Follow The Light Signs

As you may know, the mayor of São Paulo has decided to ban all neon ads, billboards and other forms of advertising in public space. The results of the Clean City Law are impressive. The removal of screaming commercialism has revealed beautiful buildings no-one had noticed before. Besides that, being the first ad-free city in the world has created São Paulo a unique selling point. Nevertheless, we consider it important to stay still for a minute and keep in mind the relevance of light signs. Light signs can be beautiful, and if you look closely you can even notice trends in light sign design.

Not surprisingly, Berlin is a good example when it comes to light signs. The observant ‘urban explorer’ can notice these everywhere in Friedrichshain, Prenzlauer Berg and Neukölln. Some are true design jewels that have become more than just an ordinary commercial expression. Consider it a style manifesto, politely but confidently communicating: “Wir sind die Stadt”. Among the ubiquitous ‘mass signs’ of shawarma tents, bars, and discount stores, the streets of Berlin show that the city’s design culture brings forward a unique style of advertising signs. Oftentimes the owner does not want to communicate his name or logo loudly and directly, but instead show something stylish. One example is the vintage light sign, that reminds of visual design from the seventies and eighties. Such signs are commonly used at vintage stores and other shops that fall back to the past. Another example are the super sleek vector signs which reflect the solid visual identities of music and style shops. Characteristics of light signs at shops with a (mostly) female audience are friendly lay-outs, handmade artworks and bright colors, like Twitter-blue or T-Mobile-magenta.

Light signs play an important role in our perception of the city. They immediately tell us if we are in a stylish, vulgar or boring street. Our first impression of a street brings up an intuitive feeling, which expresses an action: either look around, or move on. This same consideration takes place on every street intersection. In fractions of seconds, a tourist or shopper decides: “where can I find some fun?”, “where shall we have dinner?”, or “where should I buy new shoes?”. I would call this style navigation, and light signs are the secret behind style navigation. Light signs provide a preview of the contents of shopping and entertainment areas. Consider them thumbnails of the physical world, or Augmented Reality avant la lettre. The light sign straightly speaks to us, as a luminous point in the chilly world of boring public outdoor space.