Vital signs

In the 1980s the cowboy signwriters peppered the retail landscape with quick and cheap vinyl solutions. Now the “designer sign” is fighting back.

You either love ’em or hate ’em: vinyl signs for shops. They are either the key that has opened up a new world for retailers – or they’re the beginning of the end. And the combinations of computer technology and vinyl sign supplies has led to a proliferation of sign-makers.

Bring up the subject of signs and computers to Pentagram partner, John McConnell, and he reveals his membership of the Luddite society – and he’s proud of it.

“The computer issue makes steam comes out of my ears,” says McConnell. “It’s staggering. These sign-makers seem to be totally inarticulate when it comes to the classic discipline of type. They ask you which typeface you want, punch Plantin into the machine, and what comes out is nothing like Plantin. It’s squodgy lettering, appalling letter-spaced. When you point it out, they look at you as if you’re from Mars and as if they’ve never heard of letter spacing. And when you come to line breaks! …”

He feels the sign industry is in danger of being taken over by “cowboys” with these machines producing signs often crude and unsophisticated, but cheap and quick. “The old boys had a love for lettering where as signmakers now are just a `cut-it-out-in-plastic’ brigade,” he adds.

It’s not computers he objects to, but lack of proper training. The sharp end of the stick for him is when operators argue that nobody notices a badly designed sign. “If the sign’s badly done, it tells a story to any lay person although they might not know what’s wrong.”

He wishes retailers would stop reinventing the signs wheel every ten minutes and gain the benefits of doing it well once, not doing it poorly six times. “Retailing is less transitory than it was in the 1980s when you did a shop, and then every three years, tore it out and did it again. Those days have gone.”

According to McConnell, in terms of sign-style, Britain is caught between the twin influences of Continental Europe and the US. “We’ve always benefited from being between the two – and nicking bit from each,” he suggests. Given a choice he admires the disciplined and ordered signs of Germany and Switzerland. “I enjoy their style because it’s so reassuring and secure, although I’d hate to die in Zurich because it’s so boring.”

Philip Burtenshaw subscribes to the same school of thought. Managing director of the family sign-maker, Opus Signs, he sees vinyl as the number one material for cheap and cheerful short-term promotional signs. He avoids the material where possible although he has to offer it for certain jobs such as “no ball games” notices for the local council. “You can’t get quality with vinyl. It’s there as a glossy, self-adhesive tacky material.”

Thankfully, he says, there are still clients who want quality signs – what he calls “designer” signs – stove-enamelled, aluminium letters, providing a more traditional look to shops. “Customers are asking for limed-oak facias and subtly illuminated enamelled signs with intricate screen-printing or detailing.”

Furniture giant IKEA does not commission external designers so design at each store is generated on site. The number of stores is growing so there’s a move to centralise activities such as silkscreen printing.

Kevin Beard, deco manager of IKEA’s latest store in Croydon, accepts that the company Scandinavian roots made the signs in its first UK stores too bland for local tastes. Now signs and designers are in tune with local audiences.

Although the base colours and typefaces have come from the IKEA trademark manual, the company’s philosophy is not carved in stone. Typfaces include Future Regular, New Century Schoolbook, Dom Casual, Times New Roman. “Our theme is red and blue – red labels and signs indicate that customers should seek help from store staff; blue is directional and for self-service purchases,” explains Beard. Outside of Sweden, store buildings are blue and yellow; in Sweden they’re red and white to avoid conflict with the national flag.

IKEA Croydon has 22 staff in its display and communication department – interior designers, display carpenters, graphic designers and sign and banner writers. Designers work on Apple Macs linked to vinyl-cutting machines running FlexiSIGN, Illustrator and Mac-Interiors. Some 60 percent of storesigns are cut from vinyl; the rest are A4 product communication and pricing tickets.

This move to self-sufficiency is something with which ex-retailer Paul King, and now-partner in M and K Design, sympathises. Designers, he says, should understand retailing. It’s hilarious, says King, that large design consultancies doing big retail projects don’t have the first idea what it is about. “They will design a `temple’ and then be offended when the retailer goes and slams a sale sign in the window. That ‘s what business is about.”

The 1980s proved a bananza for the design industry, he says. Now the recession will sort out the cowboys. Major retailers are querying whether they are gaining anything from a major refit, new signs or corporate identity change.

King divides signs into two classes – the “once up, stay up” permanent variety and the semi-permanent ones. It’s in this latter area that designers do clients a disservice.

“Just look at the number of red and white windows in London’s Oxford Street,” he explains. “Few designers appreciate the flexibility that retailers need to change signs. It’s critical that a permanent sign is not only visible but doesn’t fight what a retailer may do seasonally. Designers will create wonderful signs only to find at Christmas, or in a recession, retailers bang up a big red card that says “Sales”.

In the 1980s, King suggests, too many retailers were “design-cloned” and given exteriors in the same style. Many retailers suffered, losing their inherent imagery for the sake of style. “That’s not happening now. I love it when designers go on about what a bad time they’re having and how it’s caused by the recession. It was also they who caused it. Clients are a lot cleverer than they were and not as gullible. They’re saying: ‘Look, you say neon signs! What’s the point and where is the profit?’ Redesign fees are a third of what they were. Clients have learned a lot.”

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