Alphabet Road Trip | the blog of Iskra Design

Category: Signs I Like

Vintage Sign on a Country Barn: De-evolution of a Brand

It’s summertime, and the bloggers get lazy. I haven’t posted anything in the Signs I Like department for a long time. I’ve been too busy in the studio to go on scouting missions. But I got out into the country last weekend, and the barn up the hill that I always loved as a child is unchanged and as photogenic as ever. Well, perhaps slightly more rustic, but thankfully “unimproved.” I had never noticed this sign before. It has grown very beautiful with the passage of time, and seems to express the essence of summer to me:


Surge Vintage Lettering Sign


Check out that crazy S and the g confidently heading out to dive into the swimming hole. As a civilian walking along a country road I would have no idea what this sign was about. In fact I thought it was an advertisement for a fizzy drink in a glass bottle that you might hold up to the sun while rafting down the Green River. But what it actually says is “Cleaner Milk, Faster Milking” and it advertises Surge milking equipment. You can see the sign and a terrific array of vintage signage and products by this company at the Surgemilker website. This page shows the evolution of the brand from 1916 to 2013. Quite an education in design without focus groups. I can just imagine the ad guys sitting around and talking about the masculine and feminine attributes and just how they should be reflected in the serifs. “Well, they are female cows. And the main buyers of milk are women.” “But who is actually buying the milker? Is it Mrs. Farmer or Mr.?” And so forth.

Because I can see from online research that this sign might be quite valuable and I wouldn’t want to encourage a tresspasser I will only say it is on a barn on a hill and it is bathed in the golden light of memory with a large snowy mountain behind it. It looks a little bit like this:


Barn Siding photo © Iskra Design


Signs I Like is a collection of sign photographs by myself and friends who treasure the quirky and the time-worn and the history typography tells us if we stop to look. All photographs © Iskra Design or the otherwise credited photographer.


A New Movie About Sign Painters (!)

Signpainters, the Moive

I can't wait to see this movie. The above image is not live, so do visit the vimeo page. Here is a description of the movie from the movie trailer page:

"This the official trailer for SIGN PAINTERS a documentary by Faythe Levine & Sam Macon. For information regarding screenings, and other news please visit

About the project…

There was a time, as recently as the 1980s, when storefronts, murals, banners, barn signs, billboards, and even street signs were all hand-lettered with brush and paint. But, like many skilled trades, the sign industry has been overrun by the techno-fueled promise of quicker and cheaper. The resulting proliferation of computer-designed, die-cut vinyl lettering and inkjet printers has ushered a creeping sameness into our landscape. Fortunately, there is a growing trend to seek out traditional sign painters and a renaissance in the trade.

In 2010 Directors Faythe Levine and Sam Macon, with Cinematographer Travis Auclair, began documenting these dedicated practitioners, their time-honored methods, and their appreciation for quality and craftsmanship. Sign Painters, the first anecdotal history of the craft, features the stories of more than two dozen sign painters working in cities throughout the United States. The documentary and book profiles sign painters young and old, from the new vanguard working solo to collaborative shops such as San Francisco’s New Bohemia Signs and New York’s Colossal Media’s Sky High Murals.

The book published by Princeton Architectural Press in November 2012 features a foreword by legendary artist (and former sign painter) Ed Ruscha. We encourage you to pick up a copy at your local book shop, or directly from Princeton Architectural Press –"

“Chalk Gothic” Sidewalk Calligraphy

From Monica Cavagnaro, Chalk calligraphy outside Seattle's Volunteer Park Asian Art Musem

I would love to know who did this. So nice to see formal lettering applied in every day life. Did they copy from a book? Was this done by a Real Calligrapher? Chalk writing is unforgiving, very hard to erase on concrete. Three cheers for Nikki!

Turn Right: Quirky leading, and a possible sign of the times….

I caught this from the car window on a recent trip to the Palouse, and can't help but admire the problem-solving here. There are many ways to consider the perameters of a rectangle, as well as the integration of graphic symbols with letterforms. Placement of the flag is purely incidental. Always good to know what country you're in.

© Iskra Johnson

The Seattle Times Logo, Well Weathered Gothic

"Signs I Like" has been on a long vacation. But today I saw something I could not resist outside the Lighthouse coffee shop. I did the lettering for the Seattle Times masthead about twelve years ago, in association with Landor Seattle. Coincidentally the logo was featured in Logo Reviews a few days ago. The true test of a logo is how well does it stand the test of time? Here it is on a newspaper kiosk, rotated so you can compare it with the way it is used in the paper. I had nothing against that eagle, but I do like how abstract (and even more Gothic) this becomes without it. Perhaps someone liked it so much they tore it out to sew on their jeans:


My task was to look at every other Gothic newspaper masthead in America and come up with a subtle, very legible, fresh variation. Here is the before and after:


(I do not know who did the eagle, so unfortunately I can't credit them here.)

Masthead typography is uniquely challenging. Gothic is by its nature very difficult to read. It may look traditional and authoritative, but it is based on a completely zen principle: the space between letters and that magical yin/yang balance of darkness and light. This was a dream project. My father was publisher for eight years of the paper he started, The Auburn Citizen, which also had a Gothic masthead. This assignment connected me back through time to the long tradition of the small- town newspaper and work in the original public sphere. Websites, as convenient and up-to-the-minute as they are, do not age well; we will never admire their distressed and curling edges or how the wind transformed their serifs.

 See more typographic logotypes at Iskra Design.