Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Traveling Type Nerds Check Out Signs

My husband and I freely admit to being a couple of type nerds. Other people just read signs on commercial buildings; we check out type styles on signs. Is the type interesting, attractive, and well suited to the business? Some type is; some isn’t.

So many typefaces on signs now are bland and generic, the inevitable plain sans serifs. While readable (a good thing), these Helvetica clones can be boring. It’s like going to an ice cream shop with 98 flavors and choosing vanilla.

Still, if you keep your eyes open when you travel, you’ll see fascinating signs. There are old signs (see the top of this blog) and new ones (see below). Newer signs sometimes mingle type styles, as in the awning for this tavern. Just looking at the type on the sign makes you feel like it’s a hip, trendy place to hang out.

Other signs use specially designed letters to create a certain mood. This cafe sign, spotlighted in neon, has a modern, fun look. You’d expect the food to be innovative and tasty just by looking at the type on the sign.

On the other hand, this sign for a restaurant/tavern along the river in a small town seems to have missed the boat, to use a bad pun. For a restaurant located in a historic district with a pretty river setting, you’d expect a sign with old-time lettering like steamboat jig work. Instead this sign makes you feel that food here may be ordinary at best.

Using the right type on a sign can make customers feel good about shopping at a business without knowing why. But using the wrong type can jolt or confuse people.

It’s hard to go wrong with a classic, as this bookstore sign shows. Using Roman style capitals similar to Hadriano Stonecut, this sign makes you feel that there’s good reading inside the door. There’s a literary feel, an understated elegance, that says a booklover would enjoy this place.

In the other hand, the used auto business sign below uses Old English in glaring red and black. That might be perfect for a medieval pub, but really doesn’t fit with the sleek modern image of cars.

The sign for old fashioned donuts below has letters that are appropriately fat and round. Can you imagine a donut shop sign with skinny, stick-like letters, and would you go there? Donuts are a simple pleasure, and this sign is simple too, but with a flair that says old time bakery.

Unfortunately, this sign for a nail salon shows no hint of upscale femininity. The thick, clunky type, a computer-fattened takeoff on Art Deco, makes you feel like your nails will weigh a thousand pounds when you leave.

Similarly this sign for a Chinese restaurant is a study in confusion. The garish red and green awning has distorted textlike letters that almost defy description. It makes you wonder what kind of strange Oriental food you will encounter within.

A perfect example of type used in the right way is this sign for a music store. The Celtic style type makes the storefront distinctive. You can almost hear the sound of the harps and pipes and see the Irish dancers.

Being a traveling type nerd is fun. All it takes is a little observation. How does a sign make you feel about the business it represents? What good and bad examples of type usage on signs have you seen?

1 comment:

  1. Carole, I understand you and your husband's motivation to look at signs and determine the appropriateness of their type. I am a graphic design instructor and when viewing bilboards, signs and other public displays, often see *only* the type and how it's used with no idea of the message. I call it a curse but with a wink. What you're describing is personality...which I believe everythng has. I wrote my master;s thesis on the "Personality of Type" as well. Enjoyed the post and look forward to seeing more.