and defiler of our environment went even beyond his territory and befouled our visual environment as well – he did his own sign, too. pretty darn groovy. guys like this are a bane to my industry, too. why would anybody actually hire a designer to make a sign, when you can do one THIS GOOD all by yourself!
the xmas lights are what make it.
this sign puts the lie to everything i’ve ever learned about “good design” and “design culture”. basically, we’re all hacks making our versions of this crappy sign. who needs to hire guys like me, huh? just buy the software and YOU can be a designer just like this guy at ‘city X-terminators.’ do-it-yourself is not always a virtue, ya know?
AC:you worked for saul bass? i’ve heard of him… oh, yeah! he was the guy who directed and shot the shower sequence in “psycho”, right? he had a little talent, i guess…
the who idea that printers self-medicate with alcohol is rooted in a certain amount of fact. instinct for survival can be as powerful as addiction. i knew an old ex-biker gearhead turned printer (a lot of them are, ya know) who had a nice little shop. he and his “ol’ lady” slept on a waterbed. they began to have a leak, so they returned it and got a new one.
a while later, the new one began a leak. they returned that, too. they went through this process a few times until the waterbed store owners took a closer look. they noticed that the leaks were happening on HIS side of the bed. the plastic used to make the “bladder’ was getting hard and cracking and thus starting to leak. basically, he had so many toxic chemicals from his print shop running through his system that they were leaching out his pores and interacting with the plastic bladder and causing the reaction. so, his solution was to switch to a regular mattress.kinda does ya proud to think our creative efforts actually kill printers, eh?
i also hired a guy to do so phosphorescent ink (glow-in-the-dark) on a project. when he came home that night and walked into his dark bedroom, his wife screamed. seems his eyes were GLOWING!