Which Direction Should Vertical Text Go?

Hi Danthonia,
I’m freelance designer, and I’ve done plenty of branding and logo work. Sign design is something I’m less familiar with. I have a question for you regarding a current project: On vertical signs, should the text read bottom-to-top, or top-to-bottom? Thanks for taking the time!

[Freelance Designer]

Hi Freelance Designer,

You’ve hit on a hot topic. I’ve seen this one discussed at length on forums such as Typophile. The quick answer is that there is no rule about text orientation on signage. It can go either up or down, so take your pick!

Architectural Sign in France

(image courtesy of Alpolic)

Having said that, I’ve noticed that most vertical signs and banners have the text running from bottom to top. I’m not sure if there’s any reason for that, besides that it looks better (to me, at least). When I’m standing on a busy city street, reading a banner that says ‘Sapphire City Festival’ (or any other message), I tilt my head to the left and run my eyes upwards. When I get to the end of the banner, I am looking at the sky and maybe a few trees. Generally, this is better than running my eyes downwards into the visual clutter of the street. Of course, for a smaller wall-mounted sign, the background would be consistent, so it wouldn’t matter either way.

Vertical Text Sign

(image courtesy of Freshome)

I used to think that downwards was the correct direction, since the text on book spines runs downwards. That was before I visited Germany and noticed that all the book spine text ran bottom-to-top, except on volumes so thick that space allowed for horizontal text (the ones that I wouldn’t attempt to read). Americans justify running the text downwards because that way it’s readable when the book is lying flat with the cover up. Europeans would argue that when a book is lying flat, the cover is plainly visible, so it doesn’t matter that the text on the spine is upside-down.

Bookshelf

(image courtesy of Frank M. Rafik)

But I digress. Signs aren’t books, and they don’t have covers or spines. What’s more, signs have traditionally followed a slightly different set of rules than printed matter. Many of the old theatre signs, especially in the United States, are vertical. This is for the simple reason that vertical signs are much more practical to build and install on towering urban facades. Traditionally, these signs don’t use vertical text at all, but rather vertically-stacked horizontal letters. Stacked letters have an art and a science of their own.

Roman letters are designed to sit side by side, not on top of one another. Stacks of lowercase letters are especially awkward because the ascenders and descenders make the vertical spacing appear uneven, and the varied width of the characters makes the stacks look precarious. (The letter I is a perennial problem.) Capital letters form more stable stacks than lowercase letters. Centering the column helps to even out the differences in width.

– Ellen Lupton, Thinking with Type

Portland Theatre

(image courtesy of Treye Rice)

I’m not really sure why stacked text was so popular in days gone by. Possibly sign-makers simply couldn’t stand the thought of tipping text ninety degrees. Maybe they felt that rotating text was an affront to the dignity of respectable letterforms. Or they may have believed that stacked text is more readable. It’s not.

Art Deco Sign Miami

(image courtesy of Adam Sherbell)

I would only consider stacking text on a sign that is designed to emulate the Art Deco style of the early twentieth century – or at least a sign with a bit of historic flavour. For anything else, it tends to look bad (unless it’s a skateboard deck that says ‘Gnarly’ in decorative circus-style lettering).

Jessica Hische Skateboard Deck

(image courtesy of Jessica Hische)

Now I’ll digress a little. Since we’ve talked so much about vertical text, I might as well touch on the topic of angled text too. If you ever consider using angled text on a sign design, make sure that it always angles ‘uphill’ (with the right side higher than the left). It just looks better, and ninety-nine percent of angled text angles upwards.

Gilded Window Sign

Matt, of Sign Master Signs, paints a window in Vancouver, Canada (image courtesy of Old Faithful Shop)

As sign designers, our challenge is to fit the appropriate text into the available space, in the most beautiful and effective way possible. Obviously, most signs use horizontal text, since it’s the most readable and the English language is designed to be written in horizontal lines. On the other hand, the world is overloaded with horizontal lines of text. Sometimes, an angled, curved or vertical typographic design can catch people’s attention simply because it’s different.

Hand-Painted Sign | Danthonia Designs Blog

A Hand-Painted Sign by the Author, Demonstrating Angled text

Hope that helps!

Will Lynes of Lynes & Co.

Will Lynes

Will Lynes (image courtesy of The Design Files)

Have you noticed a growing number of gilded logos on cafe windows around Sydney? It’s likely that they’re the work of Sign-painter Will Lynes, of Lynes and Co. Will is one of only a few glass-gilders in the country. His work has an air of well-established quality that is all the more impressive when you consider that he has only been gilding professionally for a few short years. This week, Will was kind enough to answer a few questions for us: Who did you learn the craft of traditional sign-painting & gilding from?

When first starting out I looked into courses at Tech but they were mostly geared towards vinyl and computer based signage, something I wasn’t really interested in. So I got down to practicing…. having no one to learn from first hand I jumped straight into trying to paint letters and quickly realized there was a lot more to it than just banging out painted letters. I started reading as much as I could and drawing loads.

Will Lynes Painting

About a year into it I came across the work of now good friend Dave Smith from Torquay in England. I was familiar with Glass gilding and had tried some of the techniques but his work just floored me… So technically on-point and awesome to look at! So I saved up for a while and went to see him for a week-long intensive gilding course which was unreal.

Gilded Whiskey Bottle

Gilded Whiskey Bottle by Dave Smith (image courtesy of David Smith)

I learned so much from that one week and have just been excited to keep going and try and progress in every aspect of it from there. I really enjoy the whole process of glass work, the smell of the size, laying of the leaf, blending colours. The list could go on!

Which projects are you working on now?

We have just finished up fifty mirrors for Stella Artois that had their logo etched into the glass and then water gilt with 12 Karat White Gold Leaf. A couple of bars and cafes around Sydney, and a few commissioned  glass panels in the workshop.

Stella Artois Etched Mirror

Stella Artois Etched Mirror, reflecting Will’s shop

Are there artists or sign-makers who you take inspiration from, for your work?

Absolutely. I think there are a lot of great artists and sign painters out there who are doing great things! Its inspiring to see the differences in approaches and techniques from these guys, they are all using similar mediums and processes yet the work produced is vastly different due to their individual style.. it blows me away sometimes the creativity that people have! Just to name a few…. Dave Smith, Nathan Pickering, Ken Davis, Shannon Peel, Revok, Josh Luke, Greg Heger… these guys really inspire me and keep me driven to keep pushing and working hard!! There’s too many to name really though.

A Sign by Josh Luke

A Sign by Josh Luke (image courtesy of Follow The Honey)

How much of your work is self-initiated, as opposed to commission work?

