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Recording the Fading Local Typography of Our Cities

A shop sign in Venice, Italy
A shop sign in Venice, Italy (all photos by Molly Woodward from her Vernacular Typography project)

One of the most overlooked design casualties of global homogenization is regional lettering. The introduction of mass-produced signs is a relatively recent innovation, and in the past if you wanted to keep out trespassers or sell wares you either made the sign yourself or commissioned an expert.

“Before the proliferation of cheap vinyl printing, signage was created by artisans and sign-makers, and their work was naturally grounded in the local visual culture,” graphic designer Molly Woodward, the creator of Vernacular Typography, told Hyperallergic. The ongoing online archive gathers around 10,000 photographs of lettering from around the world, from Argentina to Japan, although the lion’s share is from New York City, her hometown.

Different time periods of typography in New York City
Different time periods of typography in New York City (click to enlarge)

Vernacular Typography is similar to projects like the M+ initiative to map the disappearing neon signs of Hong Kong and Stephen Banham’s 2011 Characters: Cultural Stories Revealed through Typography book on signage in Melbourne, Australia, which explored how the origins of the city’s signs reflect its particular social and economic history. In the 2013 book Field Guide to Typography: Typefaces in the Urban Landscape, designer Peter Dawson offered a birding-style navigation for deciphering the typefaces of signs, whether Franklin Gothic at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) or Baskerville on the Alexander McQueen storefronts. Even Walker Evans, the great chronicler of 20th-century American life, was drawn to regional signs, photographing them extensively throughout his career from the Great Depression until his death in 1975.

Vernacular Typography is omnivorous with its signage, including graffiti tags, fallout shelter signs, subway wayfinding, “ghost signs” for long-shuttered businesses, tombstone text, hand painted shop awnings, and any urban communication with a sense of place. There’s a great deal of appreciation here for the everyday in design, the details we overlook but that make our cities unique.

In See for Yourself: A Visual Guide to Everyday Beauty, out this month from Chronicle Books, Rob Forbes emphasizes how to better see the aesthetics of the urban world through its contrast and patterns. He writes:

Much of the man-made world I see is chaotic, random, banal, offensive, and frequently punished by the commercial interests of our consumer world. In efforts to make our lives more convenient and “modern,” we have made both great accomplishments and tragic errors in judgement. Surface-level downtown parking lots, undistinguished strip malls, and suburban sprawling communities are common examples. Our man-made world has suffered to a large degree because we simply have not taken the time to look at it closely and think about the consequences of our actions for the long term.

Like Forbes, Woodward is interested in preserving this regionalism that gives “a city a visual life and makes them look more like themselves and less like everywhere else,” which is why she believes photographing and sharing them is essential.

“Vernacular typography and lettering have a way of creating and preserving a sense of place, and when we lose these symbols, we lose a sense of our own history,” she said. “It seems like every day a sign is either being covered up or destroyed by new construction. If we don’t document and appreciate these signs now, they’ll disappear forever and we’ll sever our connection to the past.”

Canal Street Station metal sign in New York City
Canal Street Station metal sign in New York City
Graffiti tags and a handpainted sign in New York City
Graffiti tags and a hand-painted sign in New York City
A ghost sign and new parking signs in New York City
A ghost sign and new parking signs in New York City
A handpainted truck in New York City
A hand-painted truck in New York City
The Libreria Acqua Alta in Venice, Italy
The Libreria Acqua Alta in Venice, Italy
Architectural typography in New York City
Architectural typography in New York City
Pepsi-Cola sign in Long Island City, New York
Pepsi-Cola sign in Long Island City, New York
Handpainted shop sign in New York City
Hand-painted shop sign in New York City

Explore thousands of photographs of regional lettering on Vernacular Typography

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