• John M Feit

What's Your Sign's Story?

Updated: Jul 28, 2018

An acute lack of imagination is displayed when a building owner arrives at no more interesting a building name than its street address. When there are so many possibilities for story telling - including a neighborhood's history, its geography, or its cultural landscape - why should a building settle for "The 1620 12th Avenue Building" when it can proclaim itself as "12 Ave Arts" and add a rich narrative to a neighborhood? Business do have names and frequently a good story to share, but it often remains untold because its branding - its sign - fails to weave a narrative into its design. Both buildings and businesses, through their signs, have the ability to inform their neighbors by providing signs with a story or message that entertains, educates, and enrichs.

The message is abundantly clear for 12 Avenue Arts: promote the Capitol Hill Arts District and their two live theaters by referencing the bright lights of Broadway with a bold font and vibrant color. At first glance the sign's letters appear to match but there is a difference: the 12 AVE letters have the holes - but not the bulbs - for lights. The bulbs are reserved for the letters that make up ARTS, emphasizing that one is first in the Arts District and secondly on 12th Avenue. A subtle juxtaposition of a neighborhood's larger aspiration and a specific location leading the audience crying 'bravo!'

Ada's Technical Books, a beloved 15th Avenue institution, has an understated sign with that peaks the interest of the curious. Just who was Ada? And what about that coiffure? Did she really wear her hair like that? Is this a legacy shop which opened its doors when Seattle first opened for business? Even in the abstract of a silhouette Ada's visage whispers librarian and is emblematic for the proprietor of a bookstore. Cheers for Ada and her books (just not too loudly)!

No less renown in these parts is Rachel's Ginger Beer where we find a sign of a completely different kind. Fortunate is the sign designer whose client's business provides a product that can be the sign itself (as well as initials that tempt a bit of Photoshop play). No real or imagined fanciful stories here, just a playful display of what's on tap inside. Note the slight tilt of the growler, displaying the fluidity of its contents. Congrats to sign designer and product alike - an inspired pairing!

Red Hook Brewing's Beer Lab, the anchor tenant of Pike Motor Works (a favorite building name - it was formerly a BMW of dealership), has another noteworthy sign-hiding-as-beverage-container; or, truthfully, sign-as-beverage-maker. While it lacks the playfulness of RGB's sign it does make analogous what is for sale and how it is made.

The Packard Building's sign references back to when Capitol Hill was home to Seattle's auto dealerships. Elliot Bay Book, Melrose Market, and Starbuck's Reserve are just a few businesses in buildings that formerly sold cars or serviced their needs. The Packard Building, at the corner of 12th Avenue and Pine Street, sold Packard's which was an american luxury car brand that ceased operation in 1958. The sign's fonts are historically accurate to the brand as is the bird perched on the sign, which was Packard's hood ornament. Sixty years ago one could peer through the building's windows and drool over a new Packard. Today, one can drool over a Montreal Bagel.

Sometimes owners are handed a building naming gift and even an accompanying sign, but staying on-brand can lead an owner to overlook such gifts - even when it is painted on the building. In large letters. The above apartment building is in fact not named Davis and Hoffman. Davis and Hoffman was the name of the business that originally built the two-story building and is now incorporated into a larger mixed-use development. The project's developer went to great lengths to conserve the Davis and Hoffman's facade and accurately restore the building's name. So what is the new development's name? It is easy to miss. It's on a vinyl banner, on the third floor, in a small font. Still, its nice to have the old sign back, even if it represents a missed opportunity.

A counter point to the above corporate branding is found at Chophouse Row. Replete with exemplify examples of architecture, urban design, and curating, the signs of the businesses embody all of these qualities. Understated and egalitarian, each sign proclaims a business through a variety of colors, fonts, and logos, crafting an open invitation to patronized this amazing place.

Some signs need no commentary, and they are steeped in history. Their message is loud and clear. They reference a place, a culture, a time, and a point of view in as direct a means as possible with an artistry that effectively reinforces the message.

Should you have some favorite signs, please share them in the comments. It's one of the most fluid aspects of our built environment, and often the most overlooked.

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