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HAND-Painted Signs of India

DB: The tools I use as a designer are digital in nature, but I've always envied the art directors who worked in the Golden Age when a drawing table and pencils were your primary tools for production rather than a mouse and a computer screen. Sign painting is one of the many arts that have died with the advent of the era of desktop publishing. These large, hand-painted ads used to be ubiquitous in the U.S., covering the sides of buildings in cities of all sizes. As digital printing on vinyl became a cheaper alternative, painted signs literally faded away as they passed out of use.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that painted signs are still so ubiquitous in India. Every small town and every populated stretch of highway had fences, walls or buildings covered with painted signage. What I saw most were long stretches of brick fences painted with ads for products ranging from building materials like concrete and steel to consumer goods like sarees and musical instruments.

PK: To me, these hand painted signs highlight good typography because they follow classic design rules. Through the use of color, a mix of typefaces and good use of negative space, the sign painters create impactful typography that is clean, simple and to the point.

Too often in today's digital age, it is easy for anyone to sit down and set type even if they haven't learned the principles of design. For example, by default most digital typefaces require manual kerning especially at large sizes. It is not an automatic process and most designers are trained to make these adjustments. It is evident when you look at these signs that the artists are consciously applying principles of design as they paint.

A non designer might question why typography matters. The choice of a font can either enhance your brand or diminish it. It can subconsciously influence a buyer's decision when considering a purchase. In extreme cases, bad typography could make life saving instructions difficult to read and understand.

DB: Out of home advertising like this is difficult and has additional challenges like keeping copy short. Not every sign we saw was successful in its approach to typography and content, but what consistently attracted me to these signs was the aesthetic beauty that resulted from good typography. That beauty offers an additional aesthetic argument for following good practices.


As a fluid material, paint works its way into a substrate's nooks and crannies. It clings and becomes part of its environment in a way vinyl can't. Typically, vinyl has to be adhered to a smooth surface. It bubbles, cracks and peels, even with the best surface preparation. Paint only requires a clean surface free of dirt and grease.

The more textured the surface, the less of a fit it is for vinyl. Paint, however, embraces its substrate, becoming a second skin and taking on the form of what it's covering. It becomes part of its environment, its colors warmer and more natural because of the way light interacts with it on an irregular surface.



Nothing is permanent, though, including these painted signs. But the difference is in how they age. While vinyl fades and pales relatively quickly and uniformly where light has touched it, paint holds its colors longer. Paint is eventually worn away by the same water and wind that erode the brick and wood it covers, but the process is a longer and more organic one than that which vinyl undergoes. There's a beauty in the way these signs age as they surrender to the elements and the surface beneath begins to revert to its original, unpainted state. Something new and abstract is created.

In the 2014 documentary Sign Painters that focuses on the art in U.S., one of the painters sums up the idea of these signs decaying into art.

"Old signs become art. I want to make signs that turn into art."

"Old signs become art. I want to make signs that turn into art."

Searching Instagram with hashtags like #ghostsign, #fadedsigns or #signgeeks will show how much these fading works of art are appreciated. In a time before digital fonts and software that made it easy to adjust kerning, leading and color, these artists produced beautiful typography that rivals much of the work being done today with these tools.

Unfortunately, more than the weather ever could, technology is causing this art form to fade away. It's cheaper and faster to print on vinyl, so many of these sign painters in India (as it previously happened in the U.S.) are being driven out of business. Obviously, the personal loss of income for these painters is the real tragedy, but the loss of the art form is a loss for design culture as whole.


Watch a couple of videos about the disappearing art of sign painting in India.

Manish Kumar, Indian sign-painter

Sign of the times: what is to become of India's hand-painted signs?

Sign Painters documentary home page. This is focused on the U.S.

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