on January 04, 2016 Conversations About Innovation Creativity Creative Problem Solving Design Stories

The Art of Signage: The American Sign Museum’s Visual Wonderland

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We interviewed Tod Swormstedt, founder and Director of the American Sign Museum, a museum in Cincinnati, Ohio that preserves, archives, and displays a collection of signs, artifacts and sign-making equipment. With more than a thousand people coming through its doors each month, the American Sign Museum is a one-of-a-kind destination that will influence how you think about signs.

We spoke with Swormstedt about the history of what could be called an American sign mecca: after all, it’s the largest and only public sign museum that covers the full range of American signage.

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The Start of an Idea

You could say that signs are in Swormstedt’s genes: for nearly three decades he was editor and publisher of Signs of the Times magazine, a trade magazine for the sign industry that had been the family business for more than a century. And it was one day while working at the magazine—cleaning out the contents of the company’s old safe—when an item caught his eye. Inside a black case was a gold leaf sample kit from Raymond LeBlanc.

LeBlanc was from Hartford, Connecticut and he had written a book that's considered a textbook for gold leaf sign work, Gold Leaf Techniques, in 1961. In this sample kit was a letter to Swormsted’s grandfather detailing how LeBlanc wanted the Signs of the Times to preserve the gold leaf sample kit. “It sat in the safe for 20 years and I found this letter and I said, ‘We've got to preserve it.’”

Given his grandfather had also passed away, he knew he wanted to preserve the story, and that’s when the idea for a museum first came to mind. “I had no idea how to [start and create] a museum, but I just kind of jumped in and went for it.”

A Lifetime of Collecting Landmarks and Stories

It turns out that not only is Swormstedt a collector of history, but he also has an eye for opportunity. His vision was to create a place that could save, preserve and share the deep stories behind signs and artifacts. “I went to my family with the idea, and long story short, they said, ‘Well, how about you go work on that,’” says Swormstedt. “So, I did.”
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Starting from scratch with no pieces, in January of 1999 he began working on the museum, and in Spring 2005 the museum opened its doors. The first location was limited to 4,500 square feet, which the museum then outgrew. After buying a large, open space in Camp Washington, Cincinnati, Swormstedt was able to remodel the building to fit his vision of a truly interactive showcase of signs. In 2012, the larger museum (in a building with 40,000 square feet) opened its permanent home.

Celebrating the Innovation & Evolution of American Signage

When designing the museum, Swormstedt says he started with the big picture and then looked at each layer of detail. “Some people are 2-D visual, and I'm 3-D visual…I didn't know how it was going to lay out at the museum, but it just kind of kept laying itself out.”

As the largest public sign museum of its kind, there are more than 5,000 items that are a part of the collection, a number that is always increasing. Although the art starts outside (think: a 20-foot-tall fiberglass genie that used to live outside a carpet store), step into the museum and you’ll find a collection that ranges from the 1880s to the 1970s.

Bright lights and eccentric signs span across the decades, including a Big Bear Grocery sign, a McDonald’s Sign from 1963, a Howard Johnson’s sign from New York’s Times Square, a Kona Lanes sign with Tiki typeface, a 6-foot-wide, Jetson-inspired sign shaped like a globe, and an iconic Big Boy, to name a few.

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As culture evolves, the signs evolve, too, a visual history that the Sign Museum intentionally puts on display, especially with its hand-lettered signs, including gold leaf on glass and show cards. Swormstedt says he knows people might not remember every detail, but he wants them to come away with a feeling of how the materials and technologies have changed.

Turn the corner and see Main Street, a charming street with artifacts in-context on buildings and on fully re-created storefronts. Seeing pieces that reflect sign design and signs in-context and up-close seems to heighten the educational experience and the homage to design trends. The street combines a history of advertising with the history of sign and material evolution.

Swormstedt explains that the three-block long Main Street was designed in a way where the signs determine the storefront: “If we have a 1920 sign, we design and build a 1920s building to put that sign on,” he explains. This part of the museum gives people a vivid sense of how signs and artifacts once lived. “We don’t repaint the signs. Part of the sign’s story is how it weathered in the environment. Except for replacing neon, we default to leaving the sign as original as possible.”

Designing the Future, One Sign at a Time 

Although Swormstedt spends much of his time collecting and sharing stories from the past, he still has the future on his mind when it comes to the museum’s restoration and preservation efforts. “What I’m working on now is expanding the museum and honing in on our educational mission,” he says. With only about half of the museum building being used, physical expansion is certainly possible. And with more than 15,000 visitors in the last year (not including events), Swormstedt says he wants to continue to be a resource for the industry and for the community, and part of that is educating today’s designers. 

“Design is the best solution for a particular set of circumstances,” he says, adding that people who have designed signs have always needed to appreciate how the sign will live outdoors. As signs innovate, factors that have AmericanSignMuseumPhoto4.jpgto be taken into consideration persist: legibility, timeframe, ease of manufacturing, maintenance, installation and budget. Now Swormstedt is able to help business owners and designers recognize these factors.

“We can educate small business owners on why signs are important to their business, and then to educate artists to show that designing signs has its own inherent set of needs. Artists are going to keep making signs and keep designing signs, so let's go ahead and educate them so what they design is something that's going to hold up.”

Appreciate American History…And Get Ready to Say “Wow”

Ready for a visual experience that is sure to delight? The American Sign Museum will change how you look at signs.

Explore the history, technology, design and beauty of signs at the American Sign Museum, open Wednesday through Saturday, 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. and Sunday from 12:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. The museum is located in Cincinnati, Ohio. Find out more details on the American Sign Museum’s website.

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