Uncovering The Secret History Of Street Signs

A projection mapping project celebrates a fading layer of our cities.


Look closely at your city, and vestiges of a former life start to come into focus. You might notice bricked-over doors and windows, the remnants of walls and staircases, or the faint traces of advertising once emblazoned on pre-billboard era buildings.


The latter is somewhat of an obsession for Portland-based experience designer Craig Winslow and London-based writer and urban explorer Sam Roberts. The two have independently sleuthed “ghostsigns” in their respective corners of the world. For the London Design Festival last month, they banded together to uncover a fleet in the Bankside district of the British capital.

Part app and part installation, the Light Capsules x Ghostsigns collaboration celebrates the artistry of hand-painted signs by recreating graphics and projecting them over the faded originals.

“The use of projection mapping thrives as the best medium with which to revive these because of the ability to bring focus to individual layers and history,” Winslow says. “I love the idea of using projected light to augment the world around us, and see how a wall we pass every day looked 100 years ago. Hopefully, it inspires others to get interested in the history of the world around them, become more present, and look at their surroundings differently.”

Light Capsule No. 011

Winslow originally came up with the idea to use projection mapping as a preservation technique during a road trip last year. While the London project is his most recent, he has also produced signs in Oregon, Ohio, Maine, and Vermont as part of a creative residency with Adobe.

To find the right signs to recreate in light, Winslow calls upon local experts and historians. (This is where Roberts–who combs through local archives and pores over archival photos to learn more about the companies advertised and the people who painted the signs–came in for the London project.) Winslow photographs the signs, which can be in various states of disrepair. Then he flattens the images in Photoshop and fills in the gaps in Illustrator, using whatever reference material he can get his hands on (like the images Roberts supplied). Next, he animates them in After Effects and maps them to a wall with MadMapper.

Cakebread Robey

Not all the old signs are good candidates for illumination. Roberts and Winslow tried to find ones that have a good story and a unique visual conceit. For example, a sign that read “Take Courage” was for Europe’s biggest brewery, which both Bismarck and Napoleon visited. In researching an advertisement for William Cockle & Co., Roberts learned the company produced wire mesh for “meat safes”–essentially cabinets that let people in the pre-refrigeration era leave their meat outside in the cold and protect it from animals. A sign for Barlow & Roberts was painted on long vertical boards at street level under a railway bridge and features a handful of different lettering styles. “It’s over 100 years old and, were it a piece of furniture or other piece of craftsmanship would be considered an antique,” Roberts says.

Roberts is motivated in part by historic preservation and raising awareness and appreciation of old painted advertising. “In particular I would like the owners of host buildings to recognize the history that they have on their walls and keep it in situ, rather than painting over it or in other ways destroying it,” he says.

Winslow echoes similar sentiments. “I’m all about using new technology in interesting and meaningful ways,” he says. “In a world where most new technology is becoming more invasive and isolating, these light installations get people out to a physical location to share an experience with others. The internet is an amazing place, but it’s been fantastic to see people connecting and talking in real life.”

While the projection mapping installation has concluded, you can see images in the slide show above and learn more about London Ghostsigns on Roberts’s app or walking tours.

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.