Sunday, July 19, 2009

Elizabeth on Elizabeth Street shopfronts

This article originally appeared in Design Reporter, a publication for the State of Design Festival in Melbourne.


The Melbourne Museum has an excellent permanent exhibition called The Melbourne Story, in which a wall-sized photograph from the turn of the century depicts bustling Christmas shoppers at the foot of the Bourke Street Mall at Elizabeth Street. The GPO, that Gold Rush-era pillar, stands in one corner, while what are now heritage-listed fa├žades sprinkle the immediate surrounds. The lesser-known City of Melbourne building—a fascinating hodge-podge of Queen Anne and Baroque features—is just down the block at Little Collins Street. The image is so striking because that is what Elizabeth Street once was.

Today, it is difficult to think of Elizabeth Street as the regal thoroughfare history suggests, because while almost all of its original, impressive architecture still stands, it is lorded over by a visual tyranny of tackiness. From its Flinders Street base to the Queen Victoria Market, Elizabeth Street bleeds cheap signage, creating a seedy atmosphere with little-to-no visual cohesion and a completely uninviting and divided front. How did a street that still boasts monoliths like Mitchell House and the Argus Building come to look like a neglected suburban strip mall?

At its inception, shopfront signage was “a spontaneous response to the communication needs of the industrial revolution ... graphic design was invented to sell the fruits of mass production to growing consumer societies,” says American designer and educator Katherine McCoy. And unlike its cousin, environmental design, shopfront signage is not primarily a directional tool. Its first job is to identify—so while standard design principles like colour, contrast, scale and legibility still apply, shopfront signage has its own constraints, specifically the readibility from distances for both car and foot traffic.

Further, Elizabeth Street has its own particularities. The Australian sun is probably the reason for the ubiquitous awnings that intercept our view of the aforementioned historical buildings. But like many things that were badly designed to start with, accessories evolved to patch up the weak spots. Once the awnings stretched nearly to the street, what real estate could be given up to advertise a shop without sacrificing precious window space? And once that was answered, (stick the sign high above the door) how were people going to see it from a tram or car? Because shopfront signage is often viewed as an after-thought to a business owner preoccupied with actually starting a business, it’s not seen as the kind of design that warrants the investment of time and money it really deserves.

Branding advocates will claim that businesses’ exteriors need to serve two purposes: to maintain the visual rules established for other areas of the business, and to stand out. This is where the thinking becomes short-sighted. For one thing, while franchised businesses tend to look the same regardless of their location, Elizabeth Street is largely devoid of franchises. Secondly, a juice bar does not need to compete with a backpack store. One would assume we could think beyond the surface of marketing and branding assumptions to infer that no shop is an island, especially in a busy city, and argue for a basic set of visual standards that would elevate the whole of the street.

This is not just about form; (although Pen City’s use of Comic Sans vinyl lettering and Tropicana Juice Bar’s flourescent, designed-in-Microsoft-Word signage are particularly offensive) it is first about function. In 1957 Nicolette Gray wrote,

Without doubt the first consideration in the designing of street lettering should be to ensure that it fulfils its purpose; that it should be immediately legible. But, since it is a necessary adjunct to every town street—and indeed most streets are insufficiently labelled—it is also of importance that it should be an ornament to its locality, a pleasure to the inhabitant as well as a convenience to strangers.

Bad signage is not an ornament, a pleasure or a convenience. Both the city as well as the small business owners on Elizabeth Street have a vested interest in creating an area that feels safe, inviting and exciting, that references its cosmopolitan heritage. Paris, the largest tourist city in the world, has managed to do this beautifully by maintaining a comfortable distance from both cheesy, ‘ye olde’ signage and without advocating fascist rules that only value one aesthetic.

Shopfront signage defines our landscape more than other areas of graphic design because it is publicly experienced yet not disposable. We don’t choose to engage with it as we would a book or website. It is why the internet is rife with images of signs that are not just eyesores, but are grammatically incorrect, ironically misleading, or the device that diminishes an area’s reputation.

Unfortunately for everyone involved, the design of shopfront signage has been largely left to inexpensive sign making companies, thanks to the advent of cheap, vinyl lettering and lightbox “graphics.” Like so many other crafts that have been made obsolete by these “technologies,” we have abandoned the quality materials and craftsmanship that once made a streetscape noble. Stone carvers, gold gilt letterers, sign painters and makers of fabric awnings are mostly gone now, although the latter is still in use on well-regarded roads like North Melbourne’s Errol Street.

The truth is, loud and cheap signs are no longer the way to stand out, at least not in a positive way. Cheap and plentiful does not an interesting sign make. These days, business owners who value modest aesthetics are taking into consideration their surroundings when designing exteriors, and companies like Aesop are finding success with that approach. Conversely, Hotel Formule 1 is an inexpensive hotel chain that could benefit from the fact that its Elizabeth Street franchise is housed in a building whose exterior is posh and sophisticated, but that logic is abandoned in favor of brand consistency; the bright yellow and race car aesthetic prevails.

It’s not that retroactively punishing small businesses is the favored course of action, either. These observations are a call to the city as well as food-for-thought for the owners and inhabitants of buildings on Elizabeth Street. An initial investment in the creative minds of Melbourne designers could go a long way as we think to future goals. As a society disposability is itself being disposed of; longevity and sustainability are the order of the day.

1. McCoy, Katherine, ‘American Graphic Design Expression: The Evolution of American Typography’, Design Quarterly 149, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1990, pp. 3-22.
2. Gray, Nicolette, ‘Street Lettering’, Architectural Review, 1957 April / vol.121 / number 725.
3. Additional research: picturevictoria.vic.gov.au; auspost.com.au; wikipedia.org; typophile.com; walkingmelbourne.com

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