Jessica Helfand | Essays

Civilian Typography: The Power and The Fury

Left: Cover of Spoiled, Tom Varisco, 2005; Right: Photograph by Steph Goralnik, 2005.

John Updike once wrote that the "itch" to make dark marks on white paper is shared by writers and artists. As for designers, that same itch translates to an utter fascination with the written word. In industry parlance we call this typography, but it might also be said to include anything that resides in that fertile ground between word and message.

As communication goes, signage is perhaps one of the more obvious forms: declarative and in your face, its role isn't to gently cajole or subtly persuade, but to call a spade a spade. A sign — particularly a handmade one — is a life preserver, a visible siren seeking immediate response. A quick search on signage in Flickr reveals numerous examples, from bumper stickers to makeshift posters to an international display of graffiti: yet some of the most compelling examples come from not from professionals, but from real people doing real things. And they're doing it with magic markers, poster paint, and ball-point pens.

Type. It's a beautiful thing.

When you're stuck, or in trouble, or maybe just in a hurry, who has time for professional typography? Tom Varisco's exquisite little book of photographs, Spoiled, turns its lens on the forgotten refrigerators of New Orleans, post hurricane Katrina. It's a poignant metaphor for loss — for pure perishibility — and it's rendered through a series of simple photographs of fridges, unmoored and abandoned and still. And this is where the writing comes in: with their facades bearing messages written in anger and haste, the fridge-fronts read as a kind of chorus of plaintive wailings. Somehow, the handwriting anthropomorphizes these impoverished, inanimate objects, making them read as vestigial remnants of the dead: they're vessels for all that's expired.

The recent serious (if decidedly less tragic) New York City transit strike brought on its own signage vigilantes. If urgency was once typified by hailing a cab with a cell phone surgically connected to your ear, last week it was all about the handmade sign: how big, now noticeable, how clearly it made itself known to passersby. Known for their perseverence and street-smarts, many (most?) New Yorkers succeeded in navigating the city, in those frigid, pre-Christmas days, by penning an ingenious assortment of handmade placards. Purposeful and immediate, it's difficult to imagine these "do-it-yourself" signs being improved upon by typesetting — although taken on a case-by-case basis, there's clearly room for improvement .

Not long after we moved to the country, I went to fill up my car at the gas station one day and came upon a pile of flyers which I felt compelled to send to all of my urban friends. I assumed (wrongly, it turned out) that gentrification was still a remote notion here, in our little village in the Berkshires. And I loved the logo, xeroxed to within an inch of its life — like Al was unwittingly chanelling Peter Girardi.

A year later, I found myself again at the local gas station at the start of hunting season, whereupon I saw Al's new and improved sign.

It struck me that in the misguided spirit of (technological) improvement that seems to characterize just about everything, Al had gotten himself and his dead deer to a computer, going from Taxidermy Gothic to Times Roman Bold in one huge, sad sweep. And it's remained with me, this tale of lost typographic innocence: did someone come along and allege that Al's handwriting wasn't up to snuff? I noticed a different phone number: did he sell the business? And why did he retire the rarified four-headed logo from active duty? Maybe he sold it to pay for the deli-slicer.

I concluded that taxidermy is more a transaction than an art form. In any event, Al's need to make dark marks on white paper was negligible. (At the end of the day, he just wanted to sell some meat.) But the post-Katrina refrigerators and weary New York pedestrians weren't selling anything. And maybe that's the point: in the end, efficiency can only take you so far. Without a cell phone, or in a flood, or barred from public transportation, the thing that separates human beings from the animal kingdom is our ability to communicate verbally. If we can't do that, we do it graphically. When all else fails, the pen isn't just mightier than the sword: it is the sword.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Graphic Design, Social Good

Comments [30]

The problem is that design about communicating information as easily as possible, im glad you find the rural types cute, but now Al has told his customers all the information that they need, so they can make a reasonable choice of butchers. Which means hes more willing to get customers.
Anthony Easton

citizen typography discovers wordart.

By the way, how can you be sure the second flyer is Al's?

There is a charm and a humanity to hand-lettered type that makes it refreshing. Not just naive handwriting like the above example, but any sign or advertising display still untouched by PostScript typography. In my neighborhood the trigger was seeing a fifty-year-old hand-lettered pizzeria sign replaced with a new and "improved" squished Arial Bold version. Did it communicate "pizza" any better than the hand-lettered version? Probably not. It does communicate newness, which is perhaps the point.

