A Sign of the Times: The History of Sign Design

Since the dawn of mankind, regardless of location, customs or creed, one concept seemed to cross the widest continents and deepest oceans: signs. From ancient times to today, we have seen value in posting a visual, sometimes with writing, to convey ideas, warn of dangers or direct an audience that may otherwise pass by whatever the sign was crafted to showcase. It’s a simple concept, but one that’s quite easy to take for granted. Where does the history of sign design begin and what can this history tell us about the importance of modern signs?

A Historical Look at Sign Design

Some posit that the first signs mankind created were in the form of cave paintings. Though also a form of art and storytelling that predate the written word, a cave painting could illustrate nearby hunts (and what was on the menu) or the fact that another tribe had passed by at one time. Fast forwarding to ancient Greece and Rome, you will find something slightly more akin to what we’d recognize as a sign, with symbols carved into stone and terracotta stating whether the building they adorned was a store or bathhouse. As populations grew and cities and commerce continued to expand, commercial sign design evolved to keep up with the times. Around the Middle Ages, much of the population was illiterate. However, all could wrap their heads around simple images and trademarks that made obvious what a business offered. Pubs are some of the most interesting and iconic of such signs, starting a convention of naming watering holes after distinct images, which would be displayed just outside their doors. This tradition can be seen in pubs to this day, which are often named after memorable animals and objects (think “The Leaky Cauldron,” Harry Potter fans). In a way, a catchy name and distinct sign could act as an advertisement in itself, sticking to a passerby’s mind and reminding them to pop in for a pint. As you might imagine, with the continued growth and modernization of cities throughout time, some further refinement and differentiation were required to make a business stand out. Soon, sign design began to reflect brands’ needs to distinguish themselves from other vendors who may offer similar wares, which led to bigger, more ornate designs that reflected the quality of the businesses they adorned. It wasn’t until industrialization, the printing press and other modern technologies that signs became feasible to easily reproduce and become what we know them as today. Though we may not chisel stone or paint on cave walls, the fact that humanity seems to be programmed to digest imagery, symbols and words proves that business signage isn’t going away anytime soon. It may change with the times, but it will just be another interpretation of something we’ve done for millennia. If you’re looking for help designing or producing a sign for your business, contact us today. Though we’re fresh out of terracotta and cave paint, we do have the modern sign design solutions you’re looking for to make an impression and share your brand with new and returning customers.