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The Zign is on the Wall

Guest Editorial by KT Meaney

For a moment, forget the wind. (Blown from mouth and sky.)

Erase the architecture. Never mind the meat. Disconnect the lake effect. Because, for us, Chicago is not about these things. For us, the second city is foremost our sign city.

Come one, come all, come quick before they’re gone: hand-drawn, hand-colored, hand-painted signs. Unidentified flying letters; characters you’ve never seen before; colors you can’t match with a chip. Antiqued advertisements with slogans from the past. (Get your knives sharpened for the holidays!) Viewed on worn brick buildings and yawning awnings.

For such a cold place, this letter-lover is in heat. Victorian, Modern and Old West right here in the Midwest! Or, as Nick Carraway from The Great Gatsby called home, the Middle West. And some 80 years after the book was first written, 15 years after the book was first read, by this author, I wonder where the “dle” (read as diddle) went? Obviously abbreviated for efficiency.

Do you know these Chicago signs are losing their diddle? The real-estate developer does. The (out of work) sign painter does. The lump in my throat does. To be replaced by a quick answer to the question of happiness: ready made.

As the paint chips off the old Morton’s Salt shed, and your corner store turns into a coffee stop—identical to the coffee shop up the block—you start to believe in the opposite of bi-location: being in one place at two times. Eventually, the signage here looks like the signage there. Hey, diddle diddle.

But wait, is that wet paint? But wait, what’s he doing on that ladder? What bait, he’s reeled me in. And so I stand—not directly below him, for fear of both the superstition and how it may play out. And my orientation reinforces an appreciation I have for sign-painters: I look up to him.

Amado Romero paints in Logan Square, Chicago. It is an old-fashioned occupation, but in this timeless neighborhood, a job with a fresh coat of paint. So I stop and watch. Amado speaks little english and silently offers his business card as a greeting. It reads: “ZIGN; Amado Romero.” The card itself is a sign: hand painted with visible brush strokes that no Epson could output. I smile in return, ’cause that is something everybody everywhere does in the same language. (1)

What a word: ZIGN! I like it mucho.

I watch Amado at length (literally) and admire his lettering skills. He paints with fluidity and proficiency. Even still, when you put all the letters together the Los Pinos Supermercado sign is sophisticatedly amateur (with all due respect, Amado). It is hard to achieve cold precision from a warm hand. The incongruities seem conversational. Each letter speaks Spanish to me. They are a self-portrait of the painter. To gain perspective, I cross the street and join Jan Tschichold on the other side (not really, just in my head). I wish my trained eye hadn’t gone to obedience school, because I’m suddenly defending the irregularities to Mr. Tschichold.

(Roll over the green text to eavesdrop)

jt said…
jt said:
Well, the rhythm of the entire sign is faulty.
And the letters are much too thick; there is no reason for such bold letters. (2)

kt retorted…
kt retorted:
An overstuffed supermarket is reason enough.

jt continued…
jt continued:
The irregularity of the S indicates inexperience.
Only the first S is correct.
The two other S’s are poor because they do not look like the first.

kt queried…
kt queried:
Yes, but have you tried hand-painting an S?
Then, tried again?
It’s as hard as drawing a perfect circle… twice.

[Jan continues as if I’m not even there. (A joke, get it?)]

jt persisted…
jt persisted:
An O which is drawn with a compass makes the horizontal portions optically too thick.
Moreover, the swollen heads of the P and R are the result of these exaggeratedly thick lines.
Plus, they should share similar architecture, which they do not.
The head of the R is ludicrous.
It should come in at the middle of the vertical not below.

kt answered…
kt answered:
All true.
Nevertheless, what we have failed to mention is that there is beauty in the form, perfect or imperfect.
These letters capture the personality of this Latino neighborhood.
The “swollen heads” of the P and R make the counters pop out like jumping beans.
The S terminals are caught in mid-beat, like the feet of a salsa dancer.
You can find a tortilla chip in the negative space of the C, thanks to the angled terminals.
The steep alternatives of the M make you want to climb an ancient Aztec ruin.

