Preserving local flavor with Vernacular Typography

One graphic designer's quest to counter the homogenizing effects of globalization with regional typographies.

Walk down any main street in America and more often than not, you’ll be met with the same few chain restaurants and stores, the same block of corporate advertisements and signs. Local character? That’s a thing of the past—and in its place is most likely a McDonald’s.

But graphic designer Molly Woodward is hoping to preserve at least one powerful marker of regional heritage: local typography.

The typographic fanatic has spent the last ten years documenting different letterings from all over the world. After amassing a collection of more than 5000 images, she put her photos online and called the project Vernacular Typography.

Sponsored by Artspire, a New York Foundation for the Arts program, Vernacular Typography aims to identify, document and preserve the visual elements so often endangered by globalization.

After learning about her project (h/t Cool Hunting), I reached out to Woodward to learn more. Here’s our exchange:

SmartPlanet: How did you become interested in typography and what gave you the idea for your project?

Molly Woodward: Growing up, I was always interested in handwriting and calligraphy but I guess the project really started when I was 14 and went to Cuba for the first time. I was completely obsessed with Cuban propaganda art, specifically the political billboards along the road and hand painted signs on buildings, so I photographed them. When I came back home to Brooklyn, I started noticing signs around here and began documenting those, too.

Studying graphic design in college, I was even more interested in typography, so I kept photographing found lettering. A few years ago, I realized I had thousands and thousands of photos of typography and no idea what to do with them, so I started the website and organized the photos into categories. That grew into a more formal idea for a preservation project to try to document and protect the beautiful signs and typography that seem to be disappearing from the landscape every single day.

SP: Why must local typography be protected?

Most big cities now have the same chains, and walking down the main street in any one of them can give you very little indication of where you are. Every city, village, or town has a unique typographic heritage, but it's being erased and replaced by global corporations and standardized signs. Typography is such a powerful marker of regional identity and has the ability to capture the local character of a particular time and place. If we let unique examples of lettering be replaced by standardized corporate advertising, our sense of place will be diminished, which is why it's so important to document and preserve these valuable cultural symbols.

SP: What is your end goal for the project?

The goal is to create an archive of as many images of vernacular lettering as possible, and map those examples so anybody can find them in person. I'm now trying to move beyond documentation alone and begin to work with local communities on the preservation of remaining signs, and the potential creation of new signs that continue the craft of beautiful environmental typography.

SP: Have people been responsive to your efforts?

The reaction to Vernacular Typography has been great. The site's been up for a few years now, but the project was just on Kickstarter, so it's gotten more attention through that. The site's also been listed in several college course syllabi, so it's been a surprise to see that a project I started as a personal image library with a definition that I just sort of made up is being cited as an academic resource.

Images: Vernacular Typography blog

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com