Autumn 2005

Religion’s universal message (board)

World religions put their faith in the standard quarter-inch grooved changeable letter board

There may or may not be one all-knowing god, but there is one universal message board for all the world’s religions – at least in a 30-block radius of my home in lower Manhattan, where there is one house of worship on every other block.

Regardless of denomination, whether Catholic, Russian Orthodox, Jewish, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Pentecostal, Moslem or Bahá’í Faith, each church, temple and synagogue in this sample has put its faith in the standard quarter-inch grooved changeable or open face letter board.

While the height and width may vary, and the message content present different homilies and greetings, the basic board adheres to a guiding, non-denominational principle: that information must be clear and legible from ten feet away.

The universality of these boards is not exactly a tip of the mitre or yarmulke to Ecumenism (although many signs beckon ‘All Welcome’) but rather a practical acceptance of functionalism. ‘When you need to communicate information that changes regularly,’ states the Ghent signboard brochure, ‘open face letter boards are perfect for you! These quick-change artists let you create signs easily.’

While most of the rectors I asked prefer black backgrounds to jazzier hues, there was scant consensus on what is the best typeface of the three basic plastic type options – Gothic Style, Roman Style, and Helvetica Style – available in standard 300 character assortments. Most used caps, though lower-case is offered.

Helvetica may get its own style classification apart from Gothic, as a nod to the evangelical power of Swiss Modernism. But the majority of the Roman Catholic (and Protestant) churches use Roman, while the synagogues prefer Gothic. Only the Bahá’í faith uses the curiously bastardised Helvetica typeface. And only the First Presbyterian Church on Fifth Avenue, an acknowledged beacon of enlightenment, mixed Gothic and Roman.

Steven Heller, design writer, New York

First published in Eye no. 57 vol. 15.


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