Signcraft: The Flats

“You’re branded, branded, branded, branded.” – Tom Peters

The first function of signcraft is branding.

Our time, incidentally, is the era of The Brand. The era of The Brand coincides with the rise of the internet. Branding existed before the internet—of course—but as our lives are almost completely mediated by screens now the brands surround us, assaulting our senses and needling their way into our thoughts from every direction, every surface. Even our relationships are subject to capital-B Branding. In 1997, business guru Tom Peters wrote, “We are CEOs of our own companies: Me Inc. To be in business today, our most important job is to be head marketer for the brand called You.” When we use the same tools, employ the same postures, and undertake the same motions to join a work meeting, find a date, chat with our friends, or order a meal, however, “to be in business” is synonymous with “to be alive.” The Era of the Brand is the Era of Business All the Time.[1]

We are encouraged, therefore, to cultivate a “personal brand” which we can use to manipulate our friends, partners, employers, clients, and associates. After all, “the greatest success stories inevitably involve people who stand out from the crowd.” A recent business book argues that we live in a “new world of new rules” where “mobile phones and digital technology give even average people the chance to build a brand around themselves.” To erect a sign is to mark the earth with a brand. Hence this blog.[2]

If branding is the first function of signcraft, narrative is the first function of branding. This example, a pylon sign for “The Flats” apartment complex, illustrates one of the ways in which narrative might be put to use. Brands are rarely honest, and this one is no different. This sign obscures.

First, the sign itself. Its high-waisted sans-serif fonts evoke a sort of friendly modernism at the nexus of art deco and children’s storybooks, while the bright colors spanning the spectrum from warm to cool signify a vibrant and diverse community. The architectural elements in the logo—the stairs, window, and doorway beneath the implied rooflines of the lettering—bring to mind a close-knit urbanism, like the Painted Ladies of San Francisco or the immigrant communities of old New York. Putting it all together, this sign implies that the community behind the sign is both urban and urbane, warm, vibrant, and modern.

What is behind the sign?

The architectural values of The Flats do not align with the implied values of the sign out front. Far from warm, vibrant urbanism, this array of hotel-style lodging perched on stilts above a parking lot is housing as a utility. Building on top of the parking lot is a clever use of space, but it cedes pride of place—the very footing upon the earth we all need to feel secure—to residents’ vehicles. In a city built to serve vehicles instead of people, at least this apartment complex and others like it completely surrender the earth to the cars. There is honesty, at least.

If architecture is meant to empower humans and shape their spirit through beauty and excellence, why do we relegate students living through the most formative years of their lives to the most utilitarian housing? Built and furnished with spartan commodities, colored with low-quality paints in neutral colors, student housing suggests to its inhabitants that home is something they will enjoy later. Now is time for something else. Landlords and designers would say it doesn’t make sense to spend more on student housing. The students won’t care. Worse, they will probably just damage the building, the furniture, and everything else. This is probably true. I’ve heard of students literally charging through the walls in their apartments playing football. They draw on the walls, clog the toilets, burn holes and spill drinks on the furniture. But how much of this is a self-fulfilling prophecy, I wonder? Do students recognize that landlords, parents, and university administrators treat their housing like a utility and consume it accordingly?[3]

Brands and their signs do important work to shape this complicated reality into a narrative. Student apartments here evoke fantasies of place and class—Tuscany Village, Villa Sienna, Chateau Deville, The Polos. Others evoke states of being—The Players’ Club, The Luxe, or, somewhat vaguely, Quantum. None of them match the stories they tell about themselves. This is what brands do because it is what humans do: name a thing, tell a story. But because these things are named and narrated to sell a product, and because the story these brands tell is meant to obscure the commodity relationship underlying one of the most fundamental part of a student’s life, the signs that tell those stories deserve critical attention.  

