Accidental Type Tales

Look at Instagram and you’ll discover a growing interest by designers in unique typefaces, which have been changed or created by time or the weather. Mark Sinclair investigates the trend for CR

In November last year, British author and naturalist Helen Macdonald tweeted a picture of a ‘no parking’ sign, along with the caption: “But what do you MOST want from life, Helen? A font based on the letters of this eroded sign.” The sign’s lettering is incredible; the white ­vinyl background having peeled away from the outlines of its newly defined black letters, presu­mably the result of years of exposure to the elements.

Aside from its immediate visual impact, one of the most remarkable things about the sign (particularly if you’re a fan of type design) is that it documents a transformative process: the weather has altered the letters – or more accurately their surrounding white space – and generated an entirely different font. The words on the sign are still legible (the As and Ns even make the same shapes with some regularity) and the message now reveals itself through a new, unintended voice.

Some Twitter users responded to Macdonald’s original tweet with their own examples of weathered signage, many remarking that these instances of sun-bleached and rain-worn vinyl often result in a goth or metal-like typeface. I was reminded of a photo I’d taken the month before while on holiday in France and scrolled through my phone pictures to find the image of the oddly written sign I’d seen on a small door on the side of a cathedral. This time it was the spindly letters that were peeling away from the sign.

The ‘no parking’ sign discovered by Helen McDonald and shared on Twitter
A sign on a cathedral door in France, photographed by Mark Sinclair

Many collectors of antiques have a soft spot for patina and various lived-in qualities speci­fic to certain objects. In vintage watches, for example, ‘tropicalisation’ refers to the change in colour of the watch face due to chemical reactions and sun exposure – and can markedly increase an item’s value, more so even than a restored version of the same timepiece. Worn, antique denim is also highly sought after by those in the know.

While faded street lettering and historic ‘ghost signs’ remain the subject of several fan websites, can the same level of appreciation be applied to more contemporary examples of street signage, out there in the world, working up against the slick, uniform clutter of everyday branding? And if so, why are we attracted to these specific kinds of type, battered and beaten by the weather, where new forms can seemingly evolve? What is it that makes these images so compelling?