Art takes a look at the art of sign painting, the brotherhood, that first appeared on the frescoes of Pompeii…
Art Chantry. firstname.lastname@example.org
Sign painters are the secret brotherhood of graphic design. Before they had ‘graphic design’, before they had ‘commercial art’ or ‘illustration.’ before they even had printing presses (i imagine even before the written word) there were guys who painted signs. When they uncovered Pompeii and Herculaneum, they found beautiful letteri…ng applied on the walls – they were billboards! the Romans sign painters had a flourishing biz applying “eat at joeseppi’s” on the walls of the cities and towns!
This is where modern graphic design truly began. well, if you don’t include those neolithic cave paintings – which were not decorative art at all, but magic sign paintings. Those magic pictures were even ‘tossed out’ like beer cans after their use. That’s why they are layered. actual fore-shortened perspective wasn’t ‘invented’ for another 10,000 years. as long as actual need for a functional visual message has been needed by mankind, there have been (what we no call) ‘graphic designers’. But, for most of their existence they were called ‘sign painters.
It has traditionally been a art form taught through apprenticeship. There have always been young upstarts who simply go out an teach themselves. But, most commonly, it was taught by hooking up and working for an old master sign painter as an assistant and learning “how to.” in this way, grand traditions of functional letter designs emerged and continue today. This information was handed down and demonstrated and survived because it worked so well. It’s a very pragmatic art form, but not without a certain personal ‘style’ becoming a sales technique. The more appealing the sign, the better the response. Thus was born ‘marketing.’ Out of this marketing came the wonders of advertising.
In more recent eras, sign painting became unionized – crafts guilds, actually. they were important contributors to the development of the union movement on the world stage (who do you think made all those picket signs?) a lot of these guilds published small membership trade magazines (this was after they finally invented the printing press). These magazines flourished and became art magazines. Out of these groups the first professional organizations and ‘commercial art’ and design concept houses and business art structure emerged as well. The entire design world structure – right down to award shows – was copied on the sign painter model.
Later, entrepreneurial hustling sign painters began to create instruction manuals and mail order courses to make some extra money.They sold these courses in the back pages of both crafts and trade magazines. Out of this came actual structured art and design schools and programs – almost exclusively taught originally through mail order. During hard times, itinerant sign painters could always find work. The result was that a legion of mail order school self-taught sign painters plied their trade as they hobo-ed around america. This created networks and further exposed American culture to the art and craft of marketing. Advertising and design. Everybody needs a sign, right? In fact, that is how Woody Guthrie supported himself as he rode the rails and collected songs.
After the depression and the second world war, the new flourishing economy, flush with refugees with European thinking, decided to create an official theory of “commercial art” and it’s history. Because they felt they needed to sell themselves (always the graphic designer’s very first priority – sales), they upscaled their market goals (following the money) and went after the emerging corporate giants. The most common and populist of art forms became the ‘decoration’ of corporate America. It was literally cleaned up, packaged as ‘graphic design’ and sold to them by the likes of ambitious egomaniacs like Paul Rand. In fact, Rand wanted to call the discipline ‘art for industry.’ thank god that didn’t stick.
But, now that the computer has firmly thrust the design medium back into the hands of the common folks (literally anybody can buy a program and become a functioning designer within two weeks time), the rug has been yanked out from under the corporate betrayal design world power structure as institutionalized in America.It’s been fun watching all those arrogant academics fight tooth and nail to hold on to their positions – all the while their self-aggrandizing superior affirming beliefs crumble around them. It couldn’t happen to a nicer bunch, ya know?
The populism of the computers has removed the elitism of design from the hands
those who previously controlled it for the last half-century. It’s going back into the eager hands of any hustler with ambition and even the most primitive skills. Out of this new populism will again emerge a structure like one that was developed by the sign painters brotherhoods of the distant past. A system that will evolve almost entirely on it’s own along human principles for fair play and even competition. It’s going to be fun to watch.