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Eric E. Larsen

Early Signmakers Were Also History Makers

From Roman roads to Viking runestones to the corner pub, our craft has been critical to shaping the centuries.

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A runestone from the time of the Vikings, located in Karlevi at the island Oland in Sweden. Credit: Binnerstam, iStock

SIGNMAKING IS ONE of the oldest professions in our human history, and even in its crudest and earliest forms, has been essential in helping people understand the world around us.

First, consider Göbekli Tepe. Around 9,600 B.C. someone installed a set of monument signs, one of which is 23 ft. tall, 10 ft. wide and weighs about 50 tons. The Göbekli Tepe site is currently considered the oldest known archaeological site on Earth, and here we have a sign – albeit with no lettering, because written language was not invented yet. However, you do find pictograms of what are believed to be animals and constellations.

Pictograms, hieroglyphics and carvings were the first “fonts.” The illustrators used stone as their substrate, and the stones were placed in various places to mark that area. In the times of the pharaohs, the likenesses of Egypt’s ancient rulers were splashed onto pyramids, obelisks and tablets with hieroglyphics. In the Americas, the Mayans and the Inca were marking special places with signs and so on. No one could read, but they knew what things meant because someone hammered messages into stone.

Then the written word was invented, and the first proper font was born. Fonts, back then, were whatever the illustrator decided looked good. You could tell who wrote or made what by the font someone was using. That person, more than likely, created the font.

In the days of the Romans, wayfinding emerged. Romans built roads and needed to let people know which direction to take. In towns, every building was marked in some way to let people know what was where.

Other European cultures remained in the dark ages as literacy was concerned. Not many Viking villagers could read, so they used signs with pictures. The local boat builder may have used a picture of a Viking ship and a wooden mallet. Eventually, Vikings began documenting their legacy on runestones, pounding marks into the rocks of the territories they invaded.

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As time progressed, artists became signmakers. Ever wonder why so many pubs in Europe are called things like “The Laughing Goat,” “The Red Pig,” or “The Turf Tavern?” Those names were used for the benefit of people who were illiterate. The local artist would depict a “laughing goat” on a sign with lettering, making the pub identifiable even to those who couldn’t read.

As literacy grew, fonts evolved, and early sign crafters learned that fonts could convey meaning. A letter with loops and fancy filigree looked sophisticated. A letter with bold strokes conveyed places of professionalism, such as banks or government offices. Letters with carefree loops and tails conveyed entertainment or the name of the latest cure-all potion.

Kings and other worldly leaders hired letterers to design proclamations and draw maps of the new world using these new fonts and letter styles. Soon enough, the printing press was cranking out flyers and books, some of which helped overturn dictatorships and change the way people thought about society.

When it comes down to it, we signmakers are arrangers of art and words. Through their arrangements, they can change countries, convey hope, tell stories, set moods, prepare us for whatever lies ahead, teach us a new skill, comfort us in times of loss and sorrow, or bring joy and meaning.

Signmakers have been doing these things, in one form or another, since time began. So the next time someone asks what you do for a living, tell them this: “I belong to one of the most ancient professions on the planet. We have informed, changed and guided the world throughout history. It’s not taught in a classroom; you do not obtain a degree for it. It is learned through the handing down of skills from one generation to the next. I am an arranger of art and words.”

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