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ST’s Jeff Russ Investigates Retro Signage

Everything old really is new again

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The time-tested chestnut that “everything old is new again” certainly applies to sign design. Styles gain, and lose, popularity. Trends come and go. But the principles of good typography rarely change, and when they do, it’s a slow evolution that often comes right back to the basics.
Art History and the History of Design are required courses at any reputable design school, and with good reason. Another chestnut sums it up pretty well: “You can’t know where you’re headed if you don’t know where you’ve been.”

From a practical standpoint, it just makes sense to be aware of many design styles. Picasso is often credited with the concept that you need to know the rules before you can break them. With all of this in mind, I’ve been watching Mad Men’s influence on current sign design with great interest.

The popular AMC drama revolves around mid-century NYC’s Madison Ave. advertising agencies and the characters that inhabit them.Main character Don Draper inhabits a world of jingles and car ads that anyone over age 50 remembers fondly. Not just because of their earnest nature or the skilled draftsmanship of the illustrations, but because of their clear messaging and typographic legibility.

These timeless qualities seem to be back in vogue. This ’60’s Mad Men style is often referred to as “Mid-Century Modern”.

For now, at least, Don Draper would feel right at home.
 

Shredding for what?!
This “fake” album cover almost fooled me with the pitch-perfect fonts and old-school kerning and tracking. A quick google search confirmed my suspicions, though; this image originally appeared on the cover of Popular Electronics in December 1957.

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The hilarious juxtaposition of words and graphics creates a subtle “double-take” that adds impact and makes the design more memorable. To be successful, this design style must walk the tightrope of believability and audacity. It’s not as easy as it looks.
 

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