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The right type: Trends in local business signage

If you’ve ever heard a graphic designer complain about an ugly font, you will know this is not a topic to be scoffed at (unless you want their three-day-old black coffee hiffed in your face).

There is a website, I love typography, where we are told "a world without font is heaven devoid of stars". In short, we should care about signs and fonts – or how can we expect others to care about the environment, the state of the economy, or good wine?

Photos: Ian Rotherham

In January researchers from the UCOL Institute of Technology embarked on a road trip to 43 towns to document signage around New Zealand and observe trends in typography.

Led by Rachel Hoskin from the School of Photography, the team had hypothesised that community identity would jump out of business signage like John Key jumps out of hot water.

"Signage that used different materials or typography, or that was particularly ‘badly’ designed quickly became a fascination for the research team," Hoskin says.

However, the hypothesis was quickly proven to be false, and, as a result, the project became a survey of typography used in business signage in the North Island.

It's common knowledge that towns and cities are branded and actively marketed in New Zealand. Bulls has its kitschy take on its ‘Un-for-get-a-bull’ name, Napier is known as the art deco capital of the world, Wellington thinks of itself as the country’s creative hub, Tokoroa – well you get the picture.

However, with the exception of Bulls, these branding techniques do not necessarily mean signage and typography is unified. The researchers found that barely any businesses in Napier utilise the Art Deco style in their signage – or in the typefaces used.

Greytown in the Wairarapa is a cute and creative town, and this was evident in the widely varied use of colour, font and style. So, while its signage lacked a single unifying theme, overall it generated an impression of diversity and creativity. A lack of corporate businesses and their branding further enhanced the sense of typographic wonderment that befell the happy researchers.

Areas such as Cuba St in Wellington and Karangahape Rd in Auckland were highlights for the researchers due to the diversity of the typography and the creative range of materials used.

And business signage in the Manawatu town of Fielding showed signs of a fresh and creative new trend with the use of all lowercase type in the signage of its shops and businesses.

The team also investigated the notable changes in the typography of big business. A new trend in the choice of typographic case has been observed in the rebranding of corporate businesses within the last couple of years.

Telecom, AMI, BNZ, Kiwibank, Postie and Ballantynes now all use lowercase in their typography. Three of of these rebrands were the work of Designworks and one was the brainchild of DNA. Four of them are san serif typestyles, perceived as more informal and relaxed than their stiff older brother the serif.

The BNZ logotype, designed by DNA, uses a softer, friendlier, lower-case font, shakes off the associations of the bank as a hard-faced corporation and aligns it with the little piggy’s that oink around in its advertising campaigns.

The typographic trends have historical antecedents in the Bauhaus school of art in Germany, circa the early 20th century. There it was asserted that lowercase is the only necessity for effective communication. Uppercase was seen as unnecessary decoration, but then also was punctuation – something that has not stood up quite so well to the test of time.

Typography is to designers like dirt is to earthworms, and for the UCOL team, the trip has added valuable design knowledge to the font bank.

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