Winter 2003

Spinning Tales about Signs

Signs: Lettering in the Environment

By Phil Baines and Catherine Dixon
Laurence King, £25

Signs is a welcome addition to a small but important group of books and articles about lettering in public places, often associated with architecture but also, as here, with a far wider range of contexts in city, town and country. Several of the best of these are now considerably old, published roughly between 1960 and 1980 by Alan Bartram (Lettering in Architecture), Nicolete Gray (Lettering on Buildings), Jock Kinnear (Words and Buildings) and in the pages of Typographica and Motif.

In most cases, their shared approach – and one updated by Baines and Dixon – is not didactic or ‘how to’. It is better described as survey-like: a diverse body of in situ photographs carefully delineated and expertly explained. The authors instruct, but implicitly. More directly, they celebrate or take to task, but with a purpose: to guide and inspire good work now, in an area of design that these days is often best described as merely a lost opportunity . . .

Signs is both an exemplary general introduction to signs and lettering in public places, and a lively record of the authors’ travels to document this ever-changing scene. It is another encouraging instance of how skilful graphic designers who are also well informed writers can make books that speak in richly integrated ways.