Save the fading local typography of our cities

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A store sign in Venice, Italy (all photos by Molly Woodward of her Vernacular typography project)

One of the most overlooked design losses in global homogenization is regional lettering. The introduction of mass-produced signs is a relatively recent innovation, and in the past, if you wanted to prevent intruders or sell merchandise, you either made the sign yourself or hired an expert.

“Before the proliferation of cheap vinyl printing, signage was created by artisans and sign makers, and their work was naturally anchored in local visual culture,” said graphic designer Molly Woodward, creator of Vernacular typography, said Hyperallergic. The current online archive brings together around 10,000 photographs of letters from around the world, from Argentina to Japan, though the lion’s share is from New York, his hometown.

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

The vernacular typography is similar to projects like the M + Initiative to Map Hong Kong’s Endangered Neon Signs and Stephen Banham’s 2011 Characters: cultural stories revealed by 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 has come up with birding-style navigation to decipher the typefaces of signs, whether it’s Franklin Gothic at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) or Baskerville on the storefronts of Alexander McQueen. Even Walker Evans, the great chronicler of 20th century American life, was drawn to regional signs, photograph them abundantly 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 orientation, ‘ghost signals’ for businesses with long shutters, gravestone text, awnings of hand-painted stores and all urban communication with a sense of belonging. There is a lot of appreciation here for everyday design, the details we overlook but which make our cities unique.

In See for yourself: a visual guide to everyday beauty, Released this month from Chronicle Books, Rob Forbes focuses on how to better see the aesthetic of the urban world through its contrasts and patterns. He writes:

Much of the man-made world that I see is chaotic, haphazard, mundane, offensive, and frequently punished by the business interests of our consumer world. In our efforts to make our lives more practical and ‘modern’, we have made both great achievements and tragic errors of judgment. City center surface-level parking lots, indiscriminate linear shopping malls, and sprawling suburban communities are common examples. Our man-made world has suffered greatly because we simply haven’t taken the time to take a close look at it and think about the consequences of our actions in the long term.

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

“Typography and vernacular letters have a way of creating and maintaining a sense of belonging, and when we lose these symbols, we lose the sense of our own history,” she said. “It seems that every day a sign is covered or destroyed by a new construction. If we don’t document and appreciate these signs now, they will be gone forever and we will sever our connection to the past.

Metal sign for Canal Street station 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 hand painted truck in New York City

La Libreria Acqua Alta in Venice, Italy

Architectural typography in New York City

Pepsi-Cola sign in Long Island City, New York

Hand painted sign in New York City

Discover thousands of regional lettering photographs on Vernacular typography.

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