I spent the morning watching a documentary on sign painters – talking through the history, art, and future of the industry that is almost invisible to us today. Now, a very small industry full of people with a common goal: painting beautiful signs.
They are a bunch of cooks. Some lovable, some not. All extremely talented.
The documentary got me thinking, so I took a drive around Milwaukee to try and find some of the painted signs I never stop to notice.
Sign painting is a rare art form these days. In the 70s and 80s, as computer and printing technology developed, vinyl signs became the standard – due to their extreme cheapness and ease to make. Of course, the old standard exists in the world of signs as well: of quality, budget and speed, you can only choose two. The world of signs today is often dominated by budget and speed. With crummy and dirty vinyl signs hanging in every town in America.
Near the end of the documentary, an old sign painter mused that vinyl signs will turn into garbage 30 years from now, but hand painted signs will turn into artwork. The painted signs of the last century still plastered across our cities are precious. They are artworks. Memories of a different world. With different values and technology and practices.
Many of the sign painters interviewed lamented the insatiable desire for today’s cheap signage. They are part of a dying generation that values the honesty and stability of long, hard work. Of hand lettering and human imperfection.
I agree. And I think today, more people are starting to look back with fondness on the signs and practices of the last generation, discovering a richer and truer beauty in their work. I think, perhaps, sign painters and the unique beauty they create could once again step into the spotlight.
In hopes of paying homage to the past, I started creating a font from one of the beautiful signs I saw on my search.
This evening, I watched a new Netflix movie called The Dig, set in an English village in the months leading up to WW2. Watching it, I noticed a stark lack of any sort of design or imagery within the setting of the story. The only graphic I noticed through the whole movie was a small matchbox held up for a moment while lighting a pipe…
In contrast, Wes Anderson’s film The Grand Budapest Hotel is set in nearly the exact same time (though in a fictionalized version of our own history), and is CHOCK full of beautiful graphics. Letters, notes, books, tickets, signage.
These stories are Very different – the former is set in the country of a remote village, the latter revolves around a large hotel a quaint little city – but the difference still struck me. I think Wes Anderson uses graphics and design in a way that few other directors do, at least that I’ve noticed. I think it’s a very cool tool that I wish (maybe selfishly) was used more often in film. It’s something I want to think about more intentionally when ever I get around to writing something for the screen!
I can’t wait to see how and where Wes uses graphic design in his upcoming film, The French Dispatch.
In the spirit of showing some of the process of my work… here is a snapshot in Adobe Illustrator of a project I’m working on for a favorite local coffee shop. I’m in the initial stages of recreating all their coffee bag labels, as well as rebranding the shop as a whole – new logo, new merchandise, new feel.
This project specifically is a fun one because I like the shop, I like the staff and I like the owner a lot. Usually, the first step is figuring out overarching brand identity – but due to extenuating circumstances, we are having to rush through a label design for the coffee bags before solidly grounding the design language for the shop as a whole.
It’s alright, we’ll get it all done – but this can lead to some mismatched design language later on if what we land on for brand feel does not match the bags we already created.