The American Institute of Graphic Arts, better known as AIGA, is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. That’s a remarkable milestone when you consider that graphic design didn’t really exist as a profession until the 20th century. Before that, printers and commercial artists handled such tasks. Interestingly, graphic design owes its rise in part to the First World War, which started in 1914 and set off a scramble for army recruitment and war bond posters. This accelerated the production of posters (and demand for graphic artists) as governments sought to rally citizens to support the war effort. The First World War also happened to coincide with the widespread adoption of offset lithographic printing, which enabled mass production of affordable pulp novels, magazines, packaging and other paper-based media.The graphic arts industry was suddenly born. Today there are more than two million graphic artists and designers in the U.S. alone.
Over the past 30 years, we have seen many professions in the graphic arts replaced by technology. Sign painting is one. Sign painting was a trade that existed in every community to adorn storefronts, banners, billboards, street signs, and buildings. The really good signs were one-of-a-kind works of art, produced by a steady hand, discerning eye, and aesthetic sensibility. Hand-painted signs revealed the pride and skill of the craftsmen. Their execution took human judgment and an active collaboration of eye, mind and hand. On a subliminal level, viewers could feel the effort of the maker. Now signs are mostly computer-designed, die-cut vinyl lettering. Undoubtedly, this is faster, cheaper and more uniform in quality, but like so much of our urban landscape, it lacks the warmth, soul and touch of human hands. “Sign Painters” is a documentary film (and also a book) by Faythe Levine and Sam Macon that celebrates the vanishing art of sign painting. The film is currently being shown in select locations in the U.S. and other parts of the globe. If it comes to your area, do see it.