I guess most of my commercial work is commissioned. I’m constantly working on my own personal artworks and signs in my spare time though… not that I really have any so I guess that stuff is all self initiated. I think that answers the question?

Sign in Paddington

A Sign for ‘The London‘ in Paddington, Sydney

You did a piece for Colossal Media in NY. How did that come about?

We follow each other on Instagram actually, and my partner is originally from the states. We were there a couple of years back for Christmas seeing her family and I contacted Paul from Colossal to catch up and check out their workshop. He took me on a shop tour and introduced me to all the guys there.. even bought me lunch! Those dudes are super nice and their work is really on point. Its amazing the scale they work on. A month or two later Paul contacted me asking if I was interested in doing a bespoke glass panel for their shop… I was stoked! He gave me creative freedom with it so I just had fun with it and it made it there in one piece!

Gilded Sign for Collossal Media Why is it important for small businesses to invest in hand-crafted signage?

This is a funny one. I think unfortunately a lot of people still don’t see the relevance and importance of a hand-crafted sign. A lot of small businesses are really going back to that hand-crafted aesthetic and putting a big investment into their fitouts. Real timber floors, copper piping, hand made tiles…and then a nice vinyl sticker for their shopfront signage! There doesn’t quite seem to be that connection made yet in a lot of cases that a hand crafted sign is beautiful and lives in that world. It too deserves that same attention to detail and respect.

Lobby Bar Sign

Painting a sign for The Lobby Bar, Sydney

I think having a hand-crafted sign really makes such a huge difference in engaging people on a daily basis. It’s not sterile and lifeless like vinyl, you can really see a human connection to it and I think that’s what draws people in and makes them feel comfortable which ultimately is what a business is after and besides that they just look cool!

Signwriting Easel

Will’s Easel

Do you see a growing interest in hand-made signs in Sydney?

Yeah there is absolutely a growing trend in Sydney at the moment. Its worldwide. Both businesses and craftsmen/artists are engaging in it more which ultimately I think is a positive thing.

Gilding Brewtown Newtown Window

Gilding the window of Brewtown Newtown

A Sign Made from Old Pallets | Danthonia Designs Blog

A Sign Made from Old Pallets, by Will (image courtesy of Josh Pinkus)

 

Can You Make My Sign Look More Like This?

Hi Danthonia,

As a sign-maker, I’m wondering how I should deal with customers who take my designs and make them look ugly (usually in Photoshop) and then send them back to me, asking if I can ‘make it like this’.  Maybe that never happens to you?

Any advice would be appreciated!

[ A Sign-Maker]

Dear Sign-Maker,

Probably everyone involved in graphic design, commission art or sign design runs into the same problem. So the good news is that you’re not alone! Since the advent of the computer, it’s a fact that clients have had the ability to be more involved in the design process. Sometimes this can be frustrating to the designer, but  more customer involvement can also push us to a better result.

When a client decides to take things into their own hands and ‘have a crack at it’, there are several courses that you, as the designer, can take:

1. You can take offense at the lack of respect for your work, and ask your client why they even hired you in the first place, since they obviously feel able to design it themselves.

2. You can follow the old adage ‘The customer is always right’. Just swallow hard and make the thing exactly how they want it.

3. You can take it in stride and realise that the client enjoys the process of getting a logo or sign designed and wants to ‘be involved’. Motorbike mechanics also have customers who like to hang around the garage and ‘help’. Some get annoyed, others have a blast.

The first option is a good one if you have more work than you can deal with. If the whole world is beating down your door, why waste time with a client that doesn’t appreciate your style? There are ten others that do, so save yourself the heartache!

The second option is what many cheap-and-cheerful vinyl shops do all day every day. After all, it’s certainly the quickest and easiest option. Hence the visual blight of poorly designed signage, squashed and poorly-aligned text, bad kerning, and hideous colour combinations that can be seen in cities around the world.

In regards to Option Three, I’ve heard it said that amateurs complain about their customers, while professionals educate them. To continue my earlier analogy: Like a mechanic, you can take the client’s suggestions into account while steering the project in a direction you’re happy with. “Sorry sir, I can’t put a ball-hitch on the back of your Harley-Davidson. It won’t work. What about a sidecar?” Remember that although you know more about design, they know their business better than you do. The challenge is to come up with a solution that doesn’t just look good, but works.

Educate them as to why Old English, set in all caps, isn’t readable and why clip art around the edges of the design doesn’t lend an air of artisanal quality to their distressed yoghurt shop shingle sign. In the end, most clients will understand that you know what you’re talking about and will go along with it. When Michelangelo was commissioned by Pope Julius II to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling, he was unimpressed with the pontiff’s planned design and negotiated until he was allowed to paint his own. In the end, everyone was happy. In other words, learn how to sell your idea to the client and everyone’s a winner.

So, what do you do if the client won’t see reason, and insists on the all caps Old English/clip-art design? You can’t possibly make the ugly thing, can you? We mostly write an email something like this:

Dear Client,

Here is the latest sign design for your yoghurt shop. As you strongly suggested, we’ve used uppercase Old English with clip-art decorations around the edge. From a design point of view, this particular piece won’t be very readable, and may not convey the rustic vintage feel of the yoghurt shop itself. Aside from the readability issue, it is also a fact that when Old English fonts like this one are set in all caps, it calls to mind a tattoo studio or motorbike clubroom rather than a family-friendly yoghurt shop. For all of these reasons, I have also attached an alternate design for you to consider.

All the best!

Don McKernan

You would be amazed how many clients will follow your advice when you give clear reasons for your decisions. It is true that a small minority will doggedly insist on the ugly design. At that point, we would go ahead and make it for them, making a mental note not to post the sign on our website portfolio.

On the topic of portfolios – make sure that you’re proud of every piece of work that you post online, whether on your own site or on social media. As you continue to upload pictures of stunning designs, you’ll get more enquiries from people who have already seen a lot of your work and trust you to make something equally stunning for them. Don’t promote the signs you aren’t proud of, and it’s as if they never existed!

For the record, the vast majority of our clients have a great appreciation for well-designed signs. Often, their branding is very professional and looks classy when rendered as a dimensional sign. And, as I wrote at the beginning, sometimes a picky/discerning client can push you, as a designer, out of your ruts to try something new and better. Meet the challenge!

Hope that helps!

