Typographics — Blog


Typographics Book Fair preview

A visual sampling with just some of the items that will be available for sale

Plans for this year’s Typographics Book Fair are coming together nicely, now with eight different sellers focused on typography and graphic design related items – some of which isn’t available for sale anywhere else. As much as we’d love to hoard all the books for our own personal collections, we asked each seller to send examples of material they will have on offer at the fair to give an idea what attendees can expect.

Registered attendees of the main Typographics conference will have first pick at these items on the first day of the Book Fair (Saturday, June 17). On the second day (Sunday, June 18) the fair will then be free and open to the general public.

See the Typographics Book Fair page for more info or register now for the conference.

Letterform Archive will be bringing a wide variety of type foundry ephemera, including duplicates of rare type specimen books and brochures from their collection of more than 40,000 items related to type and lettering.

The Herb Lubalin Study Center of Design & Typography, one of the co-organizers of the Typographics festival, is a study archive but also has been publishing various things since it opened in 1985. At the Typographics Book Fair they will be selling some of these items – most of which can’t be found anywhere else – including rare sets of posters designed by Herb Lubalin. They will also be selling off some duplicates of type specimens and other books from their collection of 20th-century graphic design.

House Industries will be set up selling their brand new book The Process is the Inspiration. It’s also very possible that they will have a few other items from their wide range of typographically-inspired merch. (And please join us for House’s free book launch party and lecture, with live on-site screen printing.)

Display will be selling a wide range of titles, with a focus on 20th-century design, including rare type specimens, design journals, etc.

Standards Manual will be set up at the fair selling their reprints of classic standards manuals (NYCTA, NASA, and the American Revolution Bicentennial symbol), as well as some related limited-edition prints they’ve produced.

Oak Knoll Books, one of the world’s preeminent sellers of typography books, will have a very wide range of items for sale. From extremely rare 100+ year old international type specimen books to more recent titles published by Oak Knoll Press, they are sure to have something of interest to anyone who likes or uses type.

Wms & Co / Amass will be set up with items from their collection of modernist books and ephemera, including designs by Paul Rand, Karel Martens, Jan Tschichold, Ladislav Sutnar, and more.

The Type Directors Club, one of the most notable typographic organizations with more than 70 years of history, will have a table set up selling copies of their typography annuals (including some older editions) at a discounted price, as well as accepting applications for new memberships.


The items shown above are just a sampling of all the great stuff that will be available at the Typographics Book Fair. Anyone interested in having first pick of everything should register for the main Typographics conference to take advantage of first day of limited admission to the fair. Also be sure to follow Typographics on Twitter, Instagram, and through the official mailing list for any new developments.

Dissection podcast #5 with Ken Barber

Talking about process, inspiration, and mid-20th-century American lettering

Typographics conference speaker Ken Barber is the guest for the fifth episode in the Dissection/Typographics podcast series. The discussion revolves around Barber’s lettering and type work at House Industries, and particularly House’s new book The Process is the Inspiration.

You can listen to the interview below, on the Dissection site, or on Soundcloud.

Barber and his colleagues from House will kick off the first night of the Typographics festival with a free lecture and launch party for their new book, June 12, including live on-site screen printing by Awesome Dudes. He will also talk about mid-20th-century American ad lettering on June 17 for his presentation at the Typographics conference. Finally, Barber is leading two lettering workshops during Typographics: one on Spencerian lettering, June 19–20, and another on brush lettering, June 21–22.

Be sure to also listen to the previous interviews from the Dissection/Typographics podcast series:

For updates on future episodes and other Typographics news, follow @TypographicsNYC on Twitter.

Dissection podcast #4 with Martin Venezky

Discussing the value of “visual delight” with the designer and educator

The fourth episode in the Dissection/Typographics podcast series features Typographics conference speaker Martin Venezky, owner and designer of Appetite Engineers. The conversation focuses on Drops from a Faucet into a Pool, a collage wall that Venezky installed at the Adobe headquarters in San Francisco, and how type exists in a crowded environment.

You can listen to the interview below, on the Dissection site, or on Soundcloud.

