Signwriting – a dying art?

Signwriting – a dying art?

The world needs signs. Since the simple stone scratchings of ancient times, they’ve been our champions for safety, identity, navigation and persuasion.

In years past, signs created to attract public patronage were often elaborate, full of character and bursting with artistic merit – especially in England and continental Europe in the 1700’s when they reached their pinnacle of fashion.

Overall, the degree to which sign painters have enriched our visual landscape in the past is really hard for us to grasp these days – because the streets will never be the same again. Hand–painted signs and graphics which once brought dashes of style and elegance to our urban environment have almost completely disappeared.

Thirty years ago I took night classes in signwriting – working as a freelance artist it proved a useful skill that fared me well. But as the decades unfurled I found myself applying digitally-cut vinyl lettering more and more. Quite simply, computer-generated signage is quicker, cheaper, and of course, dead accurate.

Since the 1980s, the traditional signwriting skillset has almost completely dropped away as technology gained the upper-hand, and brushes were gradually swapped for computer keyboards, scanners, plotters and the click of a mouse. Nowadays, there’s a veritable sea of digital graphics out there and we’re seeing less and less hand-painted wonders add vibrancy and charm to our physical world.

Perhaps we really are in danger of losing some of those traditional crafts and skills which used to adorn our daily life and accept that the true art of signwriting is on the verge of extinction.

But, there is always hope.

As I suspected, there’s currently a global revival of hand-crafted signage as a new wave of young artisans pick up brushes, paint and traditional skills. Demand for their work is soaring as smaller businesses now have an opportunity to punch above their weight; to stand out from the uniform street signage everybody’s come to expect over the last 30 years.

Every day we are bombarded with hundreds of messages on the urban landscape where our brains must constantly sift through a barrage of visual and textual digital imagery.

Perhaps this has inadvertently created the perfect setting for hand-painted gems to rise above and once again be as effective and treasured as ever.

Quality signage created by human beings is refreshing, unique, and most importantly, individual. Add a little creativity to that mix, and the future of hand-crafted signs or facades may certainly be on solid ground right now.

Consider, for example, the hand-painted ‘Cactus Jacks’ which beams life and character into Haupapa St. Following the skilful brushwork of a visiting artist some 25 years ago, this building remains truly iconic, proving itself beyond the tests and trends of time.

Digital media may not have produced something quite as long-lasting, eye-catching or unique.

I’ve just taken a quick look at the dashboard of a computer graphics program I have here at my finger-tips – fortunately, I’m still not finding a button or tab to click on which offers ‘ instant imagination’  or ‘captivating concept.’

Not yet anyway. For the meantime, it appears human beings are still one step ahead.