How has retailers’ love for hand-painted signs evolved over the years, and why are we now seeing a resurgence in hand-painted signs across UK high streets?
Hand-painted signs were the mainstay for retailer signage and wayfinding before computerised design and printing took over in the 1980s. You can still see many of these original and striking hand-painted signs as ghost signs, if you look up above shopfronts along high streets.
But when computer printing came in, this rapidly became a new way to produce signage cheaply and quickly. Today it’s still cheaper to print signs, but the quality that you get with hand-painted signs isn’t there.
What makes painted signs so special is their hand-crafted nature, and this is why businesses are now moving back to them. They offer businesses the ability to present a unique experience and brand within a store or venue. Having hand-crafted signs sets brands apart from the regular high street and offers more creative freedom.
People want their space to look and feel unique, and that’s why there’s now a resurgence.
What is it that hand-painted signs can offer retailers from a branding perspective, that printed signs cannot?
With so many brands out there, and so much competition, businesses are increasingly looking for quality and craftmanship that can help make them stand out. You just don’t get that from printed signs, as those offering printed signs aren’t necessarily designers.
When you hire an artist to hand paint signs, you are also hiring a designer, so as a small business you can work with them to help shape and define your unique brand identity.
We are literally there on site making the designs work with the space and the wider feel of the shop or venue. We think about how people will move around and through the space and design the signs accordingly. We are also working alongside the brand so we get to know them inside and out. We make the signage beautiful but also practical – you don’t get that in the same way with printed signs.
When it comes to evolving designs – such as adding wayfinding elements – with hand-painted signs you can also just add in the extra element, rather than having to go back and reprint your whole sign.
Lastly, people have also become more aware of the use of plastic in signs and the fact that printed signs are not sustainable. Hand painting isn’t perfect, but there is a big push now to move towards more eco-friendly and vegan products.
What types of retailers and leisure operators are now turning to hand-painted signage?
Pubs never really left hand-painted signs. This is because they do refurbishments every five years or so and just put another coat of paint on the fascia. They are quite traditional and hand-painted signs help to create a more homely feel, whilst being very versatile.
It’s great for indies who really want to be able to show their point of difference. Cafes, restaurants and craft beer shops are increasingly turning to hand painting too – these are businesses that are quite creative and understand the value of the craft. This also includes street food vendors, who open and close a lot of venues and often call on sign painters to repeat the branding for each new venture, but tweak it to make it bespoke to each venue.
Mini chains, like The Stable restaurants, are really picking up on it now too as it helps them to stand out as a brand from larger competition and offer a unique feel.
But bigger companies like Marks & Spencer are also starting to use them. M&S has had a decorative mural painted on concrete in one of its stores, to make a feature within the store, while Pret has also been using hand-painted signs inside its store for a few years. Starbucks and KFC are also doing this.
A lot of brands start inside painting onto bricks. Pret did this and is now putting different hand-painted fascia onto special concept stores, as they want these stores to feel unique.
How are sign painters using the traditions of the artform and mixing this with technology available today?
We study ghost signs – times change, and fashions change, but the layouts don’t change. Brands back then didn’t have such established logos and guidelines, so painters had a lot more freedom. Most ghost signs were in simple blue, black and white and were painted six bricks high so artists didn’t have to use a spirit level. They would draw onto the bricks and then paint it.
But now with tech we can generate any style of lettering or hand-draw it and then print stencils and templates to be able to create and then paint designs to perfectly match a brand’s needs on any scale. It’s about finding a good balance between using the tech available but retaining the artistry.
It’s important to use tech but not to the detriment of the look and feel of a sign. We want to use it to make it more economic, so more affordable and scalable for businesses. This is the way to make something high quality but affordable.
What impact can hand-painted signs have on a retail district in terms of placemaking?
It helps to lift an area. Look at Balham and Wandsworth for example, everything feels a bit softer when you walk down the street. You look at the shops and feel they take more pride in what they do.
Weymouth is another great example – if you look around the town everything has its own feel. It creates a unique sense of place for an area and makes it exciting to walk around. You can see a lot of different styles of painting that are all unique.
Do you think that we will see increasing numbers of retailers now turning to hand-painted signs and why?
I hope so! During downturns retailers do tend to invest in the stores they keep, to keep them fresh and to make them standout as more exciting versions of their brands that are more interesting for shoppers.
Our work advertises itself – if one store does it, others want to follow in that same area, so you get a ripple effect and the artform gradually spreads.
I have been painting signs for 10 years now and there’s so much more of it about now. With the desire for unique brands, I’m confident it will keep growing.
You can find out more about Archie’s hand-painted signs, here: https://www.irregularsigns.com/
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