Tuesday, July 11, 2023

Layout to Fit A Budget

A new pilates studio opened in Eagle Rock. One of their clients referred them to me and they asked for a bid on a pair of wall signs. They wanted their logo placed above the door, and on the main avenue the words 'FHIT + PILATES'. They had a wide section of wall above the windows and we agreed that a single line of bold gothic lettering would be very effective in attracting their clientele. They also mentioned that their budget was limited. After our initial meeting I downloaded their chosen font and fit the lettering to the space, leaving ample margins on all sides. The letters would be about 24 inches tall and would cover an area about 16 feet wide. But when I added up the time and materials my estimate came to almost double the amount the customer wanted to spend. New business owners often underestimate how much their sign will cost and since the sign is one of the last purchases it is our job to work with their budget and still deliver a sign that will advertise what they do in an attractive way. I needed to arrange the copy in a way that would be readable and interesting while also cutting the time and materials in half.
First I shrank down the size of the lettering and centered it on the wall. At that size it started to look like a postage stamp in the middle of an envelope - not appealing to the eye. I thought what would Doc do? 'Stack the copy'. Once I did that it started to have more appeal because it was not longer a linear layout. But it still looked awkward centered. So then I thought what would Mike Stevens do? I began to move the copy block around and eventually I settled on left-justifying the lines above the left most window. It looked natural and felt serene.  The more I looked at it the more I preferred it over the initial layout. The negative space to the left and right no longer felt like unused sign blank and by aligning it with the window below I had created an attractive vertical layout rather than a linear horizontal layout. The client approved and I was happy that I was able to still sell a job that paid me a proper rate for my time and gave the client an effective sign that worked for their business. 

Wednesday, July 5, 2023

On Fonts...

 Who knows what a "font" is? I'm sure I could not give you an accurate definition without referring to a dictionary. As a sign painter, a remark that I hear often is "you must know a lot of fonts." Hearing this causes me to picture an endless list of options on a drop-down menu in Microsoft Word. I don't know a lot of these fonts.  If someone held a gun to my head I could rattle off the names of maybe a dozen. In the Sign Graphics program the term 'font' was never uttered. What we learned were called alphabets, three of them to be exact. There is Gothic, Roman, and Casual. Script could be considered an alphabet but we were taught to NEVER EVER use script. There are some other types of alphabets too; Text is what we learned to call what most people recognize as Old English - to be used sparingly and usually in instances where antiques are involved. Then there are novelty alphabets which range from the hokey "takeout menu" lettering designed to mimic traditional brush script from Asia to letters built from any representational object, dildos for example. The possibilities are virtually infinite for novelty alphabets and they all range from cringe to downright atrocious. The point is, an alphabet refers to a family of lettering that has certain distinct properties which can be then altered to suit the specific style and whims of the craftsperson using it. 

Often a client will send me something they call a 'style guide'. This is helpful because it tells me what their logo looks like and gives me a huge list of  DONT'S in regard to how to present their logo to the public. It also gives me very specific numbers that refer to the hues and tones in which their logo is to be rendered called Pantone numbers. Most importantly a style guide will tell me what font (or fonts) may be used to represent their brand. This is one instance where I use fonts. This information forces me to take a specific choice from the dropdown menu and use it for the entirety of the client's sign. 

Alternately, when we sketch something custom for a client, we do not look at a dropdown menu. We pick an alphabet based on the context and audience the sign is intended for. Then we draw it. We make it look unified and may add certain embellishments, or ligatures, that we've have never used before, simply because our eye tells us they are needed. For me it is much faster than selecting a specific font and meddling with spacing and thicknesses and so forth until it looks harmonious to my eye. When I paint a sign in this way I couldn't tell you what the font is because it isn't a font. It's derived from a general alphabet, sure, it might be a gothic or a roman alphabet. But one could not find this specific lettering if they painstakingly searched ever dropdown menu of every word processing software in the world. 

You might be saying, "Ok, this guy thinks he's too good for fonts." Not so. I love fonts. I use them all the time, often multiple fonts for the same word! I have yet to find the perfect font. I can draw the perfect lettering every time.. But when it comes time to make a pattern for a large wall sign and I don't have the time to measure and draw each letter with a pencil and yardstick I go to the font menu; I take an E from this font, a C from that font, can't use the M because it's an upside-down W so I take an M from another font and the rest of the letters from one of those three and then I adjust the spacing (computers call it kerning) and I move the nodes so that the N isn't too wide and so the curves extend slightly beyond the guideline and when it's all balanced I send it to the plotter and that sonofabitch draws it perfect! And it's not a font anymore because none of the fonts were good enough for this sign but they worked together to become something greater, something called custom lettering. No sign painter likes to hear "Wow, nice font" about something they just hand lettered. 'Font' is standard, it's encoded, anyone can select the same font and it will be the same anywhere in the universe. Nowhere in sign painting will you find two letters exactly alike. They might be close. But they ain't a font.

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

On Menus...

 It's rare to see a hand lettered menu these days. Business owners have a ton of options when it comes to pre-fabricated menu boards, many of which do not require the expertise of a sign industry professional. The changing nature of food service also discourages those potential clients from committing to a menu that is a) difficult to change, and b) lets face it, more expensive. Still, some clients have tried the other options and are now ready to invest in the benefits of a hand lettered menu. 

    I remember the first hand painted menu that grabbed my attention; it was at Cassell's Hamburgers, located in the ground floor of the Hotel Normandie in Los Angeles. I believe it was painted by Colt Bowden although I don't have a source to verify this. I ordered a hamburger (this was before I began my studies to become a sign painter at LATTC) and sat at the counter, admiring the decor of the establishment which made me feel like I was in an old movie. Gazing around, my eyes kept coming back to the red blue and black lettering on the menu behind the counter. I was noticing the material it was made from - the gloss of the letters and slight anomalies in character structure told me it had been lettered by hand. I admired the tactile quality of the paint and marveled at the neat arrangement of the information that allowed my eye to move through it effortlessly. They also had a printed version of the menu folded at each place setting so I took one with me to study. I couldn't fully believe that the whole thing had been painted and designed by hand. The burger was excellent too by the way.

    I began thinking about menus more and noticing which ones were hand painted. Some of my favorite spots had them! I'd simply never noticed before. I liked going there because they were consistent, both the quality and the fact that they always had the specific dish I liked to order. I associated them with comfort, not only because of the food, I realized, but because the menu itself was always there, its character greeted me like an old friend. Recently I visited two of those places and was dismayed to find they had gotten rid of the old hand painted menu boards and replaced them with sterile digitally printed menus. Somehow the food tasted a little different to me as well...

    Laying out and painting a menu is a lot of work. Luckily the final assignment in the first semester of Sign Graphics at LA Trade Tech was to lay out and paint a menu, without using a computer. There is a journeyman trick for spacing the items, which I have included from my school notes. Normally we paint signs that have light (1 word) to heavy copy (5 + words). Menus, even simple ones, have over a dozen words and numerals, and many have hundreds. It is important to format the information in a way that is easy to read, because the business and the customer both depend on the menu to sell the product. It must be accurate and attractive to the eye. It must be invisible, yet also prominent. What I mean is that we expect to see the options and prices integrated with the surroundings. A menu must carry the character of the establishment without being attention-seeking; its purpose is solely to inform.

    Here are some menus I've done, with varying levels of proficiency. For panels, tape them off with masking tape then sand the interior edge with fine grit sand paper. Then you can use a 3-inch cotton roller to fill in the panel background. 

Signs of Montrose