[These are quick impressions from an appreciative typogringo.]

jt affirmed…
jt affirmed:
The essence of good lettering is not self-expression, but complete self-negation in the service of a correctly understood task.

I turn a deaf ear.
I take a sigh of belief.

This isn’t the perfect signage found in Tschichold’s Treasury of Alphabets and Lettering, theoretically. But it is perfect zignage, really. Tschichold himself said, “Not only is there a certain structural character in letters—any letters—but there is also flavor and a sense of place…. The designer of letters, whether he be a sign painter, a graphic artist or in the service of a type foundry, participates just as creatively in shaping the style of his time as the architect or poet.”(3) As if communicating through his voice, Amado’s letters are strong with accent. I imagine where he was born: Central America. I am reminded of where I am, Logan Square, Chicago, 65% Latino. (4) Manufactured signs can’t offer as much insight. Like that Kroger K, they only lead us in circles.

There’s an honesty in handmade signs that combats our dishonest world. Awkward letterforms bring back memories of childhood, when we first learned the alphabet. At age 5, I drew in the closet, on a pink shag rug, while listening to the band Wings. No matter how hard I tried, I could never remember how many horizontal strokes were on the letter E. I added too many, making it hairy. Or placed exactly ten, one for every finger, one for every time Paul McCartney repeats “I love you” in “Silly Love Songs”. I could count on that.

If you saw my monster E, you’d agree with Ben Shahn in Love and Joy about Letters: “…who can fail to find there an immediate sense of the hand that made the letters? There is a joy of workmanship that no time or weathering can erase.”(5) In a time when workmanship is both cheap and easy, my heart beats fast for something hand-made and here to stay. You think that people would have had enough of silly supermercado signs. I look around me and I see it isn’t so. (6)

But if it is so, here is what I fear…
But if it is so, here is what I fear:

New signs are like new subdivisions: fast and fake. And having spent so much time in nearby Detroit, subdivision capital of the world, I’ve noticed the similarities. Both are made in multiples and offer a ton-of-a-kind originality. Whether it be vinyl siding or vinyl lettering, they look mannequin slick and from a window-shopping distance give an initial sense of swellbeing. But up close they’re hollow, like foam-core comps. And they will not last. And they will not… (See how fast they’re fading?)

Okay, some new signs last longer than others. Ironically, the only permanent structure at a new development is the entry signage. Glistening-gold letters, inset into stone, behind a mini Bellagio fountain. More grand than any house they advertise (or disguise). Like a car commercial, they always speak in natural terms: Forest Hills, Deer Creek, The Woods. And I am not fooled. As my friend Pete from The Coke Dares will dare say, these signs are like gravestone markers, commemorating what nature was displaced for development. We live in a falsely-advertised world. So if you live at The Woods, you probably have no trees. Conversely, if you eat a snack that proclaims “0% Transfat” it often means there is transfat in there! Just read the small print below.

On July 9, 2003, the FDA issued a regulation (21 CFR 101.9 (c)(2)(ii)) requiring manufacturers to list trans fatty acids; the regulation allows trans fat levels of less than 0.5 grams per serving to be labeled as 0 grams per serving, or trans fat free. (7)

They don’t make ’em like they used to. Even with all those preservatives, hand-crafted Chicago signs have an expiration date, and it’s coming up. My typographic future and yours will be that of commonplace designs in common places. Unless you go grocery shopping in Logan Square, that is, where typography is made the old-fashioned way. Examine the hand-made awnings. Read any oversized supermercado poster to see what’s inside. Along with huevo grande, you will find that signage is for sale.

Most posters are hand painted on paper, offering many pleasing modifications, yet adhering to a noticeable format. Though they are all individually made, it would be an interesting study to gather ten from different supermercados and distinguish the unspoken standards manual. Here’s a preview:

  1. PRICE is big and bold.
  2. ITEM is equally large and written in Spanish; the letters are squeezed together in a condensed face, if you will.
  3. TRANSLATION is much smaller and falls below or above the item (in English).
  4. ADJECTIVES are set at angle and appear conversational: “no limit,” “while they last,” “two for one.”
  5. GRAPHIC ELEMENTS are thrown in for spice.

