A History of Building Signs

an ornate historic building sign for a goldsmith

Back when pedestrians, horses and carts filled city streets, the signage on shops and buildings reflected the slower pace of traffic, in the fact that it was smaller and more exquisitely crafted. Passers-by had time to stop and admire carved ornaments and hand-painted images.

Later, with the advent of the automobile, signs grew a lot larger and simpler, so as to grab the attention of motorists. Certainly, there was a different, more industrial sort of beauty in these signs, too. Consisting of large logos or wall-mounted letters, sometimes illuminated and sometimes not, these typographic behemoths are known as ‘building signs’.

Ghost Signs

a fading ghost sign on brick building

The simplest type of building sign is simply letters painted onto brick. From the industrial revolution through to the mid twentieth century, ‘walldogs’ covered nearly every urban brick wall with some sort of advertising. In North America, especially, these ‘Brick Ads’ or ‘Ghosts Signs’ can be seen, slowing fading back to plain brick walls once again.

Architectural Letters

permanent architectural letters

Another, more permanent type of building sign is the dimensional letters that were built into the architecture of concrete buildings. These letters will remain as long as the building itself remains. Just as mediaeval cathedrals are ordained with gargoyles, the business houses of the early twentieth century will forever proudly display the name of the enterprise for which the structure was originally erected. Like typographic gargoyles, these inscriptions remind us of a time now past.

Channel Letters

old fashion channel letters with light bulbs

A third type of building sign is channel letters. Unlike concrete architectural lettering, channel letters were formed out of steel in a sign-shop and then affixed to the building. As businesses came and went, the building signage could in turn be updated. The first channel letters, which appeared in the nineteen-twenties, were filled with electric lightbulbs, so that the entire letter could be illuminated at night. Even during the day, when the lights were switched off, these ‘light-bulb letters’ had a clean electric look that spoke of success and modernity. Later, as neon tubing became more prevalent, glowing tubes became the illumination of choice for channel letters.

Halo-Lit Letters

halo lit building sign letters

But bulbs can burn out and channel letters can fill with spiderwebs, rust and dirt. Maybe that’s why in the last few decades, many businesses have opted for ‘halo-lit’ wall letters. Especially popular in Europe, these letters have the advantage of looking clean day or night. Mounted slightly away from the wall, light emanates out from behind the letter at night. During the day the letters cast a shadow on the wall and unassumingly pretend to be non-illuminated wall letters. Halo-lit letters are a great option for areas with strict signage codes, which make large sign panels a difficult option. On the other hand, the installation of such letters can be expensive and time-consuming.

Wall-Mounted & Scroll Mounted Panel Signs

wall mounted and scroll mounted building signs

Panel signs are probably the most common form of building sign. A well-designed wall-mounted sign fits the colours and architectural style of the building on which it is mounted, so that it almost looks like a part of the building itself. Panel signs can also be mounted perpendicular to the building swinging from a scroll hanger or as a fixed blade sign. Unfortunately, many wall-mounted signs are poorly-designed vinyl rectangles which shown no respect for the building from which they hang. As a result, this style of sign may fall victim to local sign-codes. A greater awareness of appropriate building sign design, both in the sign industry and the wider community could maybe change this trend in the future.

The Future of Building Signs

 scroll mounted building sign

What will building signs look like in the future? In one sense, technology has brought us back to where we started. Because of photo-sharing websites- such as Flickr and Pinterest - beautiful, small-scale hand-crafted signage is being examined and appreciated once more –on computer screens this time rather than out in the street. This has meant that businesses are once again interested in the type of signage that has attention to detail, the kind that can be admired. This is part of a new trend that is becoming known as the ‘Slow Design Movement’ – a greater appreciation for craft, for hand-skills and for beauty.