The film, Up There. There are not many of these guys left.

I used to tell people, “Sure, I did high work.”

Okay, I painted a few second story walls and once I lettered a water tower. Big deal.
But this film celebrates sign artists that work at a much higher level, and I don’t mean just in altitude. They represent an extraordinary craft that has almost disappeared.

If I could have my youth back, would I trade places with them? Yes, in a New York minute!

Up There

The hauntingly beautiful soundtrack is by The Album Leaf.

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Tactile letters must be all upper case to be ADA-compliant

The guidelines of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) require that identification for permanent rooms and spaces display the name of the room in raised tactile letters along with Contracted Braille (Grade 2). The raised letters must be sans serif and in all capitals. Why all capitals since it is acknowledged that mixed upper and lower case is easier to read?

The reason is simple. Tactile letters are read by touch rather than sight. The variation in word shapes that makes mixed case lettering easier to read by sight makes letters more difficult to read by touch. It has been shown that simple, unadorned letters in all caps are easier to comprehend when reading by touch.

It has also been determined that sans serif lettering is easier to read by touch than serifed letters. This explains the change in the ADA standards in the latest guidelines (2010). Formerly, “simple” serif was allowed, but no longer. No particular letterstyle is required, but the guidelines require that the letters do not deviate much from a norm regarding character width and stroke weight.

Punch cutting. These videos show how it was done.

The making of metal type by hand for printing was very involved and labor intensive. Most people understand that metal type was cast: Molten metal was poured into molds.The bottom of a mold, the matrix, held the impression of a letter, in reverse, perfectly formed. How were these molds and impressions made? They were made by punches, produced by amazingly talented and patient craftsmen called punch cutters. Punch cutters, with tiny gouges and files, sculpted raised letters in real size, in reverse, on the ends of square metal rods. Not surprisingly, the first punch cutters came from the ranks of goldsmiths.

The true artisans of the early hot metal printing industry were not the printers, but the punch cutters.

Making letter punches by hand was made virtually obsolete in the late 1800s by the invention of the Linotype and the Monotype machines. Later, photographic processes supplanted the making of hot metal type. Then computers arrived and changed everything again.Today, a “font” is no longer a collection of metal type kept in cases or drawers, but a piece of digital software loaded onto a computer hard drive.

This fascinating series of videos shows how punch cutting was done:

One of the better books on this subject, written by a modern day punchcutter:

Counterpunch: Making Type in the Sixteenth Century; Designing Typefaces Now, by Fred Smeijers (London: Hyphen Press, 1996)

Sign painters didn’t use fonts

sign painter on scaffolding

Historically, sign painters, also known as sign writers, lived in a completely different world from printers. They worked in small shops, frequently alone. Some were uneducated itinerants. They were the most blue collar of the “creatives.” They drew and painted letters by hand, ignoring typography for the most part. Skilled at brush manipulation, they used letter styles they called “alphabets,” developed for speed and legibility, except in the occasional instance where they were required to duplicate a printer’s typestyle on a sign. They were not typesetters or printers. Few called themselves artists. Tradesman, or craftsman, were terms that seemed more appropriate. Yet most were quite talented, many achieving high levels of artistic ability and speed.

Sign painters were never asked to use a “font” because such a request would not have made sense. In fact, font was not a word they used, because it had little to do with hand lettering.  Many sign makers who were familiar with printer terms knew what a font was. It was a collection of type—pieces of metal. These were kept in cases or drawers in print shops. Loaded onto a press by typesetters, the type from a font was used to print letters on paper in a particular typestyle.

How fonts were made

punchcutting_punches-matrix

In earlier times, the design of a typeface started with a highly skilled metalsmith called a punch cutter (the first punch cutters were actually goldsmiths). The punch cutter’s job was to produce a complete set of letter punches in a particular style and size. A letter punch was a rectangular metal rod with a small raised letter carved in reverse on the end of the rod. The punch was carefully struck with a hammer to make an impression of the letter on a slab of softer metal that became the bottom, or matrix, of a small mold. In the type foundry, these molds were filled with molten metal to produce pieces of type, enough to create a complete font, or set, of type. Early printers did their own type casting after purchasing a set of punches from a punch cutter. Producing a complete font of metal type was a laborious process from start to finish. Though punch cutters were highly skilled metal workers, producing a set of punches to make a single font in one size could take many months of careful, tedious work, using tiny files and gouges. Each additional font size would have required the cutting of another complete set of punches. Understandably, acquiring each set of punches represented a significant financial investment on the part of a printer.

Setting type was time consuming, too, though many typesetters became amazingly fast. The process of casting and setting type became automated with the introduction of typecasting machines, such as the Monotype and Linotype. As metal type gave way to other forms of printing, a font eventually became the name for a piece of digital software to be loaded onto a computer. Technically, font is not a synonym for typestyle. A font is what is used to produce a typestyle in print. In other words, a font is not the letterstyle, but the underlying software code.

Modern day punch cutter at the French type foundry, Typofonderie

In contrast to the sign painter, the print world evolved into an industry employing many specialty occupations: typesetters, artists, pressmen, proof readers and editors, all of whom served to increase the level of professionalism in the industry and the quality of the end product.