Martin Venezky will talk more about his work and his unique working environment during his presentation for the Typographics conference this June.

Until then, listen to the previous interviews from the Dissection/Typographics podcast series:

For updates on future episodes and other Typographics news, follow @TypographicsNYC on Twitter.

Dissection podcast interview #3 with Hilary Greenbaum

A conversation with the Director of Graphic Design for the Whitney Museum of American Art

The new third episode in the Dissection/Typographics podcast series is an interview with Typographics conference speaker Hilary Greenbaum. They discuss some of the thinking behind how the Whitney develops a typographic sub-identity for their biennial exhibition and what it’s like to work as a graphic designer for an art museum. You can listen to the interview below, on the Dissection site, or on Soundcloud.

See Hilary Greenbaum talk more about her work for the Whitney during her presentation at the Typographics conference this June.

And in the mean time, check out the previous interviews from the Dissection/Typographics podcast series:

For updates on future episodes and other Typographics news, follow @TypographicsNYC on Twitter.

Primitive Typographic Communications from Afar

A discussion with type designer Kris Sowersby

Klim Type Foundry’s Kris Sowersby lives in New Zealand, 14,000+ km from where Typographics will take place in New York, but his voice and work are as present as any local – type designer, anyway. The designer of the new Untitled type series talks to Elizabeth Carey Smith in advance of his talk at Typographics this June.

What’s your studio down in New Zealand like? Do you have Tui on tap or what?

My studio … I’ve never considered myself to have a studio as such, I’ve always thought of it as an office. My office is at home, I’ve worked from home for as long as Klim has been an entity.

I think it’s an important distinction for me. I consider a studio to be part of an artistic practice, whereas an office is where more quotidian work is done. No Tui on tap here I’m afraid!

Kris Sowersby’s office in Wellington, New Zealand

Kris Sowersby’s office in Wellington, New Zealand.

What’s up with all the references to Nineteen Eighty-Four? The Klim catalogue is full of it, and you mention it as part of your process in making Untitled.

Nineteen Eighty-Four is a fantastic work, I re-read it every year or so. The writing is hard and clear, the story is prescient and it doesn’t end well. Stories that don’t end happily seem to resonate with me. Perhaps there is more to think about when a story isn’t a positive closed loop, a negative ending feels more honest. The subtext of language – Newspeak – and its power over thought and the population is terrifying and true. In a small way typographic choices and use echo the ideals of Newspeak by shaping the language and atmosphere of text. It’s much more subtle, obviously. I use the Newspeak definition partly because of this reason, but also because Orwell’s writing has an excellent texture. I prefer real language and words for specimens over the synthetic ugliness of pangrams.

George Orwell’s definition of Newspeak used as sample text for an Untitled Sans type specimen.

In the description of your process of making Untitled you write: “Any remaining traces of my fist in National were slowly and systematically erased.” You describe your fist as opposed to the artistically romantic hand. Was this an anxious or frustrating process for you, as you “erased yourself” from drawing?

The idea of “the fist” comes from a Morse-code operator’s transmission style. During the war, if I remember correctly, codebreakers could identify Morse code transmissions by their style, their “fist”. I found this fascinating, that a communication so stripped back and primitive as a sequence of dots and dashes could be identified as unique. Perhaps this is how I feel about my work, in the office: primitive typographic communications from afar.

At a certain point, the design process itself was quite the opposite of anxious or frustrating. All typefaces start out with a measure of frustration and anxiety. Frustration because what I draw never really matches the image in my mind. Anxiety comes because the drawings don’t do what I want them to. But, eventually, this all dissolves and the letterforms take up their own identity and logic. You know the old adage about the sculptor “seeing” the sculpture in the block of marble, and she cuts the material away until the form is released? Well, I think that is how it works for me. There is a sound typeface lying amongst the bézier curves, and I have to coax it out. With Untitled Sans, it was a matter of coaxing it away from National – from my stylistic fist.

