Monday, June 27, 2005

Design Vigilantism

Design Vigilantism

The Orphaned Coffee Shop

The other day, while driving through town, Kim noticed a sign for a coffee shop. Now, this isn't an extraordinary occurrence — we've driven past this particular sign hundreds of times. But what was interesting, is that for the first time we noticed the thin, handwritten blue type that says "Elsie's" just to the left of the white "Coffee Shop" lettering. Now, the sign itself is a shade of purple, similar enough to the blue in tone that the "Elsie's" type just melted into the background. And so, we were never aware that this shop had an owner at all.

The Vandal in All of Us

Like many of my designer-ilk, I nurture the habit of the "drive-by, real-time, design critique" exhibited in the example above. And in my time, I've seen a fair amount of bad signage. I don't really do anything about it, except point it out to whoever I'm with. If I'm not with anyone, I just go on with my life, happy in the knowledge that if I DID ever have a yard sale, I wouldn't create the letterforms with a ball-point pen — and I would make sure there wasn't a line break in the middle of the word SALE. And there would be an address on the sign.

But the next day, as we drove past this sign again, Kim turned to me and said, "We should just sneak out here at night, and fix the sign."

Considerate Vandalism

Essentially, we would be Design Vigilantes. I like this idea a great deal; it's as close as I can come to being a hero without having to hurry anywhere. And it makes the designer's propensity toward wearing black a functional choice.

The results would be slow in coming at first. A young lady, ready to make her purchases at the local supermarket, will see the sign that says "Line Starts Here", and finally realize why twenty people are blocking her way to the next scanning station. The elderly man, looking to make a right-hand turn on "Shiprock Lane" will see the sign BEFORE he actually passes the road. The manager of Hi-Fi House will notice that customers actually KNOW what the store sells, even though Mr. Manager may not notice that their previous logo (two blue squares, and a black outline square) is now a set of speakers.

My town will slowly and quietly become the example of efficiency. There will be no standing around, looking confused. People will arrive at destinations quicker than ever before. They may even use the extra time they have to not loiter or not litter and understand that those are two completely different things. Communication will become so seamless — we'll have fundamentally developed a hivemind!

So What's the Plan Here?

Okay, okay... I am getting a little ahead of myself. As the old adage goes: One Hurdle at a Time...

I need to get together a mock-up of the "Coffee Shop" sign and do a couple preliminary sketches. Maybe gather up a couple of pantone swatches. I have the PERFECT font in mind, but it doesn't come in a lowercase, so I might need to create one from scratch. Oh! Does anyone have any demographic information on the Coffee Shop's target audience? We'll have to initiate a focus group and —

Hmmm... I may have just figured out why there's so few Design Vigilantes out there...

Comments on this Article

There are currently 44 comments.

[ Add one of your own! ]

Dan Mall

Are you guys recruiting? "The first rule of Design Vigilantism is that you don't talk about Design Vigilantism . . . "


Heh. I've done this. There's a landscaper local to the area I work in. I'm familiar with his work and it is terrific, he's a real nice guy too (kinda out-there but...). Anyway, down at the local gas station I see his xeroxed ad dripping with Monotype Corsiva (he's got a celtic thing going and that's about the closest system font).
So I tore it down and redesigned it (in color) and reposted it. I'm anxious to hear stories about his disbelief.

Jeff Louella

I think you should dress up in a costume with a cape. We need to come up with a "Super Name" for you.

Biggest Apple

I think the idea is fantastic. I'm thinking it's about time MTV started a new spin-off. "PIMP MY SIGN".

Adam Fansworth

This is such a great idea! I do the critique all the time, and it's about time I put my money where my mouth is.

Hi, I'm new, I found you through Jason Santa Maria's site, and have enjoyed your illustrations and comments. Anyway, glad to hear Design Vigilantes are out there!


Dan - That's the first rule? Well what did I hire that Public Relations guy for?

Ian - You're fighting the good fight. Back me up here, Dan... "His name is Ian Corey.... His name is Ian Corey..."

Apple - MTV can't start a new spin-off until they start broadcasting MTV4...

Adam - Welcome to the site! I'm glad you're enjoying it!

Joshua Lane

@Jeff - How about "Sign Saviour"... oooh, that almost sounds prophetic. "Yeah unto though, the Sign Saviour has come at last."


i vote for "the designinator." do you have room on your super-team for someone to fix grammar and spelling? i have an advanced degree and good references, and my mom can make me a costume...


You're in, Wayne. You'll be "The Proofreaper".


I believe this is how Innsbruck, Austria was founded. Now people will try and tell you that it was founded on the salt mines and how they transported said salt down the river Inn.

Trust me, they're wrong.

Innsbruck is a designers dream of efficiency. Everything from the shopping carts to street lights are designed better.

*raise fist* DAMN YOU AMERICA!

Brent O'Connor

I just don't have the time to be a "Design Vigilante." I barely have time to make this post. :)

And another thought to consider is that even though you might be improving the practical design aspects of the design there is still the subjective aspect of any design to consider. Even if you improve the contrast and hierarchy of the design so that the owner information is more prevalent in your coffee shop sign for example, the design it's self is still subjective to every Joe Sixpack designer out there that thinks they can design.

