Of storefronts and signs

The practice of architecture and design has dramatically changed over the past 40 years. Though creativity remains at the core of the profession, the rapid changes in virtually every aspect of designing and building has made it essential to collaborate with many individuals who devote all of their time in their chosen field.

The collaboration not only extends to consultants of a given discipline but also includes contractors, vendors, suppliers and installers who play an integral role in
the execution of a successful project. The vendors play an important role in rollout retail projects and work closely with clients in all phases of design.

For architects, vendors are a great source of knowledge to learn about the latest trends in their industry and find out what works and what does not.

 
Creating brand identity with the use of sign
 

“Collaboration not only extends to consultants of a given discipline but also includes contractors, vendors, suppliers and installers who play an integral role in the execution of a successful proj ect”

 

 

It is very common for retail chains to work with fixtures’ vendors, lighting suppliers, flooring and finishes distributors, audiovisual component suppliers, sign companies, security and theft prevention device companies and specialty storage system vendors to name a few.

 

Working directly with them offers cost saving, access to their knowledge base and a peace of mind that the required products will be delivered for integration of their  project in time.

Last week I had the chance to talk with Kevin Berry, a 20-year veteran of the sign industry. Following is the story of his life in the retail sign industry:

Kevin entered the world of signs 25 years ago when he moved to Southern California in the summer of 1980. He lived with a rock and roll band that painted signs in the day time and played rock and roll at night. Though he did not have any creative background his construction background helped him to get into the fabrication and installation of handpainted signs for various applications.

 

“There was a period in the 70s when malls prohibited the use of exposed neon because they felt it reminded them of Las Vegas and did not look distinguished in an

 
Nike’s big dimensional logo
 

 

His first stint was with a commercial bulletin shop that did real estate signs every now and then when a retailer would want a sign painted. Most of the work involved painted signs which were externally lit with goose neck lamps.

 

Later, when vinyl cutter was invented the hand-painted letters were replaced with stick-on vinyl letters. In the early 80s the designers would create a logo and then get to a shop which specialised in typesetting and creating camera-ready art work which would be utilised by sign companies for multiple applications to create brand identity for retailer.

My conversation with Kevin was a trip down memory lane with images of storefronts and signs morphing from simple dimensional letters’ signs to dimensional logo signs and graphics becoming integrated part of the storefront.

Sometimes the design of an entire store evolves from the logo where the colours, textures and shapes become design elements of the space projecting a homogenous brand message permeating a shopper’s experience.

 
Casting a halo on the background was popular in the 90s
 

“When Kevin worked on Factory store signs for Nike they insisted on the use of LEDs but it did not turn out to be the best decision”

 

 

In the 70s, storefronts in malls consisted of a primarily large open store-front with a sign band with individual channel letter signs. The upscale mall had a detailed  sign criterion which spelt out rules.

Most of them wanted internally illuminated signs which were either box type signs with plastic face, internal illumination and fluorescent lights, or channel letters with metal sides and plastic face internally illuminated with neon and externally illuminated dimensional letters. Most of the signs consisted of the store names spelt  out in individual letters and in some rare occasions a logo or icon was added.

In 1923, Georges Claude and his French company Claude Neon, introduced neon gas signs to the USA. Neon lighting quickly became a popular fixture in outdoor  advertising. Visible even in daylight, people would stop and stare at the first neon signs for hours, dubbed "liquid fire."

While neon lighting was used around 1930 in France for general illumination, it was no more energy-efficient than conventional incandescent lighting and neon lighting came to be used primarily for eye-catching signs and advertisements.

Once acrylic was invented in 50s, plastic signed surfaces with combination of neon and aluminium big illuminated letters spelling out names of American retail icons were scattered all over the retail landscape. In the boom days of late 70s and early 80s almost everything comprised illuminated channel letters.

The exposed neon sign made a big comeback in the 80s. Teen retailer WSeal was Kevin’s first big retail account. Everything was done in exposed neon to get as much bang  for their buck so the  storefront appeared to be brighter than everybody else who was still using traditional channel letter signs. The storefront had a big curved soffit and white exposed neon across the storefront and the malls loved it.

There was a period in the 70s when malls prohibited the use of exposed neon because they felt it reminded them of Las Vegas and did not look distinguished in an upscale mall. But when the recession of the 80s came and malls became more flexible they started allowing use of the exposed neon.

Sign companies started using neon, metal and plastic in creative ways not thought of earlier. Signs started incorporating logos in a creative way and dimensional forms were intermingled with letters, logos and icons creating powerful brand identities.

The creativity of the hand-painted sign without restrictions started getting translated into fluid form of exposed neon signs. The Gap in the 80s was one of the  biggest retailers utilising an exposed neon sign all over their mall stores. The use of personal computers along with availability of graphic software in the late 80s unleashed a force which took creativity to unparalleled heights.

In the 90s, malls got tired of excessive use of exposed neon, they did not want to see exposed neon letters. Malls wanted an illuminated sign but did not want to look at the exposed sides of the neon and the connectors. A hybrid type to sign called open face channel letters evolved.

Many chains started using open face channel letters with an exposed neon face with metal sides and a clear acrylic face. The backlit halo letters with metal letters pegged forming a wall with concealed neon casting a halo on the background also gained popularity. Sometimes those letters were partially penetrated and covered with plastic to let the light shine through and gave birth to push through illuminated signs.

The digital has truly revolutionised  the sign industry. With the big table routers, friendly software, man and machines working together and the materials that can be used with aluminium and acrylic along with different colours of vinyl films, and different colours of LEDs that will light up, the possibilities are endless.

 

“Many of the cities are making use of LEDs for signs mandatory and with new energy codes in works LEDs will become the primary source of sign illumination in the near future”

 
A brightly lit sign
 

 

The use of LED modules instead of using the neon of fluorescent is expanding greatly. Though the use of LED in signs is a green thing there are lots of kinks that need  to be worked out.

A large bank chain with over 350 bank locations after having problems with power supplies and numerous service calls went back to using neon instead of LED.

When Kevin worked on Factory store signs for Nike they insisted on the use of LEDs but it did not turn out to be the best decision. In this case, non-availability of a  qualified technician for a national rollout created multitude of problems during installation.

Signs lit with LED are about 70 percent less brighter than neon but LED save energy. Further, though the initial installation cost is greater than neon, with energy saving the cost gets recovered in about 10 years. Many of the cities are making use of LEDs for signs mandatory and with new energy codes in works LEDs will become the
primary source of sign illumination in the near future.

One of the new products on the market is an acrylic letter that is embedded with LED so the face of the letter lights up with a low voltage wire that plugs into a wall. The letter has its return built into the acrylic eliminating need of clunky edge of the trim cap.

Some chains have experimented with using large flat screen monitors displaying their logo. Some chains are utilising giant three dimensional letters with gold lead of other metallic finishes; Nike is utilising a big dimensional logo in many of their new projects. The new large format printers make it possible to transfer images on any surface opening up infinite possibilities of creative expressions.

The statement “sky is no longer the limit” does not seem too far fetched!

(The writer is the Founder & President, DRV Design, San Diego, USA. He earned his B Arch from Sir JJ College of Architecture, Mumbai, and moved to the US in 1974. He can be contacted at feedback@drvdesign.com)