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This Designer Is Saving Detroit’s Old-School Sign Typography By Turning It Into Fonts

As old businesses close and new ones move in, neighborhoods are losing their visual identities. But now they can have signs that stay true to the neighborhood’s roots.

On her commute home from work in Detroit, designer Jessica Krcmarik started to become obsessed with the old signs lining the main drag of Woodward Avenue–machine shops, dry cleaners, “you buy, we fry” cafes with sprawling fish murals.

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She started a photo archive, stopping whenever she discovered a new piece of hand lettering. But she also noticed that the typography was starting to disappear, replaced by plastic signs with standard fonts. “A lot of communities are kind of losing their visual culture, the more things get replaced with these very bland signs,” she says.

So now Krcmarik is working on something new. Using her collection of photos, she’s creating a set of new neighborhood-based fonts–and then giving them back to local business owners, who can use them to make signs inspired by the block’s original creativity.

As Detroit tries to clean itself up, the loss of old murals is accelerating. “We’re in the middle of what’s supposedly a giant graffiti cleanup campaign right now,” she says. “So the city will cover up a hand-painted sign or mural, or if your sign is older than five years, they’ll just go through with a paint roller and cover it up with a big block of beige paint.”

In the name of progress, most business owners opt for a new prefab plastic sign. Krcmarik, who had worked with a foundation to help make some new signs, realized that small businesses didn’t have a budget for much design work or custom signs.

“They pretty much use either system fonts or free ones, which end up looking okay, but they don’t look anything like the original area,” she says. “They don’t really have the personality of what had been there.”

Krcmarik looks for patterns in form or style in particular neighborhoods or blocks, and then works to create a hyperlocal font that will be offered at a pay-what-you-can rate back to local businesses.

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She’s raising funds for the project in a new Kickstarter campaign.

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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