Storefronts: Lettering & Digital Technologies in the Urban Landscape

Patricia Cue

San Diego State University


Commercial storefronts play a vital role in signposting and broadcasting the cultural identity of the urban landscape. Storefront signs address basic commercial communication needs such as naming and stating the type of business, marking the location, advertising services, and attracting customers. But they also fulfill a more important need: expressing the characteristics of a given culture, and defining how that culture is represented visually. They add flavor and authenticity. They let us know, culturally and geographically, where we are.

How a culture is perceived is largely determined by how it is presented. As cultural readers and interpreters, we look for signs and symbols to help us make sense of the space around us. In an ethnic urban landscape, commercial storefront signs are powerful coded symbols that communicate a wealth of cultural information. Sign painting has traditionally been the most common and effective means of conveying that information. In the past, such signs would have been hand-painted. However, since the introduction of plastic materials, and with the dominance of digital technologies, traditional sign painting has declined in popularity, especially in major commercial centers, where it is rarely, if ever, seen. But in many ethnic areas, sign painting has managed to survive as a vernacular form of design that operates on the margins of professional design practice.

This project examines the “membrane” that separates vernacular and professional graphic design, by investigating a particular form of indigenous hand-painted murals that advertise folk music concerts in rural Mexico, and by surveying the current state of storefront designs along University Avenue and San Ysidro Boulevard in San Diego, California. The main objective is to develop models for commercially competitive design solutions that translate the visual language of traditional handmade lettering into modern sign-making technologies and materials, in order to explore culturally sensitive ways to brand small businesses in ethnic pockets within urban areas. By creating design alternatives in the form of prototypes that expand the possibilities of modern technology, this project aims to foster cultural vitality and economic prosperity for small ethnic businesses, and to advocate for the preservation of visual diversity.


For the first part of my research, I studied a particular form of vernacular design that utilizes large-format sign painting in public spaces to advertise music concerts in central Mexico. These typographic murals, or bardas de baile, are a form of what in Mexico are called rótulos, or commercial hand-painted signs. These signs cover the walls of cemeteries, empty plots of land, abandoned houses, sides of ledges, and other unclaimed public spaces, becoming an integral part of the physical and cultural landscape of rural Mexico. They also constitute a form of branding for the types of music they advertise.

Traveling by car through central Mexico, and implementing an ethnographic approach, I conducted interviews with rotulistas to research their sources, their way of life, and their work practices, and completed a thorough photographic documentation of the different styles and venues for these music murals. My research on this particular form of sign making revealed the ways in which vernacular design operates and relates to its context, thus providing important information about the characteristics and methods of sign painting, as well as the ways in which a particular visual culture—in this case bardas be baile—becomes the chosen mode of representation, and how it is then imitated and spread by other rotulistas, creating an ironic, handmade kind of mass production.

To further my understanding of the traditional process of the rotulistas, and of sign painting in general, I researched the typefaces that have historically and traditionally been used for sign painting. Applying an experimental and iterative approach, I then made typographic studies utilizing analog methods such as screen printing and painting on canvas. These techniques allowed me to experience and understand the process of sign painting and the relationship between the means, the medium, and the form.

The second part of my research explored the visual translation of hand-painted signs into the language of digital sign making. I conducted visual audits of representative examples of storefronts in San Diego, California, chosen for its cultural diversity and numerous locations where ethnic and vernacular design merge with professionally branded solutions. A selection of small businesses along University Avenue and San Ysidro Boulevard were used as models for design development and prototyping.

With the purpose of establishing a reliable framework to explore the possibilities and limitations of digital sign making, as well as the available materials and production costs, I surveyed five local sign-making businesses whose services I will be using for the production of prototypes. Due to cost and ubiquity of use, I will be working with the following techniques and materials: laser-cut vinyl (mid-grade, standard color, and CMYK printed); CMYK printing on Sintra board; printed vinyl on Coroplast board; laser-cut vinyl on acrylic for back-lit boxes; and back- printed acrylic.

The parameters used for the design explorations replicate those that I found being applied by regular commercial sign makers: the use of system or free fonts found online; basic color palettes; eye-catching effects such as gradations and shadowing; and the integration of environmental elements such as wall surfaces and architectural fixtures.


Signs are complex objects that involve various disciplines—advertising, industrial and graphic design, and architecture. They rely on patterns of form, material, proportion, ornamentation, and symbol to convey meaning to their users. Each of a sign’s elements, alone and together, has the potential to convey complex, abstract ideas to those who use them.

Until the 1950s, signs were primarily hand-lettered by skilled sign painters who operated as a guild and whose skills and rules were passed on from masters to apprentices. Even though their means were limited to brushes and paint, and the designs relied on basic patterns of form and shape, each sign was conceived and fabricated within a specific cultural framework, thus giving businesses uniqueness and authenticity.

Since that time, storefront signs have undergone major change, and sign painting has dramatically declined as a result of increased corporatization and uniformity. With the rise of big-box stores and retail warehouses, the independent trader has become an endangered species. As their economic prospects dwindle, so do the prospects of the traditional sign painter, who in the past would have been hired to adorn those independent shops and stores with hand- painted logos and images.

In addition, the modern-day use of plastic substrates and digital technologies has transformed the world of the humble sign writer into a vast sign- making industry. In the 1970s, the arrival of these new materials and technologies coincided with the growth of chain stores and franchises whose identity required repetition, consistency, and affordability over the artisanal craftsmanship of hand-rendered signs, thus making them obsolete on a large scale.

