The Art of Sign Writing

At the end of last year, I took part in a series of workshops that laid the foundations for the Dumfries Women’s Signwriting Squad, a fledgling team based in the town with a collective love of the hand painted word. (Follow us on instagram, here)

My interest in hand lettering and sign painting has been developing over a period of about four years; it grew from a collective ambition within the Stove Network to impact on, and start a visual communication with, the High Street.

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Taking the time, taking care and learning the basics of a beautifully sophisticated craft, allows us to change the look, and then the feel and the attitude towards our town centre space. It set’s us apart from the chains and larger businesses, allows us to act playfully, quickly, responsive to new ideas and changing seasons, and to ‘refresh’ as often as we like.

As an artist working predominantly in object based or installation practice, this element of two dimensional craft/skill fit’s into a sort of awkward space with my other work, but the physical act of making/painting has a lot of similarities, and the end goal – to interact with the space and those who pass by, live and frequent the space. This is a craft that is built on a long-learned skill set, and once you begin you only continue to realise what you do not yet know.

The more you look the more you learn.

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The first signs we made were provocations – questions, hints, instructions, demands – that broke with the generally accepted language of signs into an ‘other’ category, this is not a shop called ‘in//between’, or a cafe called ‘DOWNTURN?’, a hidden sign in plain view that instructs the reader to ‘play’ in the close, ‘blether’ outside the vacant building or ‘laugh’ by the flowerpot – these signs are outwith the rules we expect our public spaces to play by.

However, increasingly the signs I take on look less like ‘art’ signs, and more in the vein of traditional signs – signs that communicate the business, indicate to open the door, cafe menus or opening times. These might look to muddy the waters of ‘signs as art’, but form an interesting example of where the artist can begin to infiltrate the language of the town centre – next level in. By opening up the invitation to work alongside business owners, we allow the dialogue about the visual language of our town centres to grow.

Many businesses aspire towards an ethos of care, quality and distinctive identity that is easily lost amongst the faster paced design and print options available, particularly when so many businesses are working to tight budgets. By creating opportunities for artists to work directly for businesses in this way, we can look to gradually impact the town centre, in collaboration with other users in a much more homegrown and grass roots approach. In other countries across Europe, many town centres have retained an identity, a sense of independence and unique offer provided by the local businesses, that is less apparent in many parts of Scotland.

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The further I delve into the world of sign writing and lettering art, the more it becomes clear that my ambition is not to become a full bells-and-whistles sign writer: the level of skill required, the depth of knowledge of design, both digital and by hand, and the finesse of detail goes beyond my level of interest. But by introducing the hand lettered approach, I hope to create more space for the dialogue to begin.

Dumfries already has a vast collection of A-frames and temporary signs vying for space of the High Street, ranging from the beautifully considered to barely legible scribbles, and the competition for blackboard space continues – I’d definitely love to see some more hand painted signs appearing about the town.