Funny Sign by Ken Davis | Danthonia Designs Blog

A hand-painted sign by Ken Davis

Michael Doret

Michael Doret

Michael Doret (image courtesy of Astute Graphics)

As a boy, Michael Doret spent many happy hours in New York’s Coney Island amusement park. Now, as a well-known graphic designer, he can see the influence of all that flamboyant and colourful carnival lettering on his own design work. In this week’s post, Michael takes the time to tell us more about his life as a man of letters.

How & why did you first get into graphic design?

I don’t think there was ever that moment when I said to myself ‘I’m going to be a graphic designer’. It was more of a gradual process. I was lucky enough to have had some great art teachers in high school who believed in me and gave me excellent guidance and encouragement. That led me to apply to and get accepted as a college student by The Cooper Union in NYC. The ‘Foundation’ year at Cooper included Architecture, and for a while I thought I might pursue that but, in the end, art won out. Cooper had some graphics classes, but the Art School was more oriented towards fine arts. After a year or two at Cooper I realized I was not cut out to be a fine artist, and so looked to take more graphics classes. At the time Cooper offered those, but they were at night and more for people already working in the design field. I took those classes anyway, and that was probably the first indication of my commitment to graphic design.

Cooper Union Letters

Dimensional Letters on Cooper Union Foundation Building (image courtesy of Richard Tucker)

After college I held a series of jobs involving various levels of design expertise. I learned a lot at these jobs, and about five years after graduation made the decision to go out on my own and pursue a career in graphic design.

Graphic Artists Guild Wall Plaque

A Metal Wall Plaque for the Graphic Artists Guild New York Headquarters, designed by Michael

You grew up at Coney Island, NY. What effect did that have on your design style?

I grew up near Coney Island, not in it, like Alvy Singer from Woody Allen’s Annie Hall who grew up in a house under the Thunderbolt Roller Coaster in Coney Island! A few years ago I happened upon a 3-D slide of my brother and me enjoying a day at Steeplechase Park in Coney Island. This slide was a revelation to me and played a pivotal role in helping me figure out why my work looks the way it does. In the center of the slide are my brother and me—he’s looking very cool—and very aware he’s being photographed. But I’m off in my own little world, fixated on all that’s going on around me. Around us were all the sights and sounds of the amusement park that are burned into my memory. In studying this photo I realized something very important: all that signage, all those banners and lettering, all those beautiful, colorful graphics were impressed deeply into my subconscious, and many years later had resurfaced and had all come out in my work. They were my colors, my letterforms, my configurations of typography and borders—I’d have been proud to have created any of them! Then it dawned on me: somehow as a kid I fixated on all those graphics, and stored them all away for future use.

Coney Island Michael Doret

Michael and his brother

You run Alphabet Soup type foundry, designing lots of creative fonts. As someone who generally doesn’t use fonts in your design work, how did you get into type design?

I never did use a lot of fonts in my work, preferring to handle most of the typography as hand-lettering (except, of course, for body text). But while we all understand that lettering and font design are two very different disciplines, they do have a lot in common. As a freelancer my workload goes through peaks and valleys—it’s usually either feast or famine! So it was during one of those lulls back in 2003 that I decided to fill my time by creating my own projects that could generate income. Given my knowledge and expertise in designing letterforms for my assignment work, it seemed quite natural to me to try my hand at designing fonts. I soon discovered that I was right about that, but in some of my early attempts at font design I found that it wasn’t as easy as I had hoped. While hand-lettering and font design have much in common, there are also some significant differences as well. But those challenges are what made this new endeavor all the more interesting, and it proved to be a great learning experience. As it happens, I haven’t had too many of those in my assignment work, which has kept my font production fairly low—about one a year.

Michael Doret Pencil Sketch

A Pencil Sketch that evolved into Michael’s Powerstation Font

Designing a font is a huge project and obviously very different from designing a logo. Which sort of work do you prefer?

I still prefer assignment work over typeface design. There’s a certain satisfaction you get when you complete a project that you cannot get when designing a font. Font design is more of an intellectual pursuit in that there’s nothing you can really point to at the conclusion (other than a collection of separate letters)—there’s not really a moment when you can hold something up as a finished product and be proud of it. And then there’s always the disappointment of seeing your font misused by people who don’t understand good design. But when you design a logo or other piece of design, you can hold up the finished piece and be proud of it, and know that it’s finally done!

Powerstation Font

‘Powerstation’ in use

Was there a project you especially enjoyed?

Many projects through the years have been memorable and enjoyable to me. The title treatment for Disney’s feature ‘Wreck-It Ralph’ is the latest one that stands out in my mind. Among others which I have enjoyed are the cover art for the Squirrel Nut Zippers album ‘Bedlam Ballroom’, in which I recreated a neon sign in 3D, and the logo I created for a new Hollywood restaurant – ‘Sassafras’, and others. And going back a few years I created many ‘illustrated’ covers for TIME Magazine that I am still quite proud of. In all these projects I was given free reign by the client to pursue my creative vision and create art which I believed would be memorable.

Sassafrass Logo Sketch

Some of the original sketches

Sassafrass Logo

The Finished Logo

Sassafrass Logo

Another version

Sassafras Gold on Glass

Gold on Mirror

What would be your dream project to work on?

Actually I haven’t done that many designs that have actually been fabricated as three dimensional signage—I could probably count all that I have been involved with on one hand! I’m not sure why this is, but it is definitely the one area that I’ve always wanted to get into, but just haven’t had many opportunities to do so. What makes this especially ironic to me is that it was the signs and banners of Coney Island and the incredible giant billboards of Times Square in New York that were my first inspirations.

Coney Island Mid-Century

Coney Island Mid-Century

Are there any designers/sign-makers/artists who inspire your work?

The work that has inspired me the most has almost always been the work of anonymous artists. Not that they chose to be anonymous, but history has chosen to ignore them. It’s not sophisticated design, but rather the design of artisans who perhaps didn’t have the training to know what not to do. So consequently they designed without the reservations (or the sophistication) that their more educated peers had. To me this was a plus since the work that they produced was not clichéd or tired, and had many aspects which would be considered by others as mistakes. These ‘mistakes’ in their sometimes naïve work are what I find interesting and attractive. It’s most commonly found in the work I look to most—that which was produced in the US between the ’20s and the ’50s. It could be old matchbook covers, movie posters, theater marquees, cigarette packs, airline and hotel stickers, logos, et-cetera

Matchbooks

Matchbooks

Why is creative signage important to a business or town?