You have always had a very forthright and thoughtful perspective on type, one that seems uncomfortable with contentedness. You almost convey a sense of restlessness in your work, which is something we appreciate in artists but don’t tend to see in designers. We’re all so staid! Is this all part of a Klim Master Plan? Do you consider yourself an artist? Is your process a critical one?

Uncomfortable with contentedness: This is because it’s virtually impossible to like my own typeface. After spending a few years looking at it, fiddling endlessly with points, considering a career change, wondering if the weight range is useful, despairing at yet another mountain of proofs, pulling teeth through the final-final-02.ufo kerning round, it’s hard to see the positive. Mostly, my typeface design process ends in a denouement of exhaustion, followed by a shallow sense of hope that people will actually buy and use the thing. And it takes ages for a new typeface to find its feet, to get out in the world, to be used. It’s not until a typeface has been licensed and used that it truly exists. Foundry specimens, marketing, fake in-use examples, promotional videos, humourless .gifs: none of these make a typeface real. It’s impossible to feel content until it has been used.

A sense of restlessness. As described above, the process is long and tedious. I am usually a patient worker, but we all have limits. Perhaps this sense of restlessness arises because of the long nature of the type design process: you will change over the years. Your drawing skills will improve, your ideas will broaden. A 6-year-old in-progress typeface reflects who you were, not who you are. So, yeah, after every typeface is finished I want to change it! But it has to end at some point. There is a special irony that all “cutting edge” design work using the newest fonts is using ideas at least a couple of years old.

There was never a Klim master plan until about a year ago when my wife joined. She’s got things up to speed now, we have a vision and goals. We take the future plans seriously. We now work with Alt Group for strategy and marketing. It’s bloody good, I tell you, to work with such great people.

I do not consider myself an artist. My mate Courtney Johnston says, “if it doesn’t do anything else, it’s probably art”. I am loathe to think my typefaces are works of art. My process is definitely critical, but that isn’t a specific condition of making art, all sorts of work entails critical thinking one way or another.

Type designers often think about the design of certain characters as “opportunities” to express the spirit of a typeface. Were there any particular glyphs in Untitled you had to stop yourself from over-designing?

I don’t actually remember anything specific about Untitled Sans to be honest. We released it in March 2017, but I stopped working on it creatively in about 2015, at the latest. Untitled Serif was different, I remember making endless tweaks to the overall width and stance of the Roman. The italic was very difficult actually. What constitutes a “normal” serif italic? There were several versions until I settled on the current forms. Here you can see I made a decision that “ink traps” were effectively useless:

Original on Instagram

And here you can see the end process of agonising over the actual Italic angle:

Original on Instagram

You write that, “Post rationalisation is an open secret in the design industry […] However, I suspect the process is largely irrational for most designers.” This is refreshing compared to many process descriptions offered up to various branding blogs. The way you describe designing the Untitled series feels more like an intuitive process, with a more nebulous expectation for the outcomes. Should we be talking about design like this?

The common wisdom in typeface design is that you must start with a purpose – a brief – in order to have an acceptable solution/typeface.

It’s taken me a long time to understand that I don’t work like this. If it’s a typeface for a client, sure. They usually have clear specs, restrictions and limitations. But for all of my other retail work, they’re the end-points of curious exploration. I usually have a vague idea or impulse and pull the threads to see if it works. So I don’t set myself briefs, and that means the creative process is largely irrational.

This has caused me lot of guilt over the years. Because my process isn’t “design”. No matter how many Medium articles, creative workshops or thought showers to the contrary, the dominant narrative of “the design process” is client/problem/solution. This makes it easier for clients to understand, and easier to frame a workday in an office. However, I dare say the retail typeface design industry has few “problems”. We manufacture solutions to suit sales targets. Re-purposing old solutions for contemporary environments is fine, it’s happened for every technology shift. But now, I think we’re largely involved in pure aesthetics. And I think that’s what our customers are interested in, the aesthetics of new typefaces, new letterforms that reflect our time and culture.

Because typeface design is so intertwined with the design culture at large, we are perhaps anxious to speak the same language, to show that we employ similar, understandable processes. It makes it seem more rational and logical. But we are more like musicians, releasing singles and albums. Nobody frames music making as “solving problems”, and perhaps typeface design should be freed of such framing as well.

