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  • Charles MacDonald

Nostalgia or Better

Off the high street of a city or town you’ll find the fascias of independent businesses adorned with photographs and word-art printed on banners or plastic sheets. You’re also more likely to find businesses which list their services on the outside of their shops. In the centre of every city in the UK, without fail, you’ll find the same dozen businesses lit up with their light-box lettering in well-known logos. The only other written information these businesses display is likely to be Sale signs in a window surrounding a curated examples of a trend, and the occasional slogan. The distinction here, broadly, is between shops confident that people will enter for the brand alone, and shops that feel the need to actively sell the benefits they provide to customers. The shift towards modern branding that happened in the first few decades of the 20th Century, from selling features to selling a name, is an unfinished and confused process. Amongst all this you’ll find the occasional piece of hand-lettering on a traditional pub, independent retail outlet, or homely cafe. Occasionally you’ll find an area dense with it, mandated by a council to maintain or build a certain vibe. The history of sign-writing is evident in our town centres, and speaks to the history of technological and economic changes. The sign-writers I’ve met are extremely familiar with this history, in part because the older ones have witnessed first-hand changes to the industry over the past few decades. Another reason is that there’s undoubtedly an element of nostalgia and revivalism to many sign-writers, indeed to anybody involved in a traditional craft.

A question to me is as to what exactly the nostalgia is for. On the one hand, that pining admiration of skill that I still feel around sign-writers today is exacerbated by how ordinary it was historically, by the scale of sign-shops and the number of artisans. That ordinariness speaks to the other factor: that the spaces we move amongst have lost specificity in the place of branding. It’s actually unclear to me whether sign-writers work in branding. In one sense, they obviously do in that their commercial work is designed in tune with the aesthetic of a business, and the values it means to project. On the other hand, there’s an objective rightness to good lettering that runs quite contrary to the concept of branding. “Eye appeal” is, to some, a scientific standard, and one that brands can consciously flaunt in favour of some other stolen aesthetic.

Signage is one small aspect of the homogenisation of culture, but it’s illustrative. Just as with the environment, it’s difficult for one individual to comprehend the haemorrhage of cultural diversity during the last few decades. By culture I don’t mean entertainment; we’re probably more often entertained now that we have been before (you can use twitter at work, for example). Cultural diversity, instead, in the more subtle sense that city centres would have looked and felt more different from each other fifty years ago than they do today. It’s the slow imposition of sameness across towns and cities that accompanies the liberalisation of finance and investment. This is the global issue of feeling nothing in an H & M in Hong Kong, or hearing Drake played at a party one night and in an airport the next morning. Just as Drake produces his tracks once and they’re disseminated in the place of diverse musical forms, so is the H&M logo designed on CAD once, then cut from plastic and installed thousands and thousands of times. In this sense, the “rightness” of the lettering is undermined by the fashion of the sign’s production. The principle here is that aesthetic judgement is also political judgement. This isn’t always a popular principle designers, but I imagine craftspeople might feel differently. I never would have recognised vinyl cut in a “casual” painted style to be insincere until I realised how that lettering form was dictated by mechanics of a brush. Equally, sincere digital aesthetics from Web1.0/Geocities through to DeepDream images share some strange charm in that they hide nothing of their digital, inhuman production.

The decline in sign-writing over the past few decades could well be as much to do with the consolidation of high-street outlets as it has to do with rise in vinyl lettering. After all, just because the technology of vinyl should exist, there’s no reason it should automatically take the place of paint. Even if it’s cheaper and easier to do, vinyl would only impact sign-writing given a certain set of circumstances: that price is valued over the broader impact of a sign’s production, and that a modern aesthetic is valued over the “traditional” or “retro” aesthetics that painting encourages. It’s no wonder that traditional sign-writing declined when more and more high-street shops have been one of a few big brands. The sort of economic change this entails are well-known, and the stuff of modern life: fewer skilled people working less meaningful jobs, fuelled on debt. Whilst this pattern exists in all sorts of industries, signage is useful as a means of thinking about it in that signs are designed to be visible and to define a space to the needs of commerce. Perhaps the eye appeal of a logo remains the same, but to be greeted by that same relentless H & M sign in every city I’ve ever been to is an ultimately unappealing numbing of both high-streets and myself. Unappealing, and the face of a system of production and distribution that we know to be inadequate to the real needs of people globally.

An exercise familiar to nostalgics is to walk down a high street and imagine how it might have been decorated in a previous time. Perhaps a single town would have the same diversity of letter forms it has today, but across the country there must have been a far healthier range. And instead of a few companies providing thousands of cut plastic signs to a few companies, hundred of local sign-writers could have been produced a far more diverse body of signage to a more diverse range of companies. Old sign-writers’ modern counterparts are not just sign-writers, but all the people who subsist on the less meaningful work that has taken craft’s place. Ultimately, any nostalgia for better, more diverse letters, is also a nostalgia for a different set of economic relations.

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