Vernacular Typography is a project that identifies, documents, and preserves elements of the visual environment that are increasingly endangered by the homogenizing influences of globalization.
For hundreds of years, artisans and signmakers have designed and fabricated architectural and advertising signage grounded in the local visual culture of the cities and regions in which they were produced. As retail has become more and more global in reach, the visual environments in many world cities have become indistinguishably uniform. As a result, the craft of vernacular signmaking and design has been all but erased.
Over the past 15 years, I’ve assembled a growing visual archive of these vanishing examples of vernacular lettering and streetscape elements. This archive (currently accessible as the website vernaculartypography.com) contains over 10,000 images of found typography from countries all over the world, including: Argentina, Canada, Chile, Cuba, England, France, Germany, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Spain, and the United States. Contributions to Vernacular Typography will allow the project to expand to new cities, and incorporate new elements into the project (printed matter, interactive maps, video shorts, interviews with signmakers, etc) that are vital to the preservation of visual communication in the built environment.
Typography is an important form of urban communication, significant not only for its aesthetic appeal, but because of its ethnographic importance as a marker of regional identity, its way of creating and preserving a sense of place, and its role as a symbol of local culture and history. The accelerating pace of the loss of these vital cultural symbols makes it critical to move beyond documentation alone, and to emphasize the preservation and active encouragement of this dying craft.
Vernacular Typography is therefore a collaborative effort with local typographers and signmakers to document, map, and preserve these fragile remaining examples of a representative cultural art form that is being swept away by the uniformity of corporate advertising, which ignores and subverts local history and tradition. The project will expand to document the historical sign cultures in additional territories in Australia, Mexico, Hong Kong, and the US where there are still cities and towns that retain their rich traditions of vernacular signage, most notably in the large population centers like Mexico City, Oaxaca, Kowloon, New Orleans, Melbourne, and Sydney, and in smaller, fringe communities, like Tuxtla Gutiérrez and Alice Springs.
There are formal studies of regional typography, but what is unique and exciting about studying vernacular typography in situ is the possibility of discovering and preserving regional typographic forms in concert with the people who can most profit from and recognize these forms.
The goal of this project is to create an awareness within these areas of their own unique typographic heritage, encourage the preservation of these significant and irreplaceable cultural symbols, and to promote them outside of their local communities.
Vernacular Typography Website
Vernacular Typography Blog