I’m not sure how we should be talking about our process. Part of the reason I write the design information for my typefaces is to close the project. It’s the last thing I do before general release. As explained above, by the time I’m finished with a typeface I’ve had a gutsful of looking at it. The design info is the final part of the process, a sort of reflection and explanation for my own needs. It also functions as a part of the story, the marketing of the typeface – those pages get loads of traffic and feedback, people seem to like them. But the reflection part is almost like a form of counselling or therapy. Sometimes you do things, you know more-or-less what you are doing, but don’t fully understand the intent. It takes a bit of time and space to reflect and understand why certain design choices were made, what your actual intentions were. A vague notion of “I want to draw a neo-grotesk typeface” can be satisfied pretty easily, the mechanics are known. But the intent can be a bit more elusive.

See Kris Sowersby talk more about the process of making the Untitled type series during his presentation at the Typographics conference this June.

Dissection podcast interview #2 with Jonathan Key

A discussion with the art director, designer, and writer, the second in the podcast series

Following the first Dissection/Typographics podcast, the next episode in the series is an interview with Typographics conference speaker Jonathan Key. The conversation is focused around the Black Girl Magic book that Key designed with a custom handlettering-style typeface. You can listen to the interview below, on the Dissection site, or on Soundcloud.

For updates on future episodes and other Typographics news, follow @TypographicsNYC on Twitter.

Christian Schwartz and the Graphik typeface

How an interest in ‘type without baggage’ inspired a type family

The inspiration for the typeface Graphik (pronounced “graphic” not “graph-eek”) started with an obsession with Swiss Modernism from graphic designer Christian Schwartz. “Graphik came out of my love of the ‘B-List’ of European sans-serifs like Plak, Neuzeit Grotesk, Folio, and others. These typefaces have a similar style and are of the same era as Helvetica, Univers, or Futura, but they don’t have the baggage associated with them.”

Along with the Ohm type family, Graphik is being used as part of the design for the 2017 Typographics design festival, so we asked Schwartz about the history of the design.

Typographics 2017 is using the Graphik type family, including the new Compact and Condensed widths that will be released later this year.

Schwartz took his obsession and designed a “Swiss Style” typeface for himself which he started using for invoices and PDFs to clients. “Graphik was never intended for release, it was just the sans-serif that I wanted for myself.” But soon, clients were asking what font was on his PDFs and asking if it was available for use. He told them it wasn’t available commercially but, like many things in life, “If you tell them it’s not for sale, it becomes the thing they want more than anything else in the world.” He started licensing it to a few people and then realized he should finish it and release it properly.

Graphik became one of the first releases from Commercial Type, a foundry that he started with designer Paul Barnes after working with him on the type for an award-winning redesign of The Guardian newspaper in the United Kingdom, 2003–2005. Commercial Type is a “Transatlantic Venture” with Schwartz in New York City and Barnes in London. The company designs and publishes retail fonts as well as custom typography for clients around the world.

Graphik has been used in many publications including Esquire, Wallpaper*, T, the New York Times Style Magazine, and Bon Appétit. But Graphik was not an over-night success. “At the beginning, only a few magazine and exhibition designers were using it. But in the last two years, it has gradually become more and more popular.” Like many designers, Schwartz likens making a typeface to other forms of art: It’s like recording an album or making a movie – you hope it is going to find its audience. A typeface only comes to life when someone is using it.

The art directors and designers at Bon Appétit and Esquire magazines have been using Graphik to its fullest potential. As Schwartz says, ”For Bon Appétit, once a year you know you’re going to have a turkey on the cover and once a year you have Christmas cookies. They have to come up with a fresh way to deal with cookies every year – I don’t know how they do it.”

The forthcoming condensed styles of Graphik used in a recent edition of The Sunday Times. Art direction by James Hunter and Simon Esterson with illustration by Ellie Foreman-Peck. Photo courtesy of James Hunter.

