Sign Research

The exercise of looking around a city for examples of successful and unsuccessful signage will differ considerably depending on whether one is a native or a foreigner in that place.

Someone who is unfamiliar with a city will rely on signage as an extension of a city’s infrastructure, paying much more attention to signs that give directions, instructions, suggestions, and warnings, etc. Furthermore, if one is truly a stranger to a place, a city’s signage can play a pivotal role in coloring their associations with and impressions of that place. Signage, in this latter case, is read in a fundamentally different, more vivid and curious way.

The native, on the other hand, might have accumulated a special knowledge of that place and its signs, the kind of knowledge that is only possible with a years-long acquaintance with it. Nevertheless, their everyday experience tends to be duller, as overfamiliarity and habit do their work. Much of the richness (or ridiculousness) of a city’s signs can become almost invisible to the native, as they largely become second nature.

Seeing as I’m from New York, here are some signs of restaurants and bars (practically the only signs a native New Yorker still looks to on a regular basis).

Good

I like this sign a lot. The contrast between “DAVEY’S”—unconventional type, old-fashioned but also vaguely contemporary (perhaps a modern reaction to the Helvetica-ization of everything today)—and “ICE CREAM”—colorful, standardized but still attractive, nostalgic without being retro—is pretty delightful.

The sign communicates extremely well without also being overly serious or boring. Next.

Not Good

Fuku serves one of my favorite sub-$8 meals in all of Manhattan (a fried chicken sandwich with a brilliant gochujang-like condiment). The first four or five times I visited, though, I walked right past it. And so would my friends, whenever we would meet up here. Formally, the sign is rather attractive. But in the context of functionality and use, it’s pretty bad.

First, the door is recessed into the building about a foot deep (you can tell if you look at the grey wall to the left of the door). Second, the neon “fuku” sign is, again, recessed about a half-foot or more, this time into the actual establishment.

While owner David Chang’s other nearby restaurants (Noodle Bar and Ssam Bar) both have little signage, they have exposed façades—windows cover their sides from floor to ceiling, through which you can see the diners inside pretty clearly. Unlike these restaurants, you can only see into fuku through this single skinny door (the rest of its façade is obscured by the giant grating). As visibility into fuku is limited, the sign here serves a real purpose. Only it serves it very poorly. And since I’ve never seen fuku truly crowded (the opposite is the case for Chang’s other restaurants), I think fuku could really benefit from a signage makeover.

Good

While the effect may not wholly come through in the photograph, Caledonia’s sign is a pretty great example of neon. It is two-tone blue with a reflective surface behind it, giving the letters a kind of shimmering “type shadow” effect. The blues are piercing, and never fail to attract my attention. A lot of type in neon I see tends to be a little wacky or stylistically loose, reflecting the supposed frivolity or camp of neon. I like how this neon’s type is kind of stern—all caps, serif, traditional looking font, while still being just unfamiliar enough (i.e. not a frequently used font in word processing [at least I think?]).

Oh, and this place is a whisk(e)y bar.

Awful

This picture is not an exaggeration. If anything, it’s easier to read photographed than it is in person. Bangkok Cuisine, it reads. In the daytime, the sign isn’t bad looking at all. But during dinner hours, it’s an entirely different story. The letters are coming off the wall, so the light splashes behind them and throws shadows everywhere, while also reacting in such a way with the material the type is made from, causing a great glare, making everything generally hard to see.

Here’s some better versions, produced in Adobe Illustrator.

Basically, stick the type to the wall (rather than having it stick out by several inches), and move the lights below the sign, so the shadow accentuates the type for ground-level pedestrians, rather than obscuring it. The sign should be significantly more readable this way.

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