To see why creative signage is so important, all one would have to do is come to Hollywood and take a look around. The visual blight here is absolutely appalling. It’s as if business owners here just didn’t care, or have no pride in what their businesses project. Cheap plastic and vinyl signs proliferate without any restrictions. Almost none of them have any creative or interesting aspects to them, and the net result of all this is that you drive down the street here, and just want to close your eyes. If you ever look at photos of old Hollywood you’d realize what the potential was, and how far we’ve strayed from that ideal. I blame the businesses for this in that their only consideration is the bottom line, and I blame the cheap sign shops for churning out any kind of crap that’s requested.

Hollywood Signs

Hollywood in its signage heyday

Could you tell us about some of the signage projects that you have been involved in?

As I said there haven’t been that many. I guess people just don’t feel it’s worth it to spend money on design. So I can cite the work I did for master craftsman Blaine Casson in Toronto for his business ‘Iron Oxide’. He fabricated the signs I designed himself, and did a fantastic job of it.

Iron Oxide Sketch

Wooden Letters

Dimensional Sign

I did a sign for my local homeowners group ‘The Hollywood Dell’ which came out pretty nice—there were several of them which were fabricated dimensionally out of wood by one of the sign shops at Universal Studios. Several years back I did two signs for a local ephemera shop ‘Chic-A Boom’ which were affixed to the front and on the roof of their store. They were painted, and fairly cheaply done . . . the store has now closed and the signs are gone.

Hollywood Dell Sign

The Sign for Hollywood Dell.

Sign by Michael Doret

 

Where Can I Get Good Sign-Carving Chisels?

I tried to buy chisels at a hardware store yesterday here in Sydney, and no luck… just sub-standard ones for sale and no V-groove chisels…any suggestions?

Thanks & keep up the good work!

[a sign-maker]

Dear Sign-Maker,

If you’re serious about making hand-carved signs, chisels are the first investment to make. When we started in 2001, the very first item we ordered was a set of Swiss-made Pfeil chisels. Since then, our collection of chisels and gouges has only grown larger and more eclectic: we’ve acquired tools from other sign shops that closed, had tools given to us as gifts, and bought more here and there for specific projects and purposes. Like any collection, our family of chisels seems to have taken on a life of its own – tools appear that you’ve never seen before, others are gone for a while, only to show up again later…We made good use of that first chisel set, perfecting our techniques and making the shavings fly on some of our first sign projects. But we soon realised that we would need some larger sized chisels, too.

Carving a Sign | Danthonia Designs Blog

Pfeil makes a good range of chisels, gouges, and V-Tools. Here in Australia, they can be purchased online at Carba-Tec. At our local farmers’ market here in Inverell, I’ve also seen some quality English-made chisels and gouges for sale at the vintage hand-tools table. At the Armidale markets, a similar stall exists. I imagine these tools are collected from auction sales at properties around the area. Some of them are of a quality that simply can’t be found anymore, and they’re going for very reasonable prices. I’m sure similar vendors could be found at some of the markets in Sydney, or probably anywhere around the country.

Chisels at Inverell Markets | Danthonia Designs Blog

A nice array of chisels and other hand tools at the Inverell Sunday Markets

Are you looking for chisels to practice you carving skills? Unlike surfing, where the bigger boards are easier to use, carving is easier if you start with a smaller chisel. 8mm & 12mm wide chisels are good for practicing the techniques. That way you won’t go through so much wood, or HDU, or whatever material you’re using. Later, you can try the bigger sizes, which move more material but tend to be less maneuverable.

Carving a Sign | Danthonia Designs Blog

If you’re planning to carve wood, try to get vertical grain (although it’s not essential). You can practice carving into 2×4 planks, which are cheap and generally made of Radiata pine. It’s a nice soft wood, just avoid the knotholes. When you get more serious about it, New Guinea Rosewood is a beautiful carving wood, and Huon Pine is excellent but hard to get. Of course, HDU has the advantage of having no grain, so it’s great for sign-carving practice. It’s also more expensive than most timbers.

Wooden Sign Panel | Danthonia Designs Blog

A Panel of New Guinea Rosewood, Ready to be Made into a Sign in Our Shop.

Once you’ve bought a few chisels, you’ll need to sharpen them regularly. In our shop, we use a Makita electric horizontal wheel sharpener and follow up with a Japanese water-stone and a honing strop. You might already be familiar with the particulars of chisel-sharpening. If not, there’s a plenitude of videos and blog posts out there to help you. I might even write a post on this blog one day. Just make sure the chisel is sharp enough to shave with, or you will be endlessly frustrated in your carving practice.

Sharpening a Chisel | Danthonia Designs Blog

Speaking of practice, you’ll need a lot of it before you start making carved letters, grooves, and flourishes that actually look professional. Don’t get discouraged. Some of us churned out hundreds of shoddy-looking practice letters before starting our first real carved sign for a client. For carving techniques, check out the following blog posts:

Frisso: The Norwegian Sign-Painter from Denmark

Frisso

Frisso (image courtesy of Make-Skilled Hands)

Carl Frederik Angell, more commonly known as ‘Frisso’, is one of the new generation of sign-painters that are making their mark on the walls and windows of progressive businesses, in cities around the world. After teaching himself to paint signs, and honing his skills for a year at Best Dressed Signs in Boston, he’s back in his homeland of Denmark. This week, he tells us about his life as a sign-painter so far:

My background is basically the fact that I’ve just been drawing my whole life. As a kid growing up looking up to my brother, I always did the things he did. When he was drawing, I sat next to him and drew the same things he drew and I think that helped me develop my drawing skills a lot. Then I just kept on drawing from there.

Typography Pencil Sketch

One of Frisso’s many typographic doodles

When I finished high-school I pretty much knew that I wanted to be a designer. My older sister was working as a graphic designer and my brother was studying furniture design at that time, so there was never a doubt in my mind that I was going to follow their footsteps. I just needed to find out what kind of designer I wanted to be.

Handpainted Thinner Can

Handpainted Thinner Can

I first got into sign painting when I was applying for an internship as part of the school program at Kolding School of Design. I stumbled across a video of Dan Madsen painting a sign for his shop and I immediately felt that this was it. I wrote him an email and asked if he would be willing to teach me this old craft as a three month apprenticeship, but he wasn’t able to because he was going on a trip to Europe at the time I was planning to do the apprenticeship. Fortunately I had also written to Josh Luke and Meredith Kasabian of Best Dressed Signs in Boston who were interested in having me as an apprentice. This was a whole year before I had scheduled to do the apprenticeship, so I bought some lettering brushes and 1-shot paint, and spent that year practicing so I was well prepared.

You did an apprenticeship with Best Dressed Signs in Boston.

