Everything Changes – and Everything Stays the Same

6 October, 2022
Everything Changes – and Everything Stays the Same

By Gavin McMurray

In this “ever-changing world in which we’re livin’’, as Paul McCartney once sang, it’s easy to be overwhelmed and even downright depressed by the volume and speed of change that surrounds us.

Signs and sign making are undergoing the third major change I’ve seen during my 40 years in the industry. The first was back in the mid-80s, when CNC vinyl letter cutting machines – effectively robots – followed the long-established template created by the industrial revolution and made signwriters redundant by doing what they did faster and more accurately.

Then, in the late 90s, large format digital printing came along, meaning large one-off images that had long been the preserve of commercial artists, mural painters and the like were available with any image at almost any size and able to stick to an increasingly large number of substrates – another victory for the digital age.

Finally, in the early noughties, some wag invented the term digital signage, a phrase which is becoming increasingly hard to get away from, whether you’re walking down your local high street, at an event or travelling by road, rail or air. However, before we find ourselves going down a dystopian rabbit hole of “the world’s gone to hell and the robots are taking over”, imagining scenes from Bladerunner and The Hunger Games, let’s just take a pause to assess the reality of this change…

Signage has only ever been one thing – communication. Whether it is the displaying of information for your journey – ‘Londinium 200 CCXV mille passus’, the advertising of good or services – ‘Flagon of Mead – two groats’ – or warning trespassers of dire canine-related consequences, the message has always been at the core. The means of displaying it simply follows whatever suitable new tech is available; after all, signwriting replaced other means of displaying messages such as carving or hieroglyphics – it was the new tech of its day.

Proliferation or invasiveness has always been the issue, not the message or the medium. Digital billboards are no more invasive than analogue ones but understanding appropriate placement and scale are vital. Digital wayfinding and digital passenger information provide incredibly useful live information, letting customers make important choices in real time, which brings us back to core purpose – communication is the raison d’etre of signage.

Like most people, I prefer to see interesting, innovative use of display mediums. With digital that means perhaps using their flexibility to include local, national or regional themes and vary information according to day of the week, time of day, weather and season. In that context, it’s not hard to see the appeal and massively increased effectiveness of digital signage compared to analogue or static signage.

So, should we hang onto the old ways for their own sake, while denying ourselves the benefits of the latest technological innovations? Whilst this doesn’t seem to make much sense, let me offer a warming thought that those of us who find too much change unsettling can hold onto:

After the advent of vinyl letter cutting machines, most signwriters – myself included – found themselves with skills that were much less in demand and therefore much less valuable. After a few years of everyone using the new sticky-back plastic letters, people started to miss the warmth and tactility of artisan produced signwriting – the individual, characterful and unique iterations of typefaces, the beautiful hand painted pub sign images, the blended shadows and gold leaf work. So, cue the resurgence in demand for signwriting, one which is gathering pace and popularity as people seek out authenticity and something that is very evidently human rather than digital. Perhaps, in a few years, people will yearn for “good old” billboard posters where digital is not essential for good comms. There is always the inevitable rush towards new tech that leads to over-use and inappropriate use, but experience has shown that it will always rebalance given time.

The net result of innovations like these is that we end up with incredibly useful new mediums such as digital signage in addition to, not instead of, the old ways, giving us a richness of choice and richness of experience. I’ll take that over no change any day of the week, in this ever-changing world in which we’re livin’.