I fondly remember working as a Tower Records employee in my late teens, hand-lettering the LP and CD dividers (now typeset) and painting the big foam-core displays on the wall (now professionally-designed offset-printed posters from the record labels). In an attempt to seem modern and professional they've eliminated the funky charm that was their greatest asset.

I think there's been a trade-off of sorts. Amateur typographers love the computer because they can create professional-looking signs and documents, making their small businesses appear slick and competent. Those of us who miss the craft and human touch inherent in hand-lettering hope to mimic it in our design work, hence the booming business in handwriting, typewriter, grunge and House Industries fonts.
Patrick Broderick

MIT's William J Mitchell attempts to unravel some of this in his new book (Placing words) a number of short essays (mostly architectural/network based) examining the role of architecture,signage, meaning and location.

Only just bought but first couple of essays are very promising.

amazon link here

in case anyone wants to delve deeper.

About 6 years ago a handwritten (and photocopied) sheet advertising a local Mom & Pop cleaning service made its way under my door. So much care went into creating the full-page ad — you could still make out the pencil marks Mom or Pop painstakingly followed — I thought to myself, "Damn! I want these people to clean my house!" I was just out of college and broke, so I considered a barter, but any "professional" design would only have sucked the honest sentiment out of it.
Mike Johnson

for me, als first sign is ten times better than the second. the first sign is direct, visually and conceptually cohesive, and includes the business ID, and is promotional. The second is flooded with information, generic, and done on pink paper, obviously a mistake.
bianca barattini

Here is my take... The second flyer falls in the category of "Oh No! Not another flyer from someone trying to get my money! These PINK day glow letter format flyers have out lived their eye catching life. Besides, who are Al's target audience? Do they enjoy day glow PINK. What matters most to his (assuming Al is a guy) audience? What information do they need most, up-front, and quickly?

Yeah, what bianca said. But we knew that. Right.

I prefer the previous years flyer.

I'd trust my prize carcass to the taxidermical offices of the maker of the first sign, whose lettering betokens confidence and pleasure in a job well done. Not to the maker of the second, which smells of lack of confidence in one's craft and a consequent need to dress things up in borrowed (store-bought, educated) clothing.
john mcvey

I'm surprised no one has mentioned Found Magazine yet. Each issue compiles found notes, photos, handmade signs, etc. giving the reader a glimpse into the private or public life of others. What a gem it is. The website features a new found item each day. Here's one from an earlier date. They recently published a book which I highly recommend - very funny at times, while heartbreakingly touching at others.

I recently saw a handwritten sign at a cheap brunch buffet that read "Sweat Potato Soup". Needless to say I didn't try it.

still the best.


Kinko's Astrobrite Pink + Times New Roman = Best Friends Forever
Joe Pemberton

Nice one Jessica... the Speak Up post really bugged me!? Actually I've been trying to get my head around Design's fascination with 'improvement'... is there space for a practice in design that isn't motivated, first and foremost, by improvement?

And just take a look at these signs from yesterday's Alito confirmation hearings in Washington. Not handmade, to be sure: still, I can't help but wonder if Alito's critics remembered to include the fi-ligature?
jessica helfand

Wonderful post. John Baeder's "Sign Language; Street signs as Folk Art" book might be of interest to some, as might James Sutton's "Signs in Action" and Maurice Rickards'"The Public Notice".
Marc Greuther

As much of a found / naive typography junkie as I am, I immediately realize that my eye's perception of posters / signage like any of the ones we've all pointed to and cherished are far more appreciated once you've gone through the education, training, and practice required to really get a handle on how to utilize type style as well as type setting to get a message across.

We "read" the hand-done as more genuine and authentic primarily because the majority of us are intimately familiar with the labors involved in setting well-polished type - the TimesNewRomanification of Al's sign is especially hard on the eyes because we're aware of how "quickly" that was tossed off within Word and how the veneer of professionality that Word provides only reaches so far into how well we perceive / receive the message beyond the words on the sign.

On the flip side, Al and business owners like him may have felt conspicuously homespun or "low-rent" simply because they reached for a Sharpie or a Bic instead of calling up the local printer. Kinko's makes an exquisite bank off of all the sole-proprietors, start-ups, and basement office-dwellers out there because it taps into the sense of the same professional veneer that Microsoft Office / Word is promoting.

