Culture+Typography: Ghost Signs

It all started with a cultural box exchange between the Honolulu AIGA and the South Carolina AIGA chapters. Each group packed up items that reflected its respective state along with typographic designs for clients and shipped them to one another. When Nikki Villagomez opened up the Hawaii box with her fellow South Carolina AIGA members, she “was blown away by how much their culture affects their design, and it forced me to look at design in a completely different way.”

Seeing this connection started a typography and culture hunt for Villagomez. She compiled her findings in a blog that consisted of photographs of typography design from different cities, which later turned into the book, Culture + Typography.

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Villagomez’s journey showed her that “the culture living in a city is like a virus that is trying to stay alive.” While she travels, she finds vestiges of that culture struggling to survive and documents it.

As a sample of her collection of photos representing culture through typography design, here’s an excerpt from her book, Culture + Typography. The book features side by side images of typography with commentary on the history and cultural significance. With the well-documented designs per location, readers will discover how the cultural surroundings shape design decisions, such as font selection and color usage.

Culture + Typography Excerpt:

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GHOST SIGNS

A ghost sign is an advertisement that has been preserved on a building for an extended period of time. The sign (hand painted, floor tiles or neon signs) may be kept for its nostalgic appeal, or simply indifference by the owner. Most of the ghost signs I have come across advertise a product or service that isn’t specific to the area (just like most billboards or ads that are commonly found today). The ghost signs are interesting because of their age, but I don’t always find that they offer true insight into the culture of the area in which they are located in. The ghost signs below are particularly interesting because they have the city name in which they were found.

Syracuse, NY

Syracuse, NY

san_antonio_varnish

San Antonio, TX

Here’s an interesting lesson you can learn from studying ghost signs: Achieving a different look with typography, can be accomplished by simply changing your medium. Notice the different forms the letters are forced to take from the grid of the tiled entryways compared to more free handlettered signs on the sides of buildings.

Who used ghost signs to advertise?

Businesses of all types and sizes once used hand-painted advertising to publicize themselves. These included smaller local companies who may have had signs painted on their premises, all the way up to big brands such as Gillette and Hovis who paid for signs all across the United Kingdom. There are also many examples of signs that have outlived the company or product being advertising. So just imagine the vast array of typography examples you can explore by examining these reminders of days gone by.

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Austin, TX

The type that sits on the tops of buildings is a treasure. You never know what is lurking up there, but it’s almost always bound to be something interesting. Much like the beautiful typography that can be found on gravestones, the older the building, the more unusual the letters and numbers are likely to be.

Syracuse, NY

Syracuse, NY

The Wilson Building in Syracuse, New York was undergoing a rennovation during my visit. The building’s hand-painted (2-D) ghost sign first caught my attention as I turned the street corner, but it paled in comparison to the lettering and abbreviation above the main entrance.

Boston, MA

Boston, MA

vermontbldg

Boston, MA

Not to be outdone is the Vermont Building in Boston, Massachusetts. While there’s nothing fancy going on with the letters, check out the apostrophes! Why have one when you can have two?!

tower

Cincinnati, OH

This Tower sign appears to have once been part of a neon sign that has since fallen appart. The portion with the four colored boxes at the bottom seems to have gone through an identity crisis. You can just make out the word JUMP behind the newer type.

Cincinnatti, OH

Cincinnati, OH

It’s always amusing to see how apostrophes get handled in vertical signs. In the case of Tucker’s Restaurant, it gets its own line! It’s such a contrast to see the spaced out lettering of Tucker’s to the jam packed Restaurant.

Columbus, OH

Columbus, OH

I drove past this abandonded bar in Columbus, Ohio and slammed on my brakes to turn around and take pictures. I got an ear full of honking car horns, but as far as I’m concerned, it was totally worth it.

Whenever you find yourself in need of inspiration for a project, look to the vintage signs in the world around you. It’s amazing the level of detail and interesting typography and color choices that can be discovered!

Culture + Typography is available in MyDesignShop. The book is filled with glorious examples of typography from various locations in the states. It’s perfect to flip through during downtime or to pick up when seeking a new perspective.


Interested in learning typography? Check out HOW Design University’s Basic Typography Bootcamp. In this one-week, intensive crash course, typography expert Denise Bosler will show you how to harness the power of typography to tackle any design situation.

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