American Sign Museum Opens in Cincinnati

Signs are informative. Signs are necessary. And, signs are a form of art. Much like other art forms, signs can be dazzling, pretty, humorous, evocative, friendly, trendy, and mood setting. Signs can even be harsh or rude, depending on the intended message.

Art production, a creative endeavor, combines imagination with reproduction skills. So does the production of signs – ask any sign designer. You will find hundreds of examples of this art form in the American Sign Museum, which held a preview opening October 2005 in Cincinnati.

Dazzling displays
The American Sign Museum is part circus, part preservation hall for vintage commercial signage, according to Tod Swormstedt, the museum’s founder. “The purpose of the museum is to preserve, archive and display an historical collection of signs in their many types and forms, ” he says. These include painted signs from the turn of the century to early illuminated signs to neon creations from the 1960s.

“One of the goals of the museum is to project and celebrate the rich tradition of signs as American icons to those outside the sign industry, ” Swormstedt explains. The museum currently has approximately 80 signs on display; most have been restored, and others are awaiting restoration. The museum has many other signs in storage that may eventually go on exhibition.

The museum’s centerpiece, and the display that truly presents the artistic side of American signage, is the popular Signs on Main Street exhibit Sponsored by the International Sign Association, the exhibit features life-size storefronts that represent various types of businesses during different decades in the first half of the 1900s. These include a 1910 cafe, a 1920s-era shoe store, a gas station from 1932, and a 1940s drug store. Each of the storefronts is festooned with various examples of vintage signs typical of their eras.

“You see in these displays a very definite artistic bent, ” Swormstedt says. “You see signs as applied art. It may be commercial art, as opposed to fine art, but it’s art nonetheless. l think of the difference between commercial and fine art as how many dollar signs are attached to it. ”

The line between commercial art and fine art “evaporates with time, ” he says. “You find a lot of yesterday’s commercial art hanging in today’s fine-art museums. Andy Warhol created commercial art that is considered legitimate art. And the reverse is certainly true. There have been many instances where objects of fine art have been used commercially.”

Although signs may be considered “everyday art, ” designing a commercial sign often requires more thought than creating a piece of fine art, Swormstedt says. “Signs do more than evoke recognition or desire for a product. They have to carry a message – the name of a business, a promotional pitch.

“The artist has to work within the constraints of cost and practicality, ” he says. “I think it’s harder to produce good commercial art than it is to create fine art, which typically has none of these limitations. Fine artists have no idea how to create for fabrication. In commercial art, you have the customer’s specs to consider. Designing an artistic sign is not a pretty picture.”

A work of art can not only evoke emotion and desire, but also make a lasting impression on the viewer. Signs can do those same things. “The best signs make a lasting impression in a few moments, ” Swormstedt says.

“They fix a succinct image in your mind that you can easily recall. The best in fine art does the same thing. One of the differences is that, with !igns, you’re always projecting a positive image; in art, the image isn’t always positive. Fine art can be dark. ”

Everyday art
Many people do consider certain types of signage to be art. Bill Griffith, creator of a popular daily syndicated newspaper comic strip, is fascinated by vintage signage. His comic strip often features realistic drawings of old and unique signs that still adorn the roadsides of America.

“Signs are street art, ” Griffith says, “the kind of art people see every day. The intent of the sign may be strictly commercial, but that doesn’t make it any less an object of art. It doesn’t matter whether someone can distinguish between a Henry Moore sculpture and a Bob’s Big Boy sign. There’s a charm and power in them both. ”

Modern signmakers are now creating what will be the vintage signage of the future, Griffith says. “Just walk down the strip in Las Vegas today, ” he says. “The signs you see are just as crazy as anything they had in the past. Although the signs in Times Square are different from the ones in the 1940s and ’50s, they still have that quality of being able to knock your eye out. These are the vintage signs of the future. You can see tomorrow’s legendary signs today in the theme parks in Orlando.

“Whether you like it or not, signs are the image of America, ” Griffith explains. “lt’s an expression of capitalism’s constant advertising. In reality, that’s what America is all about. Without signs, America wouldn’t function. Everybody’s selling to everyone else. It’s the American way, and signs are a natural expression of our culture. ”

At the drawing board
Although many people may consider signs to be art, some people feel the need to qualify the term. “It’s certainly commercial art, ” says Sheena Gibbs, a sign designer for the Pattison Sign Group in Vancouver, British Columbia. Gibbs, a sign designer for 23 years, won first prize, professional division, in ISA’s 2004 Sign Design Competition.

Good commercial art presents “the right mix of message and attitude,” Gibbs says. “You know it’s good when the sign contains aspects that trigger an emotional response in people. ”

Many artistic elements go into designing good commercial art, she says. Elements such as typefaces, color and contrast “work together subliminally to present an attitude. Graphic elements can be superfluous or integral to the message you want to convey. Graphic elements that integrate your message make the best commercial art. ”

Computers have also been a boon to sign-design artists, when they are used skillfully, Gibbs says. “If you use a computer to fill in, say, blades of grass or to create shadow, that’s smart, and labor saving,” she says. “A computer can free you up if you use it correctly as a tool, like a pencil. You can cover a lot of the picky details of designing.”

The technical requirements of sign manufacturing and safety often hinder good commercial art, she says. “Technical restrictions often limit the artistic boundaries of a work. You have to balance the artist in you with the draftsman in you,” she says.

Working artists
If signs can be considered art, can sign designers be considered artists? “Absolutely!” says former ISA Board member Wayne Burton, president, Burton Electric Signs, Inc., Mount Airy, NC. “Sign designers are true artists. I see it in their work; I see it in competition.” Burton was chairman of ISA’s annual Sign Design Competition.

Each year, ISA held its Sign Design Competition, which asks sign designers to create signage for fictional businesses, such as miniature golf or airline ticket counters, and judges the entries based on creativity and how well the design holds to the sign specifications.

“The entries I see every year are truly artistic,” Burton says. “You can see it in the way they integrate colors and shapes, trees, plants, grass  — all the things that can turn a flat drawing into a realistic, inviting representation. And they do it with an eye toward fabrication. Can the sign be built safely and cost effectively?”

Sign designers are artists who know how to creatively blend information with visual effect, Burton says. “lt’s not just the brilliant colors and shapes, ” he says. “lt’s the creative use of structure – the way they put signs at angles. It’s not all vertical or horizontal. I love to see what these artists come up with, having only a theme and a set of specs to work with.

“Most sign designers are artists in a traditional sense, ” Burton adds. “They want to create art for its own sake, but they can’t make a living doing it. Creating signs for a living lets them use their talent and skills, and they make money at it. ”

For more information about the American Sign Museum, visit


Photo credit: Jerry Huddleston

Wade Swormstedt

Wade Swormstedt

Wade is Executive Director of the Foundation for the Advancement of the Sign Industry. Formerly he was Editor and Publisher of Signs of the Times magazine.

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