Around the same time both Esquire and Bon Appétit commissioned Schwartz to design a condensed companion to Graphik for tight headline use. “Each publication has brought out a very different character from the family. A vanilla typeface like Graphik is all about flexibility and adaptability, and the various widths came out of that idea, pushed to the extreme and maybe beyond.” This commission started a process that eventually lead to the design of six different weights of Graphik (from Compact to XXXX Condensed) that will be released by Commercial Type in 2017.

A “Dot” variation of Graphik makes a few appearances in this year’s Typographics festival design.

For an early view of the Compact and Condensed widths of Graphik, as well as a special “Dot” variation reminiscent of lightbulb lettering, have a look around the rest of the Typographics site for this year, or come to New York in June to see it in person on signage and other material for the festival.

Dissection podcast interview with Cara Di Edwardo and Alexander Tochilovsky

A discussion with the Typographics directors, the first in a podcast series

In the coming weeks, the Dissection podcast (produced by JK Design) is airing a series of episodes in partnership with Typographics, featuring interviews from conference speakers and background info about the festival. Dissection is “a podcast about the unique creative process of graphic designers, illustrators, and visual artists” and have interviewed a wide variety of designers, including former Typographics speakers Bethany Heck, Emily Oberman, Marta Cerdà Alimbau, and Tobias Free-Jones.

To kick off the new series, they interviewed Cara Di Edwardo and Alexander Tochilovsky, the directors of the Typographics conference and festival. They discuss the history of how Typographics started, the role of playfulness in the conference’s identity, challenges of running an event series, and much more. You can play the full interview below or on Soundcloud.

We like how the Dissection team modified their usual gridded dot pattern for episode thumbnails, adapting the neon signage motif from this year’s Typographics branding. 👍

For updates on future episodes and other Typographics news, follow @TypographicsNYC on Twitter.

Neon Signs and Fear of Failure

Tal Leming and the origin story of the Ohm typeface

“I’m really good at getting typefaces halfway done and then not finishing them.” Or so claims type designer Tal Leming when asked about designing the typeface Ohm in 2009.

Since the 2017 Typographics branding makes prominent use of Ohm, we decided to ask Leming about the origins of the design and the motivation behind it.

Ohm typeface

After moving to Baltimore, Maryland Leming would walk down the street near his house and pass a closed meat market that had a 1970s neon sign in the window. “I don’t remember the name of the shop, but I remember the S. The S was amazing.”

Around the same time, Erik Van Blokland was working on a pre-webfont online type-testing tool to help designers called “LetterSetter” and it needed a logo. Leming immediately thought of the S from the meat market sign and designed the characters needed for the logo. After that, he thought it would be fun to make more letters in the same style. He would work on it for a bit, and then wouldn’t touch it for six months. At some point, he realized he basically had the entire uppercase already designed for what would become Ohm. 

“It was just fun, there was never a plan. Ohm was one of the few times that I made something just to make it.” To make Ohm look as much like neon as possible, Tal did research on the technical details of neon tube bending and sign making, but it began to get too detailed and literal, so he stopped trying so hard.

“I drew a lot of it on paper using dots and then tried to trace out the path neon would take. If I tried to draw it on a screen, I would get lost.” Figuring out the “breaks” turned out to be especially challenging. “It was a delicate dance: I wanted the breaks be as hidden as possible, but still be obvious. I wanted it to look like neon, but not a caricature. I didn’t want it to be a joke.”

Ohm styles
Stepping Out as an Independent Designer

Ohm was released in 2009 along with another typeface, Torque, as Leming’s first release under his own independent type foundry, Type Supply. Tal was endlessly worried about what his first type release should be. “I just remember being scared. I’m a perfectionist and have this intense fear of failure. That is why I have problems finishing things, because someone could say it isn’t good. I just had to release something and Ohm was a good way to get over it.”

Leming is the first to admit that designing a typeface is a strange experience. When making and then releasing a design, ”You have to be an obsessive control freak and then suddenly not care anymore. You have to pay attention to tiny details for so long and then just let it go.”