My apprenticeship with Best Dressed Signs was an amazing experience, and from the moment I met Josh and Meredith, I knew that this was the right place for me. After a year of practicing and guessing my way through the process of painting letters, it was great to finally have a real sign painter to show me the right way. And Josh couldn’t have been a better teacher and mentor. They taught me as much as possible in the three months I was there, from making patterns to how you price each job. This gave me a great foundation to build on and keep practicing when I got home. You can’t fully learn how to paint signs properly in just three months, so I’m still learning and that will probably never stop. When you master a technique, there’s always something new to learn right around the corner.

Best Dressed Signs

Frisso and Josh Luke, of Best Dressed Signs, paint a wall in Boston

Do you have a favourite project that you’ve worked on?

I don’t really have one favourite project in particular, but one that stands out in my mind is a reverse glass gild I did for the vintage book store in Oslo, Cappelens Forslag. The reason it stands out is because of the freedom I got with making the design, and probably because of how nervous I was before laying down the first strokes, as this was the first real gilding job I had to do solo.

Frisso at work

Gilded Glass Sign

The Finished Piece

Another project is the last sign I did at the port of Kolding. It’s a 24 x 3.60 metre wall, that says ‘Welcome’, and it’s obviously a sign to welcome the boats and ships that enter the harbour. This was a very fun project because of its size and its visual impact on the area around the sign. Here’s a video of the project by Petter Spilde:

At the moment I’m working on some hand lettered quotes for a series of prints. I’m also starting on a storefront sign job for a coffee shop. Other than that, I just finished school so I’m trying to get some jobs here and there, and see if I can manage to make a living on just drawing and painting letters.

Nellie's Coffee Shop Signs

Are there artists or sign-makers who inspire your work?

I would say I find inspiration in a variety of artists. The Victorian lettering and glass work of David A. Smith. Stephen Powers‘ huge projects like the old Macy’s building in Brooklyn. Kenji Nakayama‘s beautiful styles of single-stroke brush lettering. Aaron Horkey‘s amazing eye for details. And my mentor, Josh Luke has been a major inspiration ever since I first got my eyes opened for the world of sign painting. There’s a lot of other great inspirational sign painters and letterers out there and I find inspiration everywhere.

Poster by Aaron Horkey

Poster by Aaron Horkey (image courtesy of Aaron Horkey)

You taught some lettering workshops in Berlin. Can you tell us about that?

I was contacted by Otto Baum and Elena Albertoni who are arranging Berlin based workshops and events. It was a two day workshop where I taught basic brush lettering. Started with Casuals, then Plain Egyptian and then we finished it off with some Script. Hopefully I will do a lot more of these kinds of workshops in the future, as it’s important to learn how to paint letters if you want to work with lettering. It’s the best way to develop an understanding of the structure of each letter.

Berlin Sign-Painting Class

Frisso oversees a sign-painting class in Berlin. (image courtesy of Make-Skilled Hands)

Signs by Frisso

Frisso Carved Stamp

 

I Can Get a Cheaper Sign Somewhere Else!

Your signs are nice but I found a place that can make them cheaper. – Prospective Client

Dear Prospective Client,

There are times when it is good business to choose the cheapest sign. Political posters, for example, get tossed right after an election, and it would be overkill to pay for hand-carving on a label for your fire extinguisher. When a cheaper sign gives you the best value for money, by all means, go with a cheaper sign!

But there are times when wise investment gives you the best value for money. Think of a car purchase: a Ford Ka will cost a lot less than a Rolls Royce. But if you run a prestigious limo service, a fleet of second-hand Kas won’t bring in new customers. It may even turn off your old ones. And signs – like limousines – can earn back the initial investment many times over. Even residential signs can increase a property value far beyond the price of the sign itself. Just like luxury cars, handcrafted signs are all about that all-important first impression.

The vast majority of cars do not need to be Rolls’s. Most folks get around just fine in much humbler vehicles. And the vast majority of signs do not need to be hand carved, either. But in those applications where a fine handcrafted product will improve your ‘brand’, your message, and your return-on-investment – the cheapest option is not the best.

If you’ve decided that you really do want a handcrafted sign but price is a concern, take a careful look at the cost drivers:

Size

All else being equal, a  large sign will cost more than a small sign. But how big is big enough? When we design a sign, we use various formulas to determine reading distance, speed of traffic and other important factors (I plan to write a separate blog post about that). We’ve also been doing this for the past thirteen years, and during that time we’ve accrued a good many awards for our sign designs. We can help you figure out the right size for your sign. There is no sense paying extra for a sign that is too big. Much worse, however, is the mistake of ‘saving money’ on a sign that ends up too small.

Number of Sides

Most signs are one-sided. But sometimes a two-sided sign is installed perpendicular to the road so traffic can read it from both directions. At Danthonia we charge about 50% extra for the second side. This can be a good investment, since it often increases viewer readability by 100%.

Complexity

Sometimes, a highly ornate design is what’s needed (for a five-star Art-Nouveau-inspired ballroom entrance). Other times a clean and simple design is the way to go (Don’t Park Here). Obviously, the sign’s complexity – or lack thereof – affects the price. Many of our clients come to us because they’re after something ‘a bit special’, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t able to make simple signs either. The simpler ones cost less. But we’ll never undercut that flimsy plastic election sign in your front yard.

Materials

This is an important consideration when comparing sign prices. Many signs look great when they are new, but the paints, hardware and substrates used will determine how your sign holds up to the elements. When looking at price, compare apples to apples. Carefully evaluate materials when choosing who will make your sign. Vinyl letters will fade and peel, long before painted ones. The longer your sign looks great, the better your return-on-investment.

We once had a client who took our sign design to another shop. They made the sign out of a lightweight HDU, which was the wrong material for such a large panel. Not long after the sign was installed, it came down again in a strong wind (luckily no-one was injured), and our phone was ringing once again.

Turnaround Time

True hand-carved and hand-painted signage is an art form. Although there has been a resurgence of interest in the craft, shops making quality handcrafted signs are still an elite circle. Most of these modern-day craftspeople have a backlog of work and waiting lists of up to several months. If you need a sign in time for a birthday, grand opening or any other deadline, there is always the risk it will not get to you on time. At our shop, we use a team approach. Often, various crew members will be working on different components of the same sign, at the same time, almost like mechanics at a car race pit stop. Our normal turn around is a 21 day delivery. For a modest rush fee we can promise a 15 day delivery. Dependable delivery adds value to your purchase. Our quoted prices include free delivery to any address in the USA or Australia.

As you can see, not all signs are created equal. Cheapest is not always best. Our shop excels on those projects where fine design, a long-lasting handcrafted product and fast, dependable turnaround are important enough to invest in. If these factors are not crucial for your sign, go to somebody cheaper!