Folk typography is yet one more thing that takes a trained and cultivated eye to be really affected by - I sincerely wonder how often its true creators are actually that captivated and taken by it.

I like the first sign much more visual impact, and if it wasn't for the logo on the top, I wouldn't go with Al based on it. I'd have to meet him. The second sign is far more boring and doesn't grab me so much, but the lack of a logo worries me. The TNR and lack of personality make it feel questionable to me in a different way. However, the list of services instills confidence as it implies facilities, and is also nice to have handy.

I narrowly favor the first one, but only because of the logo. It makes it feel grounded and acceptable, like Al's a legitimate guy for this service. Otherwise, I'd envision Al cleaning deer on the side of the highway in his truck bed.

I think this is 6 of one, a half dozen of the other when it comes to thse flyers and Al's business. I say bring back the logo! Assuming, of course, it's the same guy.
Chris Rugen

It does tend to be we educated folk who get all warm and fuzzy around this kind of stuff. Maybe we crave a lost sense of naivety? I got into graphic design when I was about 13 and started photocopy montaging posters together for friends bands. I often loook back at those and think how much better they were than anything I've done in the last ten years since graduating from design school... maybe it's just nostalgia?

no 'just' with nostalgia . . . as camus said "A man's work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened. "


Some great examples of civilian typography can always be found here.

Much as I confess to being smitten with Al's sign, I've been less than inspired by the scores of hand-made signs by fans of NBC's Today show, who brandish them proudly every morning outside Rockefeller Center. (A former student of mine was fascinated with this particular demographic group, who she took to calling "street potatoes.")

Nostalgia is, I think, seductive — but ultimately, it's really just a kind of trap. Or as Art Buchwald once said: "If you're hung up on nostalgia, pretend today is yesterday and just go out and have one hell of a time."
Jessica Helfand

Nostalgia can be generative too though can't it? The desire to 'return' conflicts with the impossibilty of actually doing so... there's a tension there, new points of departure that were missed previously... Camus' detours?

I love Al's spontaneous message, but does his intended audience? My guess is the average hunter type wouldn't necessarily be touched or inspired by Al's personality-rich scribble and would probably lean toward something looking a little more organized. For it's purpose, the pink one is going to be more effective.
Stuart Rogers

... and thus the world was rendered infinitely boring and grey!

Thanks so much for noting Tom Varisco's New Orleans' book "Spoiled". It's sort of a testament to the resiliency of The Crescent City's dark humor in the face of overwhelming disaster and loss. When thousands of household appliances are not just stinking refuse but standing message boards for a devastated city.
Mark Andresen

In an editorial in today's New York Times, Andrei Codrescu reflects on the New Orleans refrigerators.

jessica Helfand

I really dislike like some of the generalizations made in this article. Yes, there is the immediacy of desparate messages made in the wake of Katrina and there is there the naive kind of "vernacular" lettering that designers find and love and tend to make fun of and trivialize (and is also become a kind of filtered commodity with certain font companies and publishers). Then there are people who do still make a living from traditional hand-lettering and other related sign production work, some of whom are are really good at what they do (making designers "look good"). I guess I get tired of seeing the primary focus on "signage" in the design trade essentially overlooking and discrediting the true art of what signmaking and the sign industry really has been. No designer sitting, behind their computer, or perusing font catalogs or the latest design annual can ever really know this unless they've actually picked up a brush and spent a significant amount of time doing lettering or layout for screenprinting or even the vinyl cut lettering of today.
Mark Eastman

maybe one should look at this handwritten - typeset issue as one pointing to a democratizating aspect of default design solutions. whereas the handwritten used to be the most immediate and commonly available type and was able to signify accessibility & democratic design spirit (as e.g. in Papanek & Hennesey's nomadic furniture books), these default design options should be looked at from this perspecive. time to seriously investigate the default settings in all the desktop ware...

A former sign-letterer, looking at handlettering as you say "a democratizing aspect of design solutions" would be...a little ironic, wouldn't it?

"The designer selects" (after duChamp)
Mark Eastman

I feel like I read this exact same article somewhere else a few years
ago ... is this a reprint?
Von D

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