Before & After: Traditional principles inspire new layouts

By Bob Behounek

Posted on Monday, December 4th, 2023

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I really got charged up when those color sign sketches from Beverly Sign Company resurfaced last spring [see Sketches from the Golden Age of Chicago Sign Design, SignCraft, July/August 2010]. It’s hard to believe how a few sketches from the past can energize our thinking over 50 years later. Those well-composed designs trigger both a visual and emotional spark for me.

Well-designed ads like these demand our attention. Why? I’d say their simplicity, the many contrasts in shapes, weight and color and that famous art of prioritizing the copy—that is, organizing the messages on the sign in order of importance to make the poor reader’s job easier.

Like it or not, a sign can only deliver one message at a time. As we create a design, we want to blast the most important thought at the viewer to catch their attention. This main message is literally the reason for the sign. It may be the business name, the service offered, For Sale or Lease or that you get a free tire rotation.

The secondary information must be reduced in order of importance. It won’t be important to the reader unless the primary message has been understood. Less contrasting colors, sizes and weights must be used for the secondary copy so it does not interfere with the primary message in any way.

Prioritizing copy means dumping unnecessary text or minimizing it enough to keep it out of the way of the main message. Space is always in short supply on a sign, so we can’t afford to use any of it wastefully.

Study those sketches

I’m sure you had time to digest the sketches from those master designers of the Beverly Sign era. If not, take a minute to look them over again. Study their readability at various distances. Notice how the primary message is the last thing you lose as you increase the viewing distance.

Consider how much time the reader would have to get that essential message. Imagine the graphic competition that such an advertisement would face. These crystal-clear, uncluttered signs were not only fun to read and easy to understand, they packed a massive advertising wallop, too.

Let’s redo a few layouts in that style. A few weeks ago, I was running some errands. I spotted some fascia signs on a typical strip mall—you know, the ones that are longer than taller, all the same size with a single piece of acrylic for the face. I got to thinking about how the Beverly designers might have handled the redesigns if they were given a work order for the job.

I quickly turned my truck around and snapped a few photos. Back home, I set out on an imaginary journey back to Chicago  in the 1950s. I put on my bowling shirt, the horn-rimmed glasses, grew some pork-chop sideburns. Then I placed myself in the Beverly design room and started doing thumbnail sketches of how these signs might have been handled back then.

I know—it sounds crazy. (But why not dream a little and have some fun? I do remember the first time I sat in a 1957 Chevrolet!)

I had to stop and reminisce to recall the design cues of the 1950s. It was a prosperous decade. World War II was over and the country was rebuilding. Everything seemed to blossom in living color. The dark colors of the 1940s disappeared. Design got more flamboyant. Cars sprouted fins and more chrome as we drove highways like Route 66.

Are you feelin’ what I’m feelin’ yet? Buckle up (wait a minute—cars didn’t have seat belts in the ’50s!) and hang on to that massive steering wheel!

Looking over the samples I photographed, each reads well enough to help the business get its message across. But I thought I’d like to see what the Beverly approach might have meant to each of these layouts.

I couldn’t help digging out my watercolors and using the same brushes the Beverly designers used back then—Rich Art showcard color and Art-Sign red sable brushes on some good, old Crescent 14-ply showcard stock. I enjoyed drawing the individual ads in pencil, separating the messages, choosing the colors—even if I did drip on my penny loafers while painting them! Showcard colors dry fast, so the backgrounds were ready to letter in a flash.

It certainly was an enjoyable trip for me, back to an era before my time. Making an attempt to breathe new life into some actual examples by imagining how they may have been handled during the golden era of Chicago sign design was a great exercise. Give it a try sometime. If enough of us do, it may inspire a whole new revolution of colorful, easy-to-understand signage with an emotional flair!

For Gadabout’s, I was thinking about injecting some definite contrasts in color and shape here. I put our client’s name in a warm, protruding red to contrast with the cool blue, receding colors of the store service. Placing the phone number on the stylized ’50s cruise ship opens more space for the more important information. (Does anyone really remember phone numbers they see on signs?)

The Antiques sign was struggling with that ampersand in the middle using up too much real estate. Giving the two words that needed to be understood first some high contrast in color on two 50/50 backgrounds made everything so much bigger—and so much more readable from a distance. Notice the low contrast of the ampersand, and how it utilizes that unused real estate.

The craftsmen of that spectacular era would have most likely adjusted the emphasis on every part of the Store For Rent layout. The main message would be Rent and the phone number. It’s obvious that it’s a store, and the word For doesn’t need to be read at all. By making those two words hard to see and read, it clears the way for our main thought to push its way to the front.

 

The Jewelry store needed more color and contrast in the type. A two-color background, and reducing the secondary copy in a warm, protruding red, helped balance these two items.

The Heads-Up sign seemed to be screaming for a greater fun factor and more colors! Separating the backgrounds and giving the service a color block of its own helped manage the messages. The massive black script on Heads, placed over both background colors, links the message together. A bold, warm red arrow certainly pushes one’s eyebrows up.

This appeared in the September/October 2010 issue of SignCraft entitled “Let’s roll the clock back to 1956.”

 

Bob Behounek has spent over 40 years as a sign artist and pinstriper in the Chicago, Illinois, area.