Facade signage is one of a building’s most prominent and visible features. And yet it’s frequently the part executed with the least skill and care. If we want architecture that better communicates with the public realm in which it sits, type needs to be recognised as a small but integral element in the making of good buildings.
Hepworth Wakefield gallery, David Chipperfield Architects. Facade branding and custom typeface by A Practice For Everyday Life 
The making and use of letters was once a standard part of architectural education, and a number of architects have made significant contributions to typography in their own right.
If every building tells a story, the lettering on its facade is the opening sentence. It’s the street number that tells you you’ve arrived at the correct place, the badge of authority on a headquarters, the epigraph that announces the LIBRARY, HOSPITAL, or COURTHOUSE. Facade signage provides a semiotic main entrance for users and passers-by, and is one of a building’s most prominent and visible features. And yet it’s frequently the part executed with the least skill and care. Exiled to the limbo of provisional costs, epigraphs and facade signs are usually dashed off by juniors or cranked out in-house at signage fabricators and slapped onto the completed building like a sticker. Often a building’s designers have no say in how it’s signed. And often, it shows.
It wasn’t always this way. The making and use of letters was once a standard part of architectural education, and a number of architects have made significant contributions to typography in their own right. Bertram Goodhue’s Cheltenham was one of the most popular typefaces of the early twentieth century. Peter Behrens treated architecture, industrial design, and graphic design as strands of a single gesamtkunstwerk, and the Behrensschrift he used for AEG is widely considered the first branding font. Frank Lloyd Wright, Arne Jacobsen, and Charles Rennie Mackintosh all developed distinctive letterforms that could operate as harmonious components of their work. And the iconic stacked facade letters of the Dessau Bauhaus were created by Gropius’s fellow architect Herbert Bayer.
This is not a Trad Guy plea for more Sainsbury Wing-style lapidary inscriptions (brilliant as Michael Harvey's lettercarving was) or a typographer’s special pleading for more prominent letters. (If anything, poorly designed facade signs are usually too shouty.) It’s a plea for recognition of type as a small but integral element in the making of good buildings. If architects are no longer trained to use letters, perhaps they should collaborate with people who are: sympathetic practitioners who understand how they can contribute to and support a building’s aims. While a few budgets allow for extensive typographic systems and even bespoke typefaces, for most jobs the fees charged by competent typographers are less than the costs of fabrication. For commercial clients, a building may be the most expensive brand statement they'll ever make; it's worth it to set aside a few quid to see that brand is properly represented. And when the budget only allows for off-the-shelf signage solutions, a trained typographer can help ensure these are chosen well and applied appropriately. What’s wanted is not a bigger role for letters in architecture, but a more considered one.
If architects are no longer trained to use letters, perhaps they should collaborate with people who are: sympathetic practitioners who understand how they can contribute to and support a building’s aims.
Present Tense is an article series aimed at uncovering perspectives and opinions from experts in their respective fields on the key issues/opportunities facing Ireland's built environment. For all enquiries and potential contributors, please contact email@example.com.
Present Tense is supported by the Arts Council through the Architecture Project Award Round 2 2022.
1. Source: A Practice for Everyday Life.
2. Source: St Peter's Basilica and Love in the City of Lights.
3. Source: Pentagram and Wallpaper.
New York-born, Dublin-based Max Phillips is the proprietor of the Signal Type Foundry, which specialises in type design and applied typography. A former novelist and toy designer, he now makes useful, attractive things for clients like An Post, Arnott's, Bewley's, Christie’s, FAO Schwarz, and Trinity College Dublin, and collaborates with studios in Ireland and abroad. His work has been recognised by, among others, the Type Directors Club of New York, Communication Arts, Graphis, the International Society of Typographic Designers, ICAD, and the 100 Archive.
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