FONT OF WISDOM

Video: Decoding the secret language of a city’s street signs, numbers, and letters

Obsession
Design
Obsession
Design

A city reveals its secrets to those on foot. In this fascinating video, Alexander Tochilovsky, an adjunct professor of design and typography at The Cooper Union School of Art, shows Quartz how these oft-overlooked signs and markings can reveal layers of stories about a city’s past.

A trained graphic designer, Tochilovsky has been keenly observing the letters on commercial signs, billboards, building names, house numbers, mailboxes, and even manhole covers during his regular walks in Brooklyn, New York, where he lives, and when he travels to other countries. “When I walk around any city, I usually start looking at signs,” says Tochilovsky who was born in the city of Odessa (now Urkaine). “I start reading the city and I start to get an understanding of what goes on there.”

For example, during a walk with Quartz through Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood, Tochilovsky pointed to the shell of what used to be a neon sign for a dry cleaning business. He explained that the gaspipe lettering style, popular in the 1940s, was most likely designed with curved letterforms to accommodate the bent glass tubing of the neon lights. The dry cleaning business has since closed but the clothing boutique that took over the space kept the name, primarily because of the sign.

Over the years, Tochilovsky says he’s learned to expand his periphery, not just looking forward but also looking up and down whenever he walks down a street, almost like an archeologist. “It kinda sounds hokey, but it’s a way for me to touch history,” he says.

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