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,” with a unique trade vocabulary. 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. Sign painters never called themselves typesetters or printers. Few even 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. The word font was not found in instructional materials on hand lettering, and it was never used as a synonym for “letter style.” Sign makers who were familiar with printer’s terms may have known what a font was. It was a collection of type—pieces of metal. These were kept in drawers, cabinets and cases in print shops. Loaded onto a press by typesetters, the metal type from a font collection was used to print letters on paper in a particular typestyle.

How fonts were made


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. This process of producing type fits with what is thought to be the origin of the word font. It derives from an early French verb meaning to found or caste in metal. Early printers did their own typecasting 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 and punch cutters were highly skilled. Producing a set of punches to make a single font (one size, in one typestyle) 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 a 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 typesetting and 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 letter style, but the underlying software code.

Modern day punch cutter at the French type foundry, Typofonderie

In contrast to the sign industry, 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 common as standards have declined. Designers are often hired, not so much because they have good design skills, but because they know the software and can type rapidly. 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?


Why computer fonts can be a problem

Historically, sign painters leaned heavily on letter styles that were relatively bold. They didn’t use fonts, the name for collections of type. They didn’t even use the word “font.” “Font” was a printer’s term, not part of the sign painter’s vocabulary. Letter styles used by letterers were called alphabets. When a thick-and-thin letter style, commonly called a roman, was used on sign work, it was usually a version that was visually substantial. That is, thin strokes were thicker and serifs were not too delicate. Similarly, when lettering with script, thin strokes were not made too skinny.

Computer fonts, by contrast, can create legibility problems on signs, due to the fact that light faced letter styles predominate in sign software. Even the bold versions of many roman fonts have thin strokes that are not practical for general sign work.

Consider Times Roman, designed specifically for the London Times newspaper. It is very legible—in print. On a sign, however, more often than not, it looks weak and hinders readability. It has thin strokes that are simply too thin for distance viewing at larger sizes. Even in the bold version, the thin strokes are not substantial enough to be practical for general sign work. A sign lettered in all Times Roman has a distinct anemic look. There is too much space; it is too “white.” Times Roman, and it’s sibling Times New Roman, was made for newspaper reading. It was not designed to be used in large sizes and at the distances required for sign viewing. The main problem is that the thin strokes are so thin that they tend to disappear from view as the reading distance increases, leaving only the bold strokes visible.

The fact that so many computer fonts are designed for print, not for signs, is responsible, at least in part, for the flood of poor and ineffective sign work being created today. The majority of letter styles produced with computer software are simply unsuitable for sign work.

In the days of painted signs, a sign painter could ensure that roman letters were readable by thickening the thin strokes as needed on the fly. Widening a letter stroke was as simple as applying extra pressure to a lettering brush, mashing out the hairs so that a wider line was painted. Using a larger lettering brush was also an option. Sign painters were not tied to fonts that couldn’t be modified. Modifications were easy. Type styles were usually not reproduced exactly, but that wasn’t the goal. Rather, an alphabet was adjusted as needed for legibility and readability.

It is evident that part of the solution to making signs more effective today is to make more use of heavy and medium stroked letter styles, and using light faced letters sparingly. Times Roman is really not an excellent choice for sign work, even in its so-called bold version. It’s sometimes possible to artificially improve the legibility of Times Roman by “stroking” it, that is, adding a contour or outline to the letter, in the same color as the letter, to thicken the strokes. This distorts the outline of the letter, of course, but at least the thin strokes don’t disappear as readily. It’s best to do this stroking procedure on the light or medium versions of the letter rather than the bolder versions.

Sometimes a dark background can save a letter with skinny strokes. Strokes tend to appear a little heavier when light letters are put on a dark background. Landscape painters say that light colors “advance,” or grow in perceived size, while dark colors “recede,” or shrink. Especially is this true on internally-illuminated signs. The legibility of a thin-stroked letter is almost always improved by a lighted sign that has a dark background.

My preference is to simply avoid using Times Roman on most sign work, choosing instead a naturally bolder letter. I especially like fonts that have been created by sign painters. Knowing the limitations and weaknesses of letter styles designed for print, these font designers have produced letter styles that work well in large sizes and at greater distances.

So, choose fonts for signage carefully. Make choices that circumvent the problems created by letter styles that were designed for print thus avoiding the anemic look that is so common in computer-generated sign design today.

What makes type legible?

Some sign people see type as nothing more than letterforms. But this view is what produces poor typography. Effective design requires that we see more than the shapes of the letters.

Good typography results from understanding the importance of the spaces as well—between the letters and surrounding the letters. Also, between words, lines and blocks of copy. It is this negative space that makes type either more legible or less legible.

To a novice sign designer, typography is about choosing a letter style and nothing more. Choosing something “interesting” or something fashionable. But good typography, and hence good design, is more about clarity rather than cute or complex. It is more about simplicity rather than what is interesting. It has been said that good typography tends to be invisible. That lettering should usually be “transparent,” allowing the message to come through.

Alex White said, in The Elements of Graphic Design, that “If the reader becomes aware of the letterforms, the type face was a bad choice because it detracts from the smooth transmission of the message within.”

Upper and lower case is easier to read than all capitals

Lettering in all capitals is, generally speaking, more difficult to decipher than lower case or mixed case.

A word in all capital letters creates the illusion of a straight line at the top and bottom. The word shape created by all caps is basically a rectangle.

However, a word in lower case creates a unique word shape. The shape actually aids in word recognition. In addition, the ascenders and descenders of lower case add visual interest.shapely05