Today, the distinction between the worlds of printing and sign making is beginning to blur. As a result of inexpensive technology and equipment, a crude form of typesetting is being practiced in today’s sign shops, often by inexperienced and untrained workers, resulting in an enormous amount of sign work that is being produced cheaply, but that is often unattractive and ineffective as advertising. Poor design work lacking in eye appeal is seen as often as not. Designers are often hired, not so much because they have good design skills, but because they know the software and can type fast. Artwork has been replaced by copy/pasted clipart, sometimes pirated.

In the novel A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens wrote of a time of upheaval and great change. He repeated a theme of dark against light, good against bad. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…”

For the sign industry, this is the best and worst of times. Some of the most amazing design work is being produced today with the assistance of powerful design software. Alongside this work is a growing flood of mediocre and poor design, also produced with the help of computers, that threatens to be overwhelming.

Is it possible to reverse this trend?

 

Sign design hierarchy is like a chain of thought

It’s helpful to compare the hierarchy necessary in good sign design to a chain of thought.

A chain of thought is the logical sequence of the parts of an argument. It is a succession of “points” on a path of reasoning. That’s why we call it a line of reasoning—because there should be a logical order to the parts.

Good sign design is also a sequence of information. It should be presented to viewers like the beads on a string. They should be able to easily view the information in a logical order. They should be able, without thinking, to read first what we want them to read first, to read second what we want them to read second, and so on. We must create a visual hierarchy, in descending importance.

A good sign design’s plan always includes the order in which the parts are to be viewed. If we do not control this sequencing of visual information, the composition will likely be easily ignored, just like an illogical, incoherent argument is ignored.Beads

Can logos receive copyright protection?

Many people in the sign industry believe the answer is a simple “yes.”

But the truth is that there is much misinformation passed around in the sign business about intellectual property law in the US. The simple answer to whether logos can receive copyright protection is actually, “yes and no.” For a work to have copyright protection, it must meet a certain level of originality. Most simple logos do not meet the criteria. Many ornate logos do meet the criteria.

Here’s why, from the US Copyright Office—

“What Is Not Protected by Copyright?”  Among other things, “titles, names, short phrases, and slogans; familiar symbols or designs; mere variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering, or coloring…” —Copyright Basics, Circular 1, page 3, US Copyright Office.

populous003

Yesterday I put the Populous logo on a sign for their Kansas City office and I was struck by how simple and generic it looked. Populous is an international architectural firm that dominates the market for designing large sports venues like Yankee Stadium in New York, Wembley Stadium in London, Soccer City Stadium in Johannesburg and many, many others. The company’s logo is simple type with no ornamentation. It does not meet the criteria for US copyright protection.

subway002

The Subway sandwich logo is more ornate. There are embellishments and stylized lettering. Does it have copyright protection? No. Subway tried to get it, but it was denied.

Subway logo denied copyright protection July 16, 2013:

Subway logo denied copyright protection

The well-designed Best Western logo, with its five-sided shield and graphic crown was denied copyright protection in 2006.

Best_Western

Best Western logo denied copyright protection March 7, 2006:

Best Western logo denied copyright protection

More recently, the Geek Squad logo was denied copyright protection in 2012.

Geek Squad

In appealing the decision, Geek Squad claimed that its logo was not much different from the Hot Wheels logo in its level of creativity. The Hot Wheels design had been given copyright protection previously.

Hot Whels

But in its decision, the Copyright Office determined that the Geek Squad design was not in the same category as the Hot Wheels logo, with its flame “pictorial” incorporated into the lettering. What do you think?

Geek Squad denied copyright protection April 13, 2012:

Geek Squad logo denied copyright protection

In the final analysis, to most companies, it doesn’t matter that their logos cannot receive copyright protection. Because trademark law can protect a logo that represents a company’s goods or services. And trademark protection is far more suited to safeguarding logos. Trademark protection is more customized. It’s narrower in its scope in some ways, but more comprehensive in others.

Subway owns the trademark “Subway.” If another sandwich shop calls its sandwiches “Subway” sandwiches, it is likely an infringement, even if the design is different and if  signs don’t look like Subway signs. What if a sandwich shop by another name has signs or logos that look like Subway signs? It could very well be a cause for a trademark infringement suite from this standpoint as well if the competing logo is confusingly similar. Many companies get trademark protection for their logos both as a word, and a separate registration for the distinctive design of the word, with it shape, colors, etc.

On the other hand, “Ace” is a hardware trademark, but another company owns an “Ace” trademark, too. Ace Bandages. Both words are protected trademarks in their respective industries. Since the two industries are so far removed from each other, what is the likelihood of confusion between the Ace brands? Very little. So both enjoy trademark protection and neither is an infringement of the other.

The criteria for determining infringement has to do with, among other things, whether confusion is likely to be caused in the minds of consumers.

For example, from a distance, red, white and blue stripes on a real estate yard sign could make viewers think the property was listed by the real estate company ReMax, or that the company listing the property was associated with ReMax. So these stripes are protected by a trademark registration. This registration is in addition to other trademark registrations that ReMax has, such as their balloon logo.

Remax stripes

Trademark law protects not just words, but colors, shapes, even sounds associated with products or services. No other telecommunications company can use the T-Mobile shade of magenta in its advertising, for example. The color is protected by trademark. The shape of the Coca-Cola bottle is protected. The NBC chime sound is protected.

Trademark, as opposed to copyright, is not so much designed to prevent copying, but to prevent confusion.

So whether logos can be protected by copyright or not is viewed by many companies as a moot point. Trademark law usually provides all the protection needed.