Urban Typography

The extent of the urban streetscape for local pedestrians is generally the pavement, the road, and the first floor of the buildings. Off the main street, graffiti, fly posters, stickers, temporary traffic signs, and small vernacular shop fascias are an integral part of urban living and working. Much of this typographic material will have been done by amateurs, some by vandals, and some, although quite a small percentage, by designers, including professional signmakers.

Some of the “nondesigned” typography will have been made with commercial or political intent, some will be serendipitous, or simply caused by neglect. In older districts, the pedestrian can often find ad hoc remnants of businesses from previous generations, providing clues of past political and/or industrial upheaval. Most urban communication will have been the result of optimism: “a good idea,” something new, exciting, and worth shouting about.


In all towns and cities a range of wayfinding signs, locational identity signs, and situational, ad hoc messages can be seen. Some of the signs are rule-governed brandings: corporate logo, name, and associated livery. Other signs are bespoke, one-off signs on fascias and vans, hand-chalked menus, and sale offers.

Effective and attractive handwritten example.

The amateurs hand-drawn notice or sign attracts attention because we seem to be naturally drawn to anything different or unexpected. However, signs must attract for the right reason and certainly, in the urban commercial environment, the public are highly attuned to the way messages are relayed to them. A hurriedly drawn (informal) price sign on a market stall will not be perceived to represent a lack of concern by the stallholder for the quality of his fresh fruit, quite the opposite, because immediacy and impermanence are both qualities appropriately associated with fresh food. However, if a permanent (formal) sign, displaying the stallholder’s name for example, is hurriedly (and ineptly) done, its informality will be perceived to be inappropriate. Typography, when bad, is easy to recognize, but difficult to get right.

The long-established department store generally offers a more formal persona (even if it prides itself on friendly service). A less formal method of conveying information can still be initiated for short-term events such as a sale, but this material must be disposed of the moment the event is over, so as to enable the formal presence of the business to be restored.

People understand the effort involved (if not the process) in the production of notices and signs. Something that requires time to plan and then paint or carve, print or build, will generally be considered more formal because it has gone through a process of design, making, and/or manufacture, and is already clearly intended to be in place for a considerable time. The materials chosen are very important in reflecting this. Letterforms bought “off the shelf” and fixed DIY style, either by authoritative organizations or by the individual business entrepreneur, are notorious disasters: M and W mixed up, S upside down, but more commonly, poor spacing.

In the context of hand-lettered signs, newsbills are an anomaly. Until very recently, newsbills were a hand-drawn form of public advertisement for daily newspapers sold on the city streets. It is remarkable that hand-drawn newsbills should have remained in existence for so long, especially because their function was to advertise the products of a highly sophisticated, technology driven, newspaper media industry.

The point, of course, is that the newsbill offers urgent and topical information. The earliest specimens, dating from the beginning of the nineteenth century, contained more than 20 lines of closely printed type in various styles and sizes. Over the years, however, the tendency developed toward shorter, ever more dramatic handwritten headlines that were attention grabbing and readable at a glance. Contemporary newsbills, although printed, have retained the underline and are, in this way, reminiscent of the earlier, hand drawn newsbills.

The need for semi-permanent information, often hurriedly improvised in urban streets, is generally considered to be visual clutter. In an emergency, we are reassured to see order reestablished, usually in the form of standard temporary signs, access inhibited by tape, vehicles with flashing roof lights, and uniformed personnel. Coordination in all these elements is important in providing a sense of order and authority. Disorder is stressful because change to our daily routine forces us to think about activities that we can normally take for granted. It makes us think about what we are doing! Order allows us to form our lives into patterns, to make assumptions, to plan ahead, and use our time efficiently. When a book is opened, the reader is looking for patterns for the very same reasons.

Traffic diversion signs are unpopular because they inevitably represent a disruption or breakdown of a planned journey. However, if such signs are coordinated in their appearance and placement, then they will be perceived to represent a coordinated response to a scheduled event. The driver will assume that this is a planned reroute, rather than an ad hoc, hurried, and perhaps illconceived emergency-induced event. Ad hoc signage is both celebrated and despised, depending on the viewers’ circumstances.

An example of permanent typography.

Typographic detritus or chance art” is the way that improvised urban information… The interference by people making alternative, spontaneous additions or alterations (disregarding the best intentions of the designer) is both inevitable and a necessary aspect of urban life. Such ephemera may sometimes be ugly, but its purpose is generally to provide a valid source of information, even if it is only for a select few. Small, entirely insignificant information, the detritus of urban life, is just as valuable—more valuable some would argue—to social historians than the results of grand-scale city planning.

It is a very good idea to consider how a text will be perceived (and read) in 10, 20, or 100 years’ time.

Decay is the most powerful medium for the improvement of cities… Decay, not architects, adds the last touches, blackens and peels the stone, applies lichens and cracks, softens the edges, elaborates elaboration, and the hand of man works even better than the forces of nature…

Similarly, a scuffed, well-thumbed book with creased page corners is the consequence of a well-used and truly useful document.

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