T-Shirt

(image courtesy of Lorraine Purcell)

Jeremy Pelley, of the Official Manufacturing Company

Jeremy Pelley

Jeremy Pelley (image courtesy of Randall Garcia)

The Official Manufacturing Company was founded in Portland in 2009 by Jeremy Pelley and Fritz Messenbrink. While the name may call to mind some sort of Dickensian industrial-revolution-era factory, it’s actually a modern design studio with a crew of four. Perhaps more than most design houses, the projects they undertake tend to be tangible rather than virtual – everything from huge industrial-style light-bulb letters to bonsai gardens – and, of course, plenty of creative signage.

This week, Jeremy has been kind enough to tell us more about the enterprise:

We just turned five years old on June 10th, according to our paperwork. We technically started working together before that by about a month or so, but we call that our anniversary.

Retro Seal

My partner Fritz Mesenbrink and I first met at Wieden+Kennedy here in Portland back in 2005. He was working in the studio, and I was in an experimental school in the building called WK12. I graduated and didn’t get hired, so I was out of the building and wondering what to do with myself. Through my contacts and friends I had made, and a little dumb luck, I landed at Ace Hotel, as they needed an art director at that moment to lay a new foundation for the expansion of their brand. I worked there for the next four and half years. In the meantime, Fritz was at W+K for a couple of years, then freelanced for a while, until he landed the Stumptown Coffee Roasters gig. That put us back in touch, since Ace and Stumptown worked together frequently. After a little while of hanging out and working on the periphery of each other, we said, ‘This is really fun. We should start our own thing and make them hire us as a team.’ And we did. And here we are. And it’s still fun.

Postcards for Stumptown Coffee Roasters

Postcards for Stumptown Coffee Roasters

Ace Hotel Exit Door

An Exit Door at the Ace Hotel

We are inspired by tons of people. We feel blessed to be in our community here in Portland, surrounded by tons of talented people we are lucky enough to call friends. We are inspired by the ‘unknown artists’ and designers out there that just made beautiful things that we find in old thrift stores and antique shops. Sagmeister & Walsh do consistently amazing work for sure. There really are too many to list.

A Typeface for New York's Jewish Museum

A Typeface for New York’s Jewish Museum, by Sagmeister & Walsh

You worked with Sean Starr on a project for The Gap.

Gap approached us to help them reclaim their image of being smaller, relate-able and cool. When they first started, they sold records and denim, and it was a very different feeling in their stores. They know that they have grown so big that they are somewhat irrelevant, and they wanted to reconnect with their customers on a human level. They had a plan of changing the overall flow and layouts of their stores, adding more human scale and wall space for art, so we were brought in to help tell their story through art moments and signage.

The Gap

Hard at work refurbishing the Gap store.

We did two stores for them: one in Glendale, California, and one in The Grove in LA. We also installed giant maps of the world we hand-made out of their own bags in several other corporate offices. We wheat pasted them to the wall. Hopefully they still like them, because they aren’t easy to get off the wall.

World Map

(image courtesy of Poketo)

We also got to design a custom taco truck for them. Their idea was that they wanted to push their denim line, 1969, through taco trucks working with celebrity chefs. We pulled in Sean Starr and his team to execute hand painted signage and typography on all of our projects except the bag maps. They were incredible to watch and to talk with—Sean is the man.

Pico de Gap Truck

How much of your work is for little local places, vs. multinationals?

It has changed a lot since we first began. At first, we had pretty much nothing but local guys, but we happened to be living in a city that was getting a lot of attention both nationally and internationally. What didn’t pay off financially at first tended to drive more and more jobs to us, so it all kind of balanced out organically. Now we know a little bit more about business and how to charge what we are worth, so we can’t take on the smaller projects as easily anymore. We have mouths to feed, so we have to weigh our decisions more carefully. In a perfect world, we have only a couple of bigger jobs at a time, and then that makes it possible to take on the right smaller clients too, both financially and schedule-wise.

Natural Selection Signs

Signage for Natural Selection Restaurant, Portland. ‘Charley Wheelock from Woodblock Chocolate was an industrial designer by trade before he was a chocolate maker, and he was happy to help execute these for us. We think they came out great!’ – Jeremy

More than other cities, Portland seems to have a network of designers who are very keen to collaborate. How did this come about?

Honestly, we have no idea how it happened, but we love it. We are friends with all of the designers and photographers and artists here in town, and it seems like the creative energy just flows around. Its a really exciting time to be living in Portland, and I don’t know if our company would have been as possible or as successful if we tried to do it anywhere else.

Hand-Painted Monogram

Hand-Painted Monogram for Beam & Anchor, Portland. ‘The Beam & Anchor signage was installed by our friend Justin Riede. He is a super talented, classically trained sign painter based here in Portland that we have used on TONS of jobs we have done over the years—practically every one of them that needed signage: Ace Hotel, Portland Meadows, Olympic Provisions, Kenny & Zukes, Radish Underground, and on.’ – Jeremy

Some of your projects, such as ‘Spirit of 77’, involved a lot of hands-on construction work. Do you make a point of doing as much as you can yourselves, rather than outsourcing?

We definitely used to. When we were more of a ragtag crew, we would just dive headlong into a project, money be damned. We believed in the work and thought that it was worth it to spend a few months on a job that only paid a few thousand dollars. Clearly, we see the error in that approach now, and if we want to remain a viable, profitable company, we simply can’t operate like that anymore. We love building things ourselves, but now we do it for fun, not for jobs. We just aren’t set up for fabrication and manufacturing in the bigger sense. Our name is a bit of a misnomer in that way, kind of intentionally. I think it does make a difference that we know how to build things, though—it helps us make better decisions with the design of certain things along the way.

Wooden Lightbulb Letters

Wooden Lightbulb Letters for Spirit of 77 (image courtesy of AIGA)

Well-made, considered and appropriate signage is critical for all business, in my opinion. We look at every decision as a brand decision. The materials you choose to use, the colors, the typefaces, the medium, the scale, the placement—all of it. It all matters. We like to say this: It’s easy to make things pretty, but it is harder to make things matter. We pride ourselves in making things that matter. Frequently, its that intangible feeling that someone gets when they see that something was hand painted or hand carved that is precisely what makes something matter. It could be the same design and same size ad placement, but machine made, and it might not feel as special.