(Roll over the green text for captions)

A common element here…

A common element here is the poster border which is always dancing. I like to call it the electrified scotch rule. Many times it has two colors—painted while holding two brushes at the same time, I suspect, when the spacing is unified.

The type often has a drop shadow…

The type often has a drop shadow. And if it falls to the left, I naturally think: “Jiminy Cricket, that’s counter intuitive, like reading from right to left. Or having the sun rise in the west and set in the east. Or meeting these words at the end of the day not the beginning!” If you see enough of these lefty Lucys, you need to know why. So you investigate until you find: “Distance lends enchantment in sign composition as well as in life. By using a shade under the letter or some other touch of perspective you can suggest the distance…. The shade should fall downward and to the left and usually should be set entirely away from the letter and not connected to it. The reason for shading letters to the left is that it takes less time, as fewer brush strokes are required than for a right-hand shade.”(8) Think of the UC F; it makes a bit of sense.

My favorite momentos…

My favorite momentos occur when the design system breaks to reveal the personality of the painter. Sometimes words are painted with the motion of the whole arm. Subsequently, the letters become nested, like a fold-up fan. An example of this is found on the HUEVO poster above. (A nest: a perfect place for an egg!) The quickness of the arm translates to experience and expedience. The letters are drawn fast and still look wet.

Other painters are painstakingly slow…

Other painters are painstakingly slow, it seems. Instead of painting single stroke letters, they use the half block: “‘Single stroke’ [alphabets] means that each part of the letter is made with a single stroke and doesn’t require retouching. It requires about twenty-two separate brush strokes to form a half block letter S while a single stroke S is formed with three brush strokes.”(9) Numbers are done this way too, due to their large size. For some Saturday fun, forget the Sudoku; number play in a different way. Compare your favorite numbers from a range of supermercado posters, mine being the popular 9. The results are exciting; my results are following: All were very bold and looked to be smiling. The 99¢ poster is a favorite, even the ¢ sign is overly friendly. There is “No Limit” to this poster’s happiness.

I leave Amado painting and I continue walking. It’s the best time to think. (Imagine all those people driving who miss their time thinking—which may explain the excess of dumb drivers.) In our car-culture world we’ve eliminated the hardships of one-of-a-kind production. I’m a modern designer who’s living the easy life. You could say I am the lineage of a sign painter. My ladder is a task chair (which leaves me with back problems), my sun is a desk light (and the lack of vitamin D causes depression), my paint is mixed on screen and in my eyes (which gave me glasses), and my letterforms are prefab (and my painting skills are postmortem). I can design something in a minute that would take Amado a day. Am I lucky?

Maybe an easy life is a hard life.

My life is convenient. Most days I feel like Townes Van Zandt: “Living’s mostly wasting time and I waste my share of mine, but it never feels too good, so let’s don’t take too long.”(10) But when it comes to letters, I want to take too long. To join my niece and practice lettering until I get an “A” for an “A” (never an eye for an eye) would be a day worth living. What reward! What achievement! Let’s “learn the hard things, like grinding stones and running errands and making letters—thousands and thousands of letters until [we] should know to perfection every curve, every serif, every thick element … and every thin one, where it belonged and how it related to the form….”(11) That “systematic, daily, useful work is [our] greatest blessing,”(12) says craftsman Elbert Hubbard. To which I agree. And since I can’t get back to the grindstone, I make things purposefully hard on myself. I find the parking spot furthest from the grocery door. I count the grid of parking lines and envision monster Es.

Here we are in the Midwest: treeless subdivisions, asphalt horizons, and cheap repetition. These new developments are illogical to me; driven by profits, not people. It’s “idiot wind… blowing through the letters that we wrote.”(13) But you have a choice. You can either make money or make sense—the two are mutually exclusive, says designer/scientist Bucky Fuller. (14) I choose to make cents. And I’ve discovered that top-notch is better than bottom line; that the slow hand is steadfast; and that giving a smile to a stranger is the most important thing I can do in a day. So make your own Middle West and for a moment, forget the wind.