“A typeface isn’t really a thing, it’s a tool. It’s like sitting around and making a new hammer, but you don’t know how people are going to use it. There is this level of anxiety with it.”

Looking back, Tal sees that releasing Ohm was a healthy way to get over his anxiety of starting Type Supply. ”I find that I have to take breaks. I have to stop and give myself time to think of something stupid or otherwise I’ll go crazy. Having something pointless to work on is not the most economically-advantageous business decision, but from a mental-health perspective it is good.”

Ohm neon sign

Ohm comes full circle, being used for an actual neon sign. Photo by Tal Leming.

“Pointless” or not, Ohm has found an audience and application — including a local European-Style Market just down the street from Leming’s house. The Belvedere Square Market used Ohm for their outdoor neon signs which Tal admits is a bit absurd, “They had to figure out how to turn a fake-neon typeface into a real neon sign. If you really study it, they had to use multiple tubes to pretend to be a single tube. It’s pretty funny.”

Attendees of this year’s Typographics festival will get to see even more use of Ohm, since it will be used for event signage all around the campus of Cooper Union.

Stretching the limits of readability

Hansje van Halem discusses her approach for balancing the effects of text-based illusions

Hansje van Halem is a Dutch typographer whose work explores the boundaries between foreground and background, ornament and texture, shape and line. Her vivid posters, editorial covers, and even postage stamps feature bright, concentric shapes that push legibility out of the way of visual stimulation. She is coming to New York this June to speak at Typographics, so we asked her some questions to get a glimpse inside her very electric, typographic mind …

Hansje! What brings you to the Typographics conference this year?
Hi Elizabeth! Well, I had the honour of being invited to tell about the typographic sides of my work. I will probably be showing too many slides in high speed tempo where I try to capture approximately 10 years of my personal design quest.

John van der Rijdt Galerie Block C poster

3-color risograph poster for an exhibition of work by John van der Rijdt at Galerie Block C in the Netherlands.

You’ve been incredibly prolific in your professional life. Can you give us a taste of what has motivated such wonderfully intense ambition?
Insecurity, stress and deadlines used to be my trigger to make as much trials and errors as possible. Since I have been making more trials than errors, each project leaves me with a lot of unapplied design starting points that are just lying around to be picked up. And the ambition, I don’t know …? I would describe it as a greediness or a hunger. Over the years the commissions that come on my path just seem too good of a match to turn down.

VPRO Gids Dutch Design Week cover

Design for a cover of VPRO Gids, a Dutch TV guide, on the occasion of Dutch Design Week 2014.

Your work truly embraces typographic experimentation. What kinds of parameters do you like to create for projects? How do you start?
As a designer I grew up in the Vectorian Age where a clean scalable line feels like hard currency. Adobe Illustrator is my playground where I hunt for methods to build a texture that also attacks the shape of the letter and tries to stretch the limits of readability. I design without a scale and let my laser printer show me what the ideal size of the letter is. Sometimes it means I have to scale down the detailing to make it work at a certain scale. Once a type treatment is established scaling it is relatively tricky. The illusion disappears when it’s too big, the detailing turns into a grey blob when it’s too small. I’m now in the proces of realising my letters are not suppose to be static, but rendered over and over again.

Hansje van Halem’s studio

A view of Hansje van Halem’s studio in Amsterdam.

When you say Illustrator is your playground where you hunt for methods, are you saying that your textures always start digitally? What informs that texture from the real world?
99% of the time I sketch digitally. Mostly I get inspired by the digital possibilities, which are more mathematical, shape, rhythm, contrast based then anything else. Every now and then I tend to have a real-life association. Then I want to see snake skin, a mountain from above, bubbles in a glass of Coke. I never copy it, I just take it as a starting point and find new abstract outcomes from there.