In summary, The Flats is student housing. Its materials are bare commodities–vinyl siding and soffit, asphalt shingles, steel and concrete stairwells, steel piers—and the rich, vibrant colors on the sign are nowhere to be found. Beige, gray, off-white, and rust-red: this is American neutral, a building that withdraws from the eye and eludes memory. There are two ways to look at the reality behind the sign. On the one hand, it is a memory hole, a place that withdraws from mind and spirit so students can spend their time at home focused on other things. On the other hand, it is housing at minimum, a raw commodity meant to be rapidly consumed and forgotten, like a Big Mac or a rental car. Either way, reality belies the brand. The sign hides the thing signified. This sign is doing some heavy lifting.

This is the second entry in Signcraft, a series of posts looking at signs and the things they describe. You can read other Signcraft posts here.

[1] Tom Peters, “The Brand Called You,” Fast Company, August 31, 1997,  Rob Brown, The Brand Called You (

[2] Susan Chritton, Personal Branding for Dummies (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2014), 1; Build Your Reputation: Grow Your Personal Brand for Career and Business Success (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2016), pp. 1-2.   

[3] Another question, for another day, is: is student housing adversarial?

Signcraft: Runnymede

In Grafica della Strada, designer Louise Fili lovingly documents the wildly creative shop signs, billboards, and other signage of the Italian street. “In the hands of a sign craftsman,” Fili writes, “type took on a new life, with a tantalizing menu” of styles, materials, and techniques. “Many of the signs proudly bore the imprimaturs of their makers” she explains. All of them are beautiful and inspiring.

Inspired by Fili’s valentine to Italian signage, over the years I began looking around for examples of well-crafted or creative signage here in my little southern hometown. To put it mildly, I’ve been disappointed. American streets certainly match their Italian counterparts in quantity. We are surrounded by signs, assaulted by their messages all day. When it comes to variety or creativity, though, our humble American streets leave much to be desired.

The problem, I believe, is one of commodification and transportation. What makes the signs in Fili’s book so wonderful are the myriad personal touches, the unique lettering, the diverse materials. They catch the eye in spaces that operate on a human scale, like pedestrian areas and urban centers where people move slowly. American signs must catch the eye on the scale of the automobile. Just about every sign here seems to be a sheet of printed plastic hung in front of a bank of lights, therefore, towering above the street where it can be seen from a distance at a high rate of speed. Signs are manufactured to corporate spec by franchisees for many businesses. In almost all cases they are manufactured using commodity materials, a limited design language, and industry-standard methods. It is a competitive business with precious little room for experimentation, serving customers with precious little appetite to break the norm. As business moves more online, I suspect this trend will only worsen.

Or so it appears. I’m willing to believe that this is a superficial reading of the American sign landscape, and I hope to prove myself wrong on this blog.

I’ll start with an example that is not beautiful, necessarily, but is remarkably different from the norm. I spotted this sign at the entrance to an “established” (that means old, in real estate terms, but not old or special enough to be “historic”) neighborhood on the opposite side of a busy road headed out of town. I swung around to take a few pictures, but could not find a good place to pull over until I spotted a side street a few hundred yards down the narrow entrance road. This gave me an excellent opportunity to walk through the neighborhood. The sun was shining warmly, and birds were singing songs of early spring in the trees overhead. Homeowners along the street have added, over the years, little hahas and embellishments to their yards. The neighborhood was peaceful, lived in. Alain de Botton argues that “those places whose outlook matches and legitimates our own, we tend to honour with the term ‘home.'” To call a place “home,” he says, is “to recognize its harmony with our own prized internal song.”

I was easy to see how Runnymede is home for its people. This sign was not as handsome as it may have been thirty years ago, but it speaks to the unique character of the community it represents. Perhaps it “sings” their “prized internal song.”

This is the first lesson in my study of American signage. Context is important. John Dewey rather famously wrote: “When artistic objects are separate from both conditions of origin and operation in experience, a wall is built around them that renders almost opaque their general significance.” A viewer cannot fully understand art unless they see it in the place and form in which it was meant to be seen. A sign is meant to be seen in a particular place. That is its purpose. Its value as a work of art is way down the list of priorities. I regret now that I did not do a better job of capturing this sign in context.