KT Meaney is a designer from Terms and Conditions (whose website needs to be updated), as well as an adjunct professor at NCSU College of Design. She authored an earlier essay on Speak Up entitled For Keepsake!

Special thanks to design advocate Jackie Tokarz, neighbor and friend, from Eyespy Design in Chicago.

Edited with the help of Matthew Peterson.

Nice to meet you Amado Romero and Julieta Aguilera.


1. Crosby, David, “Wooden Ships” (1969).“If you smile at me I will understand ’cause that is something everybody everywhere does in the same language.”

2. Tschichold, Jan, Treasury of Alphabets and Lettering (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1995). Jan Tschichold dialogue is appropriated from his writings.
The following quotes are found on page 18:
[Comments about “Krimo”]
“The head of the R is too large. It should come in at the middle of the vertical not below it.”
“The M is very poor…”
“The rhythm of the entire word image is faulty.”
“An O which is drawn with a compass makes the horizontal portions optically too thick.”
[Comments about “Piras”]
“Much too heavy. There is no reason for such bold letters.”
The following quote is found on page 14:
“The essence of good lettering is precisely the opposite of what, until recently, has been widely preached: It is not self-expression, but complete self-negation in the service of a correctly understood task.”

3. Ibidem, 13.

4. Patterson, Elizabeth A., “Logan Square,” in The Encyclopedia of Chicago History, http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/761.html (accessed 1 December 2006).

5. Shahn, Ben, Love and Joy About Letters (New York: Grossman Publishers, 1963), 18.

6. McCartney, Paul, “Silly Love Songs” (1976).

7. Wikipedia, “Trans Fat,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trans_fat (accessed 1 December 2006).

8. Matthews, E. C., How to Paint Signs and Sho’ Cards (New York: JS Ogilvie Publishing Company,1920), 23.

9. Ibidem, 43.

10. Van Zandt, Townes, “To Live is to Fly” (1971).

11. Shahn, Love and Joy, 11.

12. Hubbard, Elbert (edited by Alice Hubbard), An American Bible (New York: Roycrofters, 1912).

13. Dylan, Bob. “Idiot Wind” (1974).

14. R. Fuller, Buckminster, Grunch of Giants, (New York: St . Martin’s Press 1983).

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PUBLISHED ON Dec.18.2006 BY Speak Up
Armin’s comment is:

A quick technical note: If the type looks "funny" on your browser, please do a hard refresh so that the new additions to our CSS are activated in your browser allowing you to enjoy this post ot its fullest. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, just ignore this comment.

On Dec.18.2006 at 06:52 PM
Daniel Green’s comment is:

these signs are like gravestone markers, commemorating what nature was displaced for development.

That’s powerful.

On Dec.19.2006 at 08:34 AM
Young Mr. Arvizu’s comment is:

what a great essay.

On Dec.19.2006 at 08:39 AM
Armin’s comment is:

There is a little shop in my old Chicago neighborhood (Edgewater) that had the most amazing price signs. For the longest time I wanted to go in and commission the sign painter to paint my name or "Speak Up", or anything, just to have a keepsake of that talented hand. I'm not sure if this is a Chicago thing, but I have yet to see signs like these – specifically the ones for prices – in other parts of the country. I am guessing L.A. would have them. But here in New York I haven't spotted any of this quality.

And, yes, the essay is great. I specially enjoyed the conversation with Mr. Tschichold.

On Dec.19.2006 at 08:54 AM
Mark’s comment is:

Indeed it seems the occupation of the signpainter is rapidly becoming a thing of the past.

It seems almost every sign nowadays was created on a computer without any interaction between the hand and the material the letters were created on.

Basically eradicating any sense of personality from the person who created the sign.

Indeed, the effects are everywhere just recently a small independent conveinent store in my area of Torrington,CT named "Value Mart" was bought by a new owner.

For years, a big handmade "Value Mart" sign in big bolt san serif letters stood over the the front enterance of the store.

It change over the years from red letters on white to white letters on green, but today the sign has been painted over by the new owner with white paint.

Where the name was, is now a pathetic, blank white rectangle so now the store is completely nameless.

