Elizabeth Goodspeed on how signs remind us of design beyond the screen

On a recent trip to Italy, our US editor-at-large became fascinated by the myriad forms of “folk” signage on display. Here, she asks why designers find it so easy to fall in love with mundane design abroad, but not closer to home.

Like many freelancers, I don’t take enough time off. But this year, after lots of budgeting and schedule balancing, I finally managed to carve out two weeks of vacation for myself. I went to northern Italy and spent much of the time doing one of three things: drinking aperitifs, eating gelato or taking pictures of signs. I saw pharmacy signs made of wrought iron, hand-painted Looney Toon characters and typography set in mosaic tiles. There were just as many signs with beautiful calligraphy in unremarkable corner stores as there were signs with bad clip art in stunning cathedrals. I loved them all. The Duomo and Bar Basso were great too, of course – but with hyper-curated travel guides becoming increasingly de rigueur, sometimes visiting the “sights” can feel like simply ticking off items on a cultural checklist. Good signs, on the other hand, are a reward only granted to the flâneur.

I’m aware that being a graphic designer who loves signage, especially “folk” signage – as in, signs created by individuals without formal design training – is incredibly cliché. When a graphic designer I follow goes on a trip upstate, I can almost guarantee that within a day they’ll post a picture online of a sign from a bait and tackle shop or small-town diner. I’m not exempt from this, obviously, at least not judging by the 800+ photos of signs in my camera roll at the time of writing. But of course we’re drawn to signs! It’s a natural reflex for designers to celebrate any instance of graphic design in the wild. In a field that can be relatively insular, signage is a reminder that design exists outside our screens. Signs can also be incredibly instructive. They’re a sort of Branding 101, in fact: one-off messages told on limited surface area with a self-contained aesthetic.

Signs have long been a primary interest of travel to me. My dad took us on a lot of road trips growing up, and I would pass most of our eight-hour car rides listening to my iPod Mini and watching strip malls and gas stations go by. Even when the landscapes blurred into sameness, the signs always made it clear we were somewhere new; I’d see unknown grocery store chains, business models I never knew existed (I’m looking at you, drive-thru liquor stores of Kentucky) and visual motifs like Saloon-style lettering or palm trees that I’d never find back home. I especially noticed signs that were, for lack of a better word, ugly. The ones with kitschy palettes, stretched and squashed letterforms, and just generally incongruous design decisions. I wasn’t really judging them for their design merit, or even for their confidence in breaking the rules; I just liked that each one felt totally unique.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we often find ourselves especially drawn to signage when we’re away from home. New places inherently put us into a heightened state of awareness, where even something as mundane as the shape of an electrical outlet is novel. This critical fascination with our surroundings during travel naturally extends to the signs populating our destinations, which tend to have an outsized role in shaping the look of a given place (Los Angeles is as defined by its billboards as Las Vegas is by its neon). Plus, having to navigate unfamiliar streets leads to more sign-reading in the first place, while mostly travelling by foot rather than car (a novelty for many Americans, at least) puts us more eye-to-eye with signage.

Signs just look better in another language, too. When a sign is in a language we don’t understand, its textual message fades, and it becomes easier to see it as a piece of art instead, simply appreciating the shape of its letterforms or overall composition. What might be dismissed as tacky or tasteless design decisions in a familiar setting can, in a foreign context, also appear quaint or ironically amusing. A hot babe on a sign in Italy isn’t a sign of poor taste: it’s a cheeky peek into local flavour! The folk signs for stores are obviously not intentionally eccentric; they were still made by, or for, someone who is trying to sell you something! But somehow they feel mano-a-mano rather than mano-a-corpo – an authentic expression of enthusiasm and an invitation to participate in that enthusiasm.

Meanwhile, at home, we react to signs that deviate from a polished norm with harsh criticism, judging them against an idealised standard of what we deem professionally acceptable. It’s easy to say that the folk design we encounter in our own everyday life is less aesthetically pleasing than it is everywhere else. But it might simply be because we’ve ceased to really look closely at home. In high school, I shared a class with a girl who had recently moved to our unremarkable New York suburb from Croatia. I felt a bit bad for her: our town hardly seemed worth moving to, especially compared to Europe. But soon after we met, I found an album of photos she’d posted online from her first month in town. It was familiar, but uncanny. Here was the pizza place I’d been going to since 1995, framed with the care I’d reserve for a gothic cathedral. Suddenly I noticed its chequered floor and oversized gumball machine in a new light.

Our constant exposure to local signage dulls its impact, transforming potentially interesting designs into background noise. This constant visual bombardment makes it difficult to see the creative or unique elements in designs that we might otherwise celebrate if found somewhere else. If we were curious, and perhaps open-minded enough, could we love the signage in our backyard as much as we love it in a far-off place? Maybe the trick is to see our local signs through the lens of a traveller: with curiosity and an appreciation for the unexpected. If we look closely, the ordinary could turn extraordinary right where we are.

Whether home or abroad, I wonder if our shared attraction to amateur signs, and even to amateur design in general, stems from a perpetual search for inspiration that will give us permission to try something different or weird. Folk signs are like the products of a creative alter ego or a plucky design twin; an alternate version of our creative self that’s unbound by the conventions and restrictions of commercial settings. While professional designers sometimes feel trapped by the need to be overly clever or abstract – can you remember the last time you made something look a certain way without feeling the need to justify its form? – laymen aren’t concerned with being too on-the-nose. Vernacular signs are the shortest path from A to B. If a store sells bagels, of course the owner wants his sign to have a giant bagel on it. Or it could be that the owner just wants his sign to include a blue star because he loves the Dallas Cowboys. And why shouldn’t it? After all, great design doesn’t just communicate – it teaches us about each other. If a wonky, hand-painted sign halfway across the world can inspire us to embrace spontaneity and authenticity, it can do the same just around our corner.

Elizabeth writes a regular column for It’s Nice That from her base on the East Coast of the US. Check back in every couple of weeks to read her latest thoughts on design trends and hot topics from the creative world.

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About the Author

Elizabeth Goodspeed

Elizabeth Goodspeed is It’s Nice That’s US editor-at-large, as well as an independent designer, art director, educator and writer. Working between New York and Providence, she's a devoted generalist, but specialises in idea-driven and historically inspired projects. She’s passionate about lesser-known design history, and regularly researches and writes about various archive and trend-oriented topics. She also publishes Casual Archivist, a design history focused newsletter.

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