Spirit of 77 sign

The finished sign (image courtesy of AIGA)

We really love all of our projects, but one of the most fun was a couple of years ago when we got to work on the local horse track here in Portland called Portland Meadows. It was just great on every level. We were proud of the creative, the client was awesome, and it was truly a unique item in our portfolio. Everyone wins!

Portland Meadows Signage

Part of the wayfinding system for Portland Meadows. All signage painted by Justin Riede.

Lately, we have been working on some local stuff like a Woodblock Chocolate, PGE, and the newest campaign for Portland Meadows, but also a hotel in New Orleans that is going to be pretty cool.

Woodblock Chocolate Bar

Most of all, though, we have been trying to refresh and update our own website. It should be launching in the next week or so, fingers crossed. We have grown and changed so much as a company that we feel like, while it has served us well and looks good, it just doesn’t represent us as we want to be understood anymore. We are super excited to get this update live—it feels like a real milestone for us as a company.

[Note: since this interview was conducted, the new website has gone live. Take a look.]

Lightbulb Letters

‘We worked with ADX here in town to fabricate this sign.’ – Jeremy

Thoughts on Wooden Signs

A sign-maker recently emailed us with this question:

Hi Danthonia,

How are you? I was wondering if I could ask you some advice about timber. I have a client that wants a plywood sign that is cleared/varnished with their logo painted on it. The idea is to have the colour and grain of the wood as the background. I know that Plywood isn’t very resistant to the elements and I was wondering what timber and varnish you would use in this case? The size of the sign is 600 by 900mm. Any advice would be a great help.

– Sign-maker

Dear Sign-Maker,

If your client is convinced the sign should be plywood, get a ‘marine plywood’ and ask the supplier for his advice on the best outdoor clear coat for the wood that he is selling. The coating should be both waterproof and UV resistant. Apply many coats. The trick is to keep the water away from the wood for as long as possible. Any scratches or punctures during installation will give the water a place to get into the wood and the deterioration process will begin.

With our own clients, we encourage them towards a HDU sign with a faux-woodgrain finish, rather than a plywood sign. Admittedly, the materials are more expensive, but they are also so much longer lasting. Wood signs are beautiful, but will require maintenance every year if not more often.

Rotten Wood Sign

Here’s a photo I recently took of a local redwood sign we made about twelve years ago. It certainly showing it’s age.

About ten years ago, we made a whole system of signs out of Jarrah-wood for a resort in the Blue Mountains. They still look beautiful today. I asked the groundskeeper about how the signs are holding up, and he told me that he sands and re-varnishes the top edge of all the signs every year.

Another local customer walked into our shop one day with a piece of Huon pine he had bought while holidaying in Tasmania. He wanted his property name carved and gilded into it. A faux-wood panel simply wouldn’t have had the same emotional connection.

So, some clients really do want the authenticity of wood, and are willing to put in the necessary effort. In such cases, we’ve found this treatment to be the best:

Step 1: a coat of Intergrain Reviva Timber Cleaner
Step 2: one or two coats of Intergrain Dimension 4 Primer
Step 3: two to three coats of Intergrain DWD (this comes in a variety of shades)

We’ve written more of our thoughts about sign materials in these two articles:
www.danthoniadesigns.com/products/wood-vs-hdu.html
www.danthoniadesigns.com/evaluating-hdu-signage.html

Hopefully that helps!

Danthonia

Ramshackle Farm Sign

A Faux-Wood Sign in rural Victoria

Scots Hut Wooden Sign

A wooden property sign, with ‘chipped’ and patinaed edges

Brennans Wood Sign

A faux-wood bar sign in St. Louis, Missouri. Click here to read a blog post about the project.

Caitlyn Galloway: Sign-Painter and Gardener of San Francisco

Caitlyn Galloway

Caitlyn Galloway (image courtesy of Sign Painters Movie)

In the busy and colourful Mission District of San Francisco, a chain-link fence marks the boundary of a one-acre urban farm. It’s called Little City Gardens. With its abundant rows of vegetables and a small greenhouse made of up-cycled house windows and reclaimed timber, it looks like a typical community garden. A closer inspection, however, reveals tidy hand-lettered signs and notices here and there – an irrigation schedule, a ‘no parking without permission’ sign – every letter crisply painted. No vinyl stickers, and no crudely scrawled messages from a sharpie or spray can. Clearly, this is the work of a professional. In fact, the garden is part-owned by Sign-painter Caitlyn Galloway, who learned to letter at New Bohemia Signs, and now divides her time between between wielding a brush and a garden hoe. This week, she tells us about her life as a sign-painter-gardener.

I’ve always had a fascination with handwriting and calligraphy, and without thinking too much about it, most of my doodling and drawing throughout my life incorporated letters in some way. I studied painting in college and late in my process discovered the work of Margaret Kilgallen which resonated deeply with me. It was through my excitement about her work that I was able to identify my own engrossment with hand made letters, and an appreciation for the warmth, history, and character that can be communicated through letters made obviously (or subtly) by human hands.

Margaret Kilgallen

Margaret Kilgallen (image courtesy of Ambrose)

In 2007, I moved to San Francisco and thought I would try painting signs here and there as a way to make some additional rent money outside my gardening and farming work. At the time, I had no idea there was a rich history of sign painting in the city, and a handful of people still doing it so beautifully! I was walking around my neighborhood one day and saw a shopkeeper hanging a really incredible sign. I asked the shopkeeper who made it, and they pointed me to New Bohemia Signs. My eyes lit up, and I spent the weekend pulling together a now-embarrassing portfolio (I use that term very loosely) with markers and pens, and then went in to New Bohemia and asked Damon if he could take on another apprentice. Weekly practice sessions eventually led to steady work with the shop, which then led to six plus years of involvement in some form or another. I love that shop dearly, and the people who run it. It’s a special place.

Caitlyn Galloway & Damon Styer

Caitlyn Galloway & Damon Styer

Now I’m mostly painting signs out of my own private studio, but still help Damon at New Bohemia with monthly brush lettering classes, and join the crew there for the occasional Friday beer-o-clock to talk shop. I owe my honed skill to Damon, a superbly talented sign painter who somehow makes it all look easy, and my renewed excitement for the craft to the evolving stream of painters that flow in and out of there.

Damon Styer

Damon expounds on sans serif letters (image courtesy of Font Shop)

After employing many different techniques over the years at New Bohemia, now in my own practice I’m most consistently inspired by really utilitarian, simply-made signs – the kind of signs that were made without fanfare back in the days when painting letters onto a large board, or a wall, or above a store entrance was just the quickest way to label a building or communicate necessary information.  The letters were simple, graceful, functional, and slightly (sometimes only barely) less than perfect. The swiftness and ease evident in a well executed, single color letter will always be just as impressive to me as the most intricately decorated, glittered and bejeweled masterpiece of a sign.