The Spare Effectiveness of New York’s Neon Lettering

Appreciating how old signs do a lot with just text

Thomas Rinaldi is the author of the book New York Neon and its companion blog, among other things. He’ll be leading a walking tour of neon lettering in Manhattan’s East Village on Wednesday, June 14th, as part of the Typographics Festival. Since the branding of Typographics this year is inspired by lighted signs, we asked Thomas to share his thoughts on the allure of the city’s neon lettering …

Old signage – photographing it, admiring it, basking in its vintage splendor – has become a “thing” in recent years. One can speculate as to the reasons why. Smartphones, social media, and particularly certain digital photo sharing platforms that shall rename nameless, have turned what was once a fringe hobby into something verging on an American pastime. But beyond the role of “signporn” and other hashtags, I would suggest another factor in the recent uptick in enthusiasm for old signs: the explosion in their popularity has come hand-in-hand with a widespread embracing of what one might call pre-Helvetica letterforms.

Block Drugs, 101 Second Ave., Manhattan. Installed 1945, maker unknown. This sign sports a fine geometric sans-serif accented by a hard-earned patina, irrefutable evidence of its pre-Helvetica provenance.

In other words, the burgeoning appeal of old signs owes significantly to their lettering. I came to this conclusion while writing a book dedicated to New York’s old neon storefront signs. The widespread appeal of old signs and storefronts is undeniable. But certain signs, I noticed, seemed to engage the camera-equipped passerby more than others. The Block Drugs sign on Second Avenue, for instance, can turn even the most impassive among us into compulsive #signjunkies. The sign isn’t exactly a razzle-dazzle extravaganza. The secret to its success, I eventually concluded, is in its subtleties – a fine patina expressive of its 70+ years on the street, and – especially – that geometric sans-serif lettering, so boldly un-Helvetica.

I’m embarrassed to admit how long it took to grasp the essential role letterforms play in the aesthetic appeal of Block Drugs and other old signs. And yet letterforms are even more central to the design aesthetic of old storefront signs in New York than in most other places. Unlike the extravagant signs one finds in western cities or in roadside contexts – think of those Route 66 motels with animated, neon-clad maidens diving into the night – New York signs made after WWII were pared down to extreme basics. This, I suggest, owed to high production costs, space constraints (heightened by restrictive zoning ordinances), and a general de-emphasis on design in traditional urban centers.

New York’s old neon store­front signs often relied almost wholly on their letter­forms to achieve any level of aesthetic distinction.

Dublin House Bar, 225 West 79th Street, Manhattan. Installed 1933, E.G. Clarke Inc. One of the oldest functioning neon signs on Earth. Long tails off the “T” and “P” in “TAP” are evidence that this part of the sign has been re-lettered (it used to say “RESTAURANT”).

Approaching an understanding of the role of letterforms in the design provenance of old signs, I began trying to describe certain signs in terms of their fonts. Was that Futura on the Block Drugs sign? A beginner’s mistake. The epiphany came finally over beers with type historian Paul Shaw at the Dublin House on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, whose glorious neon harp (installed in 1933) blinked away outside as we talked type at a table for two. “These guys were sign painters,” Paul said of the people who made the signs I’d been photographing for years by this point: “you have to give them their due.”

The lettering I so admired on these old signs was not to be described in terms of typefaces, designed by professional type designers to be mass produced by type foundries. Instead, it was to be understood as the unique work of sign painters, in some cases riffing on established typefaces, sometimes referencing “alphabet books” intended specifically for neon and other commercial signs (yes – they’re spectacular – good luck finding these on eBay), and in some cases designing totally original letterforms that in a roundabout way influenced the professional type designers who walked or drove by these signs in New York and elsewhere every day.

Papaya King, 179 East 86th Street, Manhattan. Installed 1964, LaSalle Sign Corp. Unique letterforms articulating the word “PAPAYA” are a fine example of the sign maker’s lasting contribution to the individual character of independent businesses.

Today, as their numbers dwindle, old signs and storefronts stand out more than ever. Curiously, inasmuch as a sign’s job is to get our attention, signs really do get better with age, growing more noticeably different from everything else around them the longer they survive. As contemporary signage and graphic design increasingly seek inspiration from pre-Helvetica precedents, these old signs not only add interest and character to the streetscapes: they influence and inspire the work of today’s designers.

See the blog posts from other years of Typographics: 2016, 2015

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