I love your illustration! How much time did you spend on it?


Nothing like robbing the robber :-( It's sad that people think crooks don't have feelings either. Poor Waffles :-(


Brent - That's around a day's worth of illustrating; but that's if I get a good idea for the image right away :D

McMullen - I bet Waffles is alright. Most dogs run away simply to get some "action", if you know what I mean...


You know, several years ago I had a business idea much like this. Or really it's more a way of survival if I ever go flat broke and unemployed, and maybe even homeless. I'd try to earn a little money looking for badly drawn/written signs and posters outside stores in the city, making them new and better and then selling them to the shop owners for a few bucks. Thankfully I haven't had to do it yet, though. But there's definitely room for poster improvements.


That's actually the most practical application for vigilantism I've heard yet... consider yourself hired, Travholt. You'll be the vigilance group Treasurer...


I'd just love to have a few of those design vigilantes around, just to clean up the design messes I usually end up with. But this being Sri Lanka where design no longer matters and everything done after the 18th century looks shite, I'll have to clean it up myself.


what a great idea!


I can't help but wonder what the flyer on the far left side of the pole is of. Looks like it could be Mojo? Humm. ;)


Heheh - I was wondering when someone would pick that up.., :)


At least this masked vigilante has only one glove to separate themselves from the masses, hordes, - hey what IS the collective noun of Design Vigilantes? A foundry maybe.
Great illustration. For a change. Bastard.

Brian Spaid

Actually, what you're describing already exists, it's called Guerilla Public Service. And I seriously doubt anyone will ever top the guy that coined the phrase.


Matt - We could always just make up the collective noun... What strikes your fancy? A Flock? A Pride? A Fancy?

Thanks for the compli-sult! :D

Brian - That is a good name for it! Looks like our Fancy of Vigilantes just found an LA Chapter...

Just so you know, I edited your comment to keep the url string from breaking the column :)


that other poster seems to motivate me ... somehow...


There are alot "design vigilante's", check out: [url=]linkie link[/url]

It's a division of streetart and loads of people already did this, but go ahead, it's always better to have more sign-improve-people!


Aaag crap, you should make an url input device thingie so I can't mess that up (or an edit button so I can hide my mistakes)


Or you could code with anchor tags. :)
I don't think I've ever seen a link coded like that...

dale baker

I like your you live anywhere near Durham, NC we could use some good Design Vigilantes here...I'm thinking you could use this idea as a new comic book hero...anyway...I like your site alot and enjoy reading your posts! Thanks...


Are you serious? I first typed anchor tags but then figured it would work like a forum so I changed it to url tags.

Sorry, Kevin :'(


Dale - I live about 8 hours away from NC... it would have to be a Vigilante mission that included 1 night in a motel; hopefully one that needs redesigned "Do Not Disturb" signs...

Murten - Don't sweat it :) It was a good link!

Daniel the Swede

I want your talent Kevin.


Are you going to kill me and eat my heart? Because I tried that on Lee Trevino and I STILL can't golf...

Daniel the Swede

Well, if you have tried it and it didn't work, i have to figure out something else... Poor Lee. Was the ritual very similar to "Temple of Doom"? Thats how i see it...


It was almost EXACTLY that! But I couldn't get a hold of a giant fire canyon... hmmm - maybe that's why it didn't work?

Daniel the Swede

The giant fire canyon is crucial. I've read it in a book...

Sooo, when do we get to se the first draft of the "Coffee Shop"-sign?

d bruno

Per Jeff Louella's idea above, how about Designamo. It kinda has a superhoero ring to it.


Do's the 'misuse' of Apostrophes' in signage annoy you or is it just bad r'endering'?


I love Designamo!


UPDATE: I swung by the gas station to see if any of the hula-skirt phone number tabs had been torn off my redesigned poster (to see whether the design was successful) and was disappointed to find that it was removed!
Kevin, what do I do now? Should I persevere? Should I be a diligent design vigilante?


Ian: Maybe your redesign was so successful that all the tags were taken and he has been so flooded with requests for so many gorgeous lawns that he does not need to advertise anymore! Keep up the good work. ;)

Designamo. Brilliant. I wanna be a Designamo -- where do I sign up and when do I get a cape?


D Bruno - Yeah - Designamo does have a nice ring to it!

Anna - Grammatical and Typographic errors are also worthy of fixing. I must admit, I HAVE developed a tolerance of apostrophe misuse since I moved from print to web, and my stern support of hanging punctuation has been defused. But I still stand for the proper use of the m-dash and single spacing after a period!

Ian - Well... a true vigilante would probably beat up the shop owner. Do you have a crowbar?

Nary - There's no cape involved - you just need a pair of horn-rimmed glasses.


I would bust the guy a good one, but he's kinda intimidating.


Hey, we have a lot of bad design here in SLC that needs fixing. The really bad thing is some of the owners think these designs are actually good.



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