On a recent Tuesday evening, I followed Sarah Hyndman around Dalston, one of London’s most creative and quickly gentrifying neighborhoods. Her so-called Dalston Type Safari didn’t sound like the most exotic endeavor, to this local, at least. It resembled a safari only insofar as we roamed among native creatures, some growling to themselves, and kept alert for dangerous beasts of the wheeled variety.
Yet Hyndman, author of Why Fonts Matter and an expert on the psychology of typefaces, came armed with vast amounts of wisdom (and a tote stuffed with gummy treats, popcorn, and hand-pressed postcards, lending the trip a staycation vibe). I think we all came away as enlightened as if we’d been abroad and back.
Pausing before buildings with 500-year-old relief, 200-year-old engravings, and a century of fonts, Hyndman peeled the neighborhood like an onion. What sort of feelings did these markers evoke? How has that changed over the years? Occasionally she pointed out errors in old handiwork, or reached into her tote for a vintage letter “A” to help illustrate how early sign painters devised the first serifs—with the natural flick of a brush.
How well do you know your neighborhood, really? I thought I did, but it turns out I’m as guilty as anybody of not seeing what’s in front of my eyes. Why did I never clock the subtle way my local fried-chicken shop ripped off KFC in its crude neon font? How could I have overlooked the hanging globes over the pawnshop, used in place of lettering in pre-literate times? Did I miss class the day my art teacher tackled the Louis Jean Pouchée alphabet? Hyndman has devised a type safari challenge to help you get to grips with your area; you can share it on her site when you’re done.
Hyndman is Dalston-based, but her tools for deconstructing signage can be used anywhere. She sees shop signs as “voices” for the people inside, and the typefaces set the tone. Ask yourself why a store chose Cooper Black over calligraphy, and your answer will speak to the history and character of the business. Contemplate the use of all caps. Compare and contrast Art Nouveau and Art Deco. Consider how some modern hand-painted signs seem virtuous, while others get it so wrong.
Dalston has serious designer cachet regardless of Hyndman’s place in it. Some of the restored Victorian signage is museum quality—like the mosaics on the Reeves & Sons building, where Turner and Constable once bought paint. There’s a Grade II-listed Art Deco jellied eel shop masquerading as a Chinese restaurant, and Arial masquerading as Helvetica. There are psychedelic painted signs from Ridley Road Market, back when it inspired the soap EastEnders, and there are unwitting tributes to Tobias Frere-Jones’ Gotham Sans.
Then it all gets blurry. Years ago some young tenants moving into the area began retaining signs from the previous occupants, however incongruous. Others replaced lettering with what Hyndman calls “street emoji,” like a moustache silhouette. Today, squatters and pop-ups eschew characters altogether in favour of matt black: the Spinal Tap of signs. That’s become a symbol in itself, for the safaris of tomorrow to deconstruct.