Hand-Painted Sign

A Utilitarian, Hand-Painted Sign by Caitlyn

Are there other sign-writers, designers or artists who inspire your work?

Yes, so many! First and foremost, I always feel a particular adoration for my fellow lady sign painters. Candice Obayashi (a tattoo artist & sign painter), and Heather Hardison (an illustrator & sign painter) are both super talented, and are inspiring in the way they integrate sign painting with other aspects of their work.  I think an interesting question many new sign painters are navigating is how to make ends meet with this craft, and how we might incorporate sign painting skills into other creative endeavors in order to keep the practice viable and relevant for ourselves. They are each combining their multifaceted talents and interests in a way that I admire.

Heather Hardison Illustration

A Heather Hardison Illustration for San Francisco Chronicle (image courtesy of Heather Hardison)

Ashley Fundora and Pickles are some strong up and coming sign painters (currently working at New Bohemia Signs) with really graceful hands. Wow! I’m inspired to keep practicing whenever I see their razor sharp stroke terminals.

Signs by Pickles

Signs by Pickles (image courtesy of Pickles Hyperbole)

There’s also Yvette Rutledge at Mystic Blue Signs, and Norma Jeanne Maloney at Red Rider, both super talented women who have both been sign painting for a couple decades now and deserve much respect and admiration from all of us newcomers. Their portfolios are massive and their styles are honed, and they’ve managed to keep their shops running strong through the major changes the industry has seen.

And more broadly, I continue to feel inspired by sign painters who may not even consider themselves sign painters. The shopkeeper who paints their own quick sign for their window, and unwittingly adds a really brilliant loop to their O’s! Or the farmers along rural routes who paint the most charming strawberries and letters on a slab of wood using just a brush and whatever paint is on hand. Sometimes, though it’s funny to say, I actually feel a little sad that the more I train my hand in neat, tidy sign painting, the farther away I get from this kind of character that I’m always so drawn to.

Fruit Stand Sign

Fruit Stand Sign (image courtesy of Kari)

There are quite a few projects I was honored to be a part of at New Bohemia – one from my early days was The Stinking Rose. I fondly remember standing on scaffolding for days on end, surface gilding the rough walls of the building til my thumbs were numb, and the wind and noisy traffic below had driven me crazy. This job doesn’t always feel glamorous in the moment! But I was proud to help implement a Damon Styer design that is now one of the most striking in the city.

Stinking Rose

Caitlyn works on the ‘Stinking Rose’ sign, with Jeff Canham. (image courtesy of Damon Styer)

The Stinking Rose

The Stinking Rose (image courtesy of Shruti Iyer)

I also really enjoy being able to offer my skills to friends. One of my very first signs was for a friend’s farm up in Washington, and it’s still one of my favorites because it was so appreciated. More recently I had a lot of fun painting some large menu boards for friends at Mission Pie here in SF, working with them to figure out the best flow for all the information and how to highlight certain components of the menu in a subtle way. It was a challenging collaboration, and it’s an honor to make something for someone that could potentially affect their business in a profound way.

mission pie menus

mission pie menus in progress, in Caitlyn’s shop

mission pie installed

and, installed, at Mission Pie

I’ve just finished up a couple of storefront signs for an herbal apothecary here in SF, and am working on some small private commissions. I’m currently only in my studio a couple days a week as my other work keeps me very busy, so I have to limit myself to a project or two at a time. This feels like a good balance for me. I admire my peers out there who are running full time sign shops, but I think having my hands dipped into the craft on a more part time basis suits me well right now.

scarlet sage in progress

A sign for Scarlet Sage, in progress

scarlet sage

…and installed.

Have you noticed a growing interest in handcrafted signs, in recent times?

I think so! While I can’t really say how many more people are interested in buying hand painted signs, I can definitely say I’ve seen a huge swell of interest from people wanting to make hand painted signs. I currently assist Damon with his monthly classes at New Bohemia, and the excitement in the air during those classes is contagious. Sometimes it’s people wanting to get away from the computer and get their hands moving, or it’s muralists wanting to incorporate letters into their work, or it’s formally trained typography-lovers who want to learn how to break down letter forms using a new set of tools.

Hand-Painted Alphabet

An Alphabet, Hand-Painted by Scott Biersack, at one of New Bohemia’s Sign-painting Workshops (image courtesy of Scott Biersack)

A few years ago, when I was working for New Bohemia, I was sent out to do some touch up on a wall job on a busy street in the city. The painting I was doing was totally unimpressive – I was using a thick fitch brush to just touch up large patches of background color around the edges of the existing design. I wasn’t even painting letters! Even still, passersby behind me would stop in their tracks and be momentarily transfixed by what I was doing. They’d pause and watch in total awe, and they’d tell me I was doing a beautiful job. It was funny, and I think that says something about people’s continual fascination with anything done by hand. In this case, people were really responding to the smooth, quiet physical motion of applying paint to the wall with a brush, even if the final outcome wasn’t anything particularly impressive. Just the tactility of the materials and the motion itself was inspiring to people.

Handpainted K

A demonstraion ‘K’, by Caitlyn (image courtesy of Joseph Candice Towery Obayashi)

Tell us about ‘Little City Gardens’.

My other work is with Little City Gardens, a small, one-acre urban farm I run here in San Francisco. We grow and sell vegetables, herbs, and flowers to city residents and restaurants, and we also host tours and workdays where people can see firsthand what small scale food production looks like and how it works. It’s an attempt to illustrate the benefits and challenges of commercial agriculture in the city, which then hopefully inspires dialogue about larger agricultural issues, and also to bridge the gap between what are considered appropriate urban and rural activities.

Little City Gardens

The Greenhouse at Little City Gardens. No doubt the garden is well-supplied with hand-painted signage!

Farmers Market Sign

Farming and sign painting sometimes feel like two completely disparate lines of work to be in, and in some ways they balance each other out nicely (the fresh air feels great after a couple days of toxic paint fumes). But for me, they function surprisingly similarly at times. They are both creative outlets in their own ways, offering opportunities to satisfy my perfectionist tendencies, as well as constant reminders to let those tendencies go. It’s not always important to pull every single last weed out of the kale crop, just like it’s not necessary to smooth out every single minor bump in the outer edge of an O. Perfection is always an admirable goal, but there is a gracefulness in efficiency, too.

Pencil Sketch

Caitlyn Galloway Signs

liquor store signs caitlyn galloway