The days of painted letters on signboards is almost over, replaced by digitally produced signs in all manner of material. Yes, some sign painters are practicing today, but not like in the days when, in France, for example, they were everywhere, everyday. And the templates they used for making letters were books like this:
The Album de Lettres a l’usage des Peintres was a common primer for the copyists who had the skill but not necessarily the imagination to produce unique alphabets. But they didn’t have to. Signs followed certain guidelines with specific type typologies. It is still difficult if one is not skilled but now the computer does some of the hard work, in 1896 when this album was published the artists who made the letters had only his wits.
For more Steven Heller, check out Citizen Designer: Perspectives on Design Responsibility, one of the many Heller titles available at MyDesignShop.com.