Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Signs-Nothing Simple Please

In most things simple is good.  Signs, not so much.  At least if you are trying to recreate something of the vibrant “signscape” that once characterized most downtowns in America.  I once wrote of the traditional signscape as being an amazing visual cacophony…and I meant it as a compliment.

Signs, especially neon signs, fell out of favor in the 1960s and were often specifically targeted by well-meaning communities who saw large advertising pieces as crass and more than a little ugly.  Signs, especially early neon signs, were removed, reduced in size, and often replaced with really boring, simply-shaped, internally illuminated cans.  You know, the metal boxes with two translucent panels and a bunch of florescent tubes.  What they lacked in design, they made up for in low cost. 

Today many communities are re-discovering their signs.  Often it starts with painted wall graphics, advertising long-gone businesses or products, but many are now starting to see the value to their economy, and their character, of either preserving those signs that have somehow survived, or encouraging new neon or at least better sign designs.  Many downtowns flat out prohibit internally illuminated cans.  I think that is a good thing. The old signs, often just a few geometric shapes stacked together to create a complex form, are interesting, often historic, and worth keeping and emulating.  Heck, if a business can survive long enough for its SIGN to become old, that's a good thing that should be supported, not discouraged.

Some years ago Medford had us develop some guidelines for sign design (you can find them here).  That document points out that complex shapes, of multiple forms and materials, add visual interest, enhance historic character and so are are strongly encouraged.  Through the MURA Façade Improvement Grants we’ve seen a resurgence in new neon in downtown Medford, adding night-time interest and design.  But even far less expensive signage, what is called “indirectly illuminated” signs, where a few goose-neck bulbs shine on a hanging sign panel, can add significantly to downtown character.  Here are three recent studies for a new coffee shop in downtown… I don’t know what they will eventually pick, but I’m sure it won’t be anything simple.

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