I’m standing on the corner of Lucia Avenue and Bardstown Road with Bryan Patrick Todd — a corner most people in Louisville probably know pretty well, thanks to him. He points to a black brick wall in front of us that’s covered in three big orange words.
“Weird, independent and proud,” Todd says, slicing the air with his hand to punctuate each word.
To the side of those is a slim line of letters that runs down the bricks to spell out the word, “Highlands.” The mural was commissioned in 2012 by the Highlands Commerce Guild, and has since become something of a fixture in the neighborhood.
“I think it really ended up complimenting the building,” Todd says. “And I think when people are driving up and down the road, it’s made for kind of like, sort of a landmark in the Highlands neighborhood.”
And these signs — the ones unique to an area, made by locals — are something that Nikki Villagomez says can tell us a lot about a city.
Villagomez is a designer and the author of the book “How Culture Affects Typography,” a topic she’ll be speaking about next week at an event hosted by AIGA Louisville, the local chapter of the Professional Association for Design.
She first became curious about the topic when she was serving as the president of the South Carolina AIGA chapter. During that time, she suggested doing a “design exchange” with the chapter from Honolulu.
“We boxed anything and everything that had to do with South Carolina, shipped it to Honolulu,” Villagomez says. “They did the same for us. It was literally South Carolina in a box.”
Included in the box were some fun things like a bag of grits and some tea from Charleston, but they also sent examples of pieces designed by South Carolina designers for South Carolina clients.
“On the day of our event, we opened up the box from Honolulu, and it really felt like Honolulu exploded,” Villagomez says.
She continues: “Everyone got leis, they sent sand from Waikiki. But the pieces designed by Hawaiian designers for Hawaiian clients, really you could tell how their culture affected the typography and design choices they were making.”
According to Villagomez, there was lot of sans serif typefaces — the kinds without feet or wings on the letter — and a lot of blues and green. The next year, they did an exchange with Las Vegas.
“Vegas clients by Vegas designers were such a stark contrast from the year before,” she says. “A lot of slab serif, thick typography, a lot of sharp angular, bright colors. Again, their culture plays a part in their design and typography choices.”
Since then, Villagomez — now based in North Carolina — has studied font and typeface all over the world, and takes a look at how local culture and history shape what we see on our signs.
In preparation for her discussion in Louisville, design professionals from all over the city have sent her images of their favorite local signs. She won’t give away all her findings until the presentation, but one thing stood out to her:
“I got a lot of pictures that have to do with neighborhoods — it seems like the city is very much separated by what neighborhood you’re in,” Villagomez says. “Whereas, for example in comparison, or I guess in contrast, my presentation in Orlando was all about the city of Orlando.”
On that note, Bryan Patrick Todd says he’s painted about seven neighborhood-specific murals across the city.
“Each neighborhood has a uniqueness to it and they’re proud of the differences,” Todd says. “You go to Crescent Hill and the vibe is totally different than the Highlands, and I think that as small as the city is compared to Chicago or New York, we love how different these blocks are.”
Villagomez wants to stress that none of these things — whether it’s something small like font choice or something bigger like how we use signage to designate our surroundings — is an accident. It’s all very much rooted in and reinforced by a city’s history and culture.
And she hopes through discussing these distinctions, it will cause people to really notice the constructed world around them.
“Especially for people who are born and raised in the same city where they currently live, it’s very easy to not see the signs around you,” she says.
“How Culture Affects Typography” by Nikki Villagomez will take place on April 27 at the Tim Faulkner Gallery. More information is available here.