On Dec.19.2006 at 10:48 AM
Mark’s comment is:

edit I meant where it says "bolt" I meant to type "bold"

On Dec.19.2006 at 10:50 AM
szkat’s comment is:

chicago's also pretty amazing in that it's one of the last great cities to have so many ethnic concentrations, which allow for the preservation of such traditions. there are whole neighborhoods without walgreens. it's been this way for decades, unencouraged by the city council, just people moving in near their families and friends. one of our greatest unintentional outcomes.

On Dec.19.2006 at 11:12 AM
lorraine’s comment is:

In Los Angeles you can still see the hand painted signs in some markets, mostly in the older neighborhoods, in supermarkets that are not parts of bigger chains, mostly ethnic. But like this author, I have the feeling that I am looking at a dying art, though with all the great graffiti on the walls it's not like there aren't writers abounding. Of course, the commercialized replacements for the signpainters' art spread their soulessness everywhere, though I do have a special place in my heart for those weird rented backlit trailer signs (with the moveable letters) that often provide an inadvertent poetic (when the letters fall off or are snitched—by that "idiot wind"?). Wah! Thanks for publishing this sad and lovely Valentine (out of season) to signpainters and the Midwest...

On Dec.19.2006 at 01:08 PM
Michelle French’s comment is:

Thanks for this article. It brought back memories of lettering those huge signs on butcher paper in high school with the supermarket markers. Lack of spell check was my biggest challenge. I spliced in letters more than once. It gave me a healthy respect for people who are good at hand lettering.

One of the manufacturers of the supermarket ink and markers was in my hometown in Alabama. Thanks to this article, I called the 86-year-old founder and had a nice chat. The company still is in existence, but, of course, has lost a great deal of business to computerized printouts and to the fact that the ink is a bit, well, toxic.

It was entertaining to discuss printing with this man who invented print processes for fun.

On Dec.19.2006 at 05:33 PM
Jeff Gill’s comment is:

KT, that was such a pleasure to read. Thank you.

On Dec.20.2006 at 07:39 AM
john’s comment is:

Living in and around the Los Angeles area my whole life, it never occured to me that this might be a dying art form: Hand painted signs are everywhere here, although most common in areas the more well-heeled might miss. One of the very best posts I've ever found here, many thanks.

On Dec.20.2006 at 12:33 PM
Matt’s comment is:

We fear it might be dying. We had a report from a friend still in Chicago that Los Pinos was, well, "adios" (that's improper), and that the zigns in general are already more difficult to find after only a year. For the same reason, I'm sure, that Wal-Mart is so easy to find...

On Dec.21.2006 at 12:02 PM
George Richardson’s comment is:

The incongruities seem conversational. Each letter speaks Spanish to me. They are a self-portrait of the painter.

-For the most part, any hand-paint sign its by nature a reflection of the author and not conversely a reflexion of a culture.

- However, I'd take my hat off for you. You, poetically, made my day while expressing my trained eye hadn’t gone to obedience school, because I’m suddenly defending the irregularities..

Most of the comments are comeing from well "obedient-trained eyes" that know to much-to well, how the Neuropol's type looks on a G5's screen. Although, sadly, they won't have a single hand-pain type under the Chicago's sun.

To gain perspective, I cross the street and join Jan Tschichold on the other side

-Surprisely, you had made a excellent job right from the start. You framed your article very well while were talking about the sign's neighborhood.

Curiously, only one sees to noted it, though.
May I ask: to whom are they talking to?. Well, I can see your pic. but I cannot see the neighborhood.
And as far as the neighborhood goes, I can see the sign maker and the supermarket owner wanted to tell something to their niche and this 'something' might be encrypted just for the "low educated eyes" of their clients. Ah, Clients...who could buy a G5 without them?

You may want to read : LATINOS inc. byArlene Dávila http://www.bookfinder4u.com/IsbnSearch.aspx?isbn=0520227247&mode=direct

On Dec.23.2006 at 12:32 AM
George Richardson’s comment is:

Edit it should read:...while expressing my trained eye hadn’t gone to obedience school, because I’m suddenly defending the irregularities

On Dec.23.2006 at 12:48 AM