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I’m sure like lots of people over this last year of the pandemic, I’ve been pounding the streets to get some needed escape from the 4 walls that have been my daily visual rhythm. This has allowed for me to observe my local area in North London.

During my architectural training one of the things I remember being told is to look up when walking around. This simple act transforms our perspective on how we view and interact with the urban environment. The nice thing about doing this as a designer is noticing the remnants of old hand painted signage, shop fronting and engravings that are scattered around. This observation certainly isn’t new or unique, many people have captured exquisite examples of these but it did get me thinking about how we grab attention today.

Sign Writing isn’t a dead industry and you can still see examples of traditional work in London’s East end as well as just walking down any canal in the UK. It’s wonderful to see such skilled work still being produced, but instead of being just the way things are done hand painted signage (especially on shops) is now an expression of trendy hipster culture or strict historic heritage. Certainly at the moment this is the trend but thinking of the use of signage, is it worth bringing hand painting back? Environmentally just painting over an old sign or using a scrap bit of wood seems it could possibly be a more sensible use of resources than making a full fronted glass/plastic sign we see walking down our high streets today.

I’m lucky enough that my partner is Zimbabwean which means we get to go and visit her family (when we’re allowed). These trips are often for extended periods which gives me time to explore the local neighbourhood. As a country it’s certainly got it’s issues, like everywhere else, but one thing I love is the attitude that’s seen, felt and spoken in the community. “Make a plan” is a local phrase in Harare which certainly sums up this idea of if anything goes wrong or is a struggle you just figure out a way to get passed it. This is reflected in the hand written signage that’s scattered across the suburbs of Harare. The use of any scrap bit of metal, bricks and wood can be used to advertise. This use of materials is actually very refreshing after the sea of bright light plastic signage we see everyday. This softer material use could also be why many people love traditional pub signage so much more than your high street retail frontage.

Personality is something that comes across with suburban Harare signage. How else are you meant to differentiate between one tree cutter and the next? The challenge is also forming your sign to the shape of the bit of scrap but this also adds an element of interest and visual diversity that makes the sign that’s on a curved bit of metal so alluring.

Retrofitting in architecture is an exciting movement that the industry is embracing. As designers should we be following in similar footsteps and not always creating something brand new but utilising what’s currently there and improving it? I’m not necessarily talking about physical objects (although this would be interesting to explore when it comes to signage, brochures etc) but digital ones too. Personally I feel it’s always best to look at what’s currently available, whether it’s a visual identity, website or brochure and build from that.

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