The tradition that once cemented the bond between the sign maker and the community has been lost, due to the fact that the new sign-making shops were owned and operated not by craftsmen but by technicians. As a result, traditional sign painting has virtually disappeared, and the craftsmen have been replaced by technicians who produce cheap default- designed signage to meet the needs of increasingly cost-driven businesses. A key impact of this transformation is that vinyl lettering has become the new vernacular.

In recent years, gentrification has radically changed the landscape of many ethnic neighborhoods, due to an increase in both public and private sector attempts to revitalize aging and long-ignored areas. In spite of its benefits, this process has hampered the economic reintegration of existing local commercial establishments that serve as nodes of community interaction. The vision of civic leaders, businessmen, and planners—that these areas would become visually unified, sanitized, and safe environments attractive to both high-end national chains and their customers— has been in most cases only partially accomplished. In reality, gentrification today has resulted in a hybrid mix of retail businesses that sell cheap goods to a diverse crowd of low-to-middle-income shoppers among big-box retailers and national chains, and who remain unable to match the visual impact, consistency, and reliability of the big brands. These small local businesses solve their communication and marketing needs by contracting the services of sign shops that offer generic designs and improvised solutions at affordable prices, but that fail to attract the new incoming residents, thus perpetuating economic and racial segregation.

My field research showed that the businesses that trusted commercial sign makers to design their storefronts lacked the differentiation and quality necessary to compete with the established brands and chain businesses that now populate ethnic urban pockets. As with the hand-painted signs, the new digitally produced signs are mostly typographic, and unlike sign painting, the typefaces used—system typefaces offered on PC (mostly) and Mac platforms— have no connection to the language of the tool that produces them. The color palettes are mostly primary and limited to those available by default, and the materials used lack the dimension and materiality of paint.

The significance of this project resides largely in the premise that hand-painted signs have an intrinsic potential to impart culture-specific characteristics to the branding and presentation of small ethnic businesses, through an authentic yet credible voice expressing that these businesses are run by real people and are free of corporate uniformity.

Through the design and production of a series of prototypes that explore the possibilities and the limitations of digital sign-making technologies and plastic materials, this body of work aims to expand the range of design solutions available to small business owners by translating the cultural visual language of hand-painted signs into culturally sensitive and commercially competitive solutions.


The Bauhaus movement and the International typographic style provided the principles upon which contemporary graphic design has been based. The practice and education of this discipline have been largely based on the ideal of a universal design style where designers are considered conduits for information, clarity, and order. These principles were essential to developing graphic design as a tool for democracy when the access to information and the elevation of aesthetic and functional qualities in mass production were paramount. Although the context and technology in which today’s graphic designers practice have changed dramatically, the paradigm of a universal language of graphic design form remains the same. In this era of digital global communications, free-trade agreements, and corporate expansion, graphic design has asserted itself as a powerful tool for instituting the presence of corporations through a universal style that consistently applies strict guidelines to visual standards. The uniformity this practice has brought to visual culture has led to the eradication of vernacular forms of graphic design that until recently were repositories of cultural identity, history, and tradition.

In urban America, the traditional hand-painted lettering on storefront business signs has been replaced by digital sign-making technology. Small businesses in ethnic neighborhoods that consistently used hand-painted signs to communicate their culture-specific characteristics, now use the services of digital sign-making shops that provide generic and improvised solutions that do not convey their attributes, benefits, and cultural references. While these new technologies have given graphic designers more options to create impactful displays and to standardize the quality of reproduction in branding, they have also sanitized the urban landscape by creating visual and cultural uniformity.

Graphic design inherited from Modernism the practice of radically changing existing solutions rather than enhancing them—a “before” and “after” approach that particularly disregards lay or vernacular forms of design. This project, and its method, suggest a design approach that incorporated the existing and the commonplace. Moreover, it embraces mass production and the democratization of design where craftsmanship has shifted from a “hands-on” activity to possessing the knowledge and the access to technology, as is the case with contemporary digital sign makers. Consequently, the value of the proposed design solutions is not based on originality or authorship, but on expanding the limits of digital fabrication techniques with solutions that have the potential of being reproduced by the average sign shop technician and accessed by small businesses with the intent of bringing back their cultural identity and voice.

This project poses questions about the relationship between the means, the medium, and the process of design. In sign painting, the physical nature of the tool directly and readily generates a particular type of form and determines the process of creating it, as do the digital means and their plastic-based mediums, although in the latter, the materiality is lost. By reproducing the language and the material effects of sign painting in the digitally produced prototypes that result from this project, meaning is constructed from actual (three-dimensional, plastic) and implied (visual references to sign painting) materiality through an amalgam of substrates and processes that occupy the intersection of the contemporary and the traditional.

Design plays an important role in the economic health of businesses and in the way consumers perceive them. In relation to this particular project, the expectation from small ethnic businesses is that of authenticity, humanity, and uniqueness, all which are communicated, or not, by the style in which they are rendered. Even though sign painters work within well-defined boundaries and build upon tradition, their solutions respond to the specific needs of the business owners and the expectations of a particular community rather than to generic designs that lack differentiation and specificity. But going beyond nostalgia, and considering that traditions are flexible, the pride and knowledge behind the craft of sign painting can inform and expand the possibilities of new digital tools through inventive approaches that originate from a thorough familiarity with the tools, processes, and materials on both sides. My intention is not to bring back a tradition, unchanged, into our contemporary urban context, or to establish set rules for the do’s and don’ts of sign making. Rather, my goal is to provide a set of models and to identify general design principles that have the potential of being adopted as a new tradition that brings together craft, technology, and cultural differentiation.


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