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Let's Look at the Sign

Updated: Apr 4, 2023

To closely look at the evolution of signage is fascinating. While this is a subject that demands detailed research and understanding, at the outset the influences that society has had, and continues to have, on the design and aesthetics are largely visible. Be it the enamel painted signboards that populate the older precincts of the city, or the illuminated signboards that slowly grew to clinch the market, the older signboards of the city are a notch apart from the newer, sometimes less imaginative ones. Of late, it is the commercial signage that has caught my eye, particularly the ones in the historic precincts of the city, their designs and style competing against the newer ones. In areas like George Town, one would have the luck to witness a plethora of diverse signage, ranging from the old to the new.

I wanted to begin this series of exploration and discovery with these commercial signboards that one can find in every nook and corner of the city. Addressing the hand-painted signboards first, one aspect that comes to my mind, apart from the remarkable skill and style, are the visual graphics. They relate to the function of the shop and are quite eye-catching. If I were to develop a hypothesis as to why the visual element was given as much importance as the handwritten one, I would say it’s the need to cater to a wider audience, the literate and the illiterate, and serve as an element through which the purpose of the shop could be identified. The bonus was the beautiful illustrations that came to be painted on these boards that still exist in parts.

Some signboards went the extra mile and were entirely handcrafted by artisans. These would be carpenters, working with the best quality wood and creating marvellous designs. The city hardly has a handful of these surviving, hidden amidst the loud signages of recent times.

Photo credits: Binsan Oommen Baby

The hand-painted and handmade signboards soon came to be replaced by illuminated ones, offering an extra layer of attractiveness, along with a functional one-up - they would be visible from afar post daylight. The earlier signboards under this umbrella populate the commercial districts of Madras, especially Theagaraya Nagar. The letters are bold, the typography classic and these continue to stand out in comparison to their successors. One could imagine the cost factor of these signboards, making them available only to those that could shell out the few extra thousands, creating a clear divide right away. Jewellery shops made the most of it, the textile shops following closely behind.

The ’70s was an exciting time in the Indian signage industry as new fashions and formats started entering the market. Illuminated signs, incandescent backlighting, and handcrafted neon tubes with their luminous glow started emerging in the prime districts of cities. While the glamour of these signages was undeniable, they did not present any worrying competition to the clientele of the hand-painted sign maker. Electric signages were expensive and only enterprises like jewellers, hotels, or premium theatres could afford the embellishment of glow signs to prove business strength and power.

Hand-painted Signs: Forgotten Markers of the City Space, Chandrika Acharya, 28 February 2021

Photo credits: Binsan Oommen Baby

The work now ended up getting split amongst hand-painted sign painters and the several skilled workers involved in creating an illuminated signboard. But, the design was still rooted in societal and cultural influences, and the aesthetics were elegant.

With technological developments came the understanding of how to make the illuminated signboards cost-effective. The usage of inexpensive materials and mass-produced designs ended up populating the market. LED signages soon became the norm and everywhere one turns, eyes would be blinded with the host of colours that would attack the envisioned audience. On certain occasions, the need to attract ends up blinding the passerby and hence achieves the exact opposite.

Photo credits: Sujith Kumar

Signboards started becoming monotonous with a large number carrying the branding of international giants. The city has ended up being filled with a beautiful, but sometimes chaotic, amalgamation of the old and the new signboards, harmony being a huge question mark especially in the heritage precincts. The character was slowly getting lost. Now, the purpose shifted from celebrating art and aesthetics to pushing marketing and branding. Competition prevailed and art lost.

This is but a small step in the direction of delving deep into the world of signage and understanding what inspired and drove these brilliant artisans. If you are excited and interested in this subject as I am, let’s put our heads together and delve together!

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