Design on the street: Bushwick, Brooklyn

I’ve always loved vernacular design. That’s the technical term for “design made by local people who are not trained designers.” It’s found everywhere, at least wherever you find people who need to express something visually without the assistance of a non-local professional.

This is the real language of commerce, of the hundreds of thousands of anonymous small businesses that constitute a little discussed yet plainly significant portion of the global economy. Vernacular design is also the voice of individuals who need to tell the public something, whether plea, opinion, challenge or lament.

I spent an hour or two cruising for vernacular design on three streets in my neighborhood of Bushwick, Brooklyn. In a place as dense as New York City, it’s just about everywhere you look. Here’s a sampling of the neighborhood’s wonderfully untamed visual landscape in 2015.

The handmade

This is no objective, well-rounded survey of vernacular design in Bushwick. Though vernacular design may seem a niche genre, there’s plenty of diversity within it. I have my own aesthetic preferences and I allowed them to take over as I considered which examples to photograph.

One of these preferences is a strong bias towards the handmade. Handmade signage is endlessly varied and the results are often quite entertaining. Making a sign by hand opens up decorative possibilities that the computer wouldn’t readily allow.

In the four signs pictured above, there are wildly different approaches towards decoration. The top two are intended to generate excitement and pull it off. The energy of the designer is palpable in the work. How often can you say this about “professional” design?

In the bottom two examples, fanciful script lends an air of gravitas to the message. This is more successful in the Alcoholics Anonymous sign which clearly was the result of a great deal of effort. Just look at the intense, wavering steadiness of the small lettering! This kind of focus and intentionality instills confidence in prospective members.

Handmade signage isn’t always decorative. Still, there is a measured intensity here, evident in the signmaker’s repeatedly going over each stroke to darken up the letters. The typographic style is idiosyncratic (the closest thing I can think of are David Lynch’s paintings), and by covering the facade of the storefront with these simple flyers the owner has created a consistent visual identity for an otherwise run-of-the-mill bodega. Note also the materiality of the signboard on the right. Water-based ink has bled and accidentally created quite a striking effect.

The use of language here is interesting. Some signs are in the first person (vendo meaning “I sell”), whereas others use the “we” conjugation (vendemos meaning “we sell”). Also the creator sometimes use the more phonetically accurate bendo instead of vendo. There doesn’t seem to be any rationale or logic behind this but does show the degree to which vernacular design can offer layers of compelling details.

Here are two very different approaches to the impromptu food stand. Both of these are built on shopping carts but the stand on the left seems considerably less scary for the unfamiliar potential customer. The left sign offers prices and looks a lot more refined. They seem to have used cut vinyl stickers or a stencil for the letters. The typography on the right sign is more dynamic but has a decided amateurishness to it, which in this context is not inspiring.

The local professional

Vernacular design often reflects the tastes and needs of a particular place. A local aesthetic may emerge, acting as a geographical marker. Utilizing this vernacular style brands a business as being part of a community that likely shares values and responsibility. I found a hyper-local example of this around the intersection of Myrtle Ave. & Wyckoff Ave., where there are a string of businesses with signage by the same unknown professional sign artist.

Vernacular design is not necessarily amateurish. Whoever made these signs has technical and artistic skill, and their work is both beautiful and attention-getting.

Bizarrely this artist seems to have worked only in a small portion (three or four blocks?) of Bushwick. I wonder if they decided to target other local markets or simply moved on to other endeavors. It’d be a shame if the latter was the case, this mystery signmaker’s work is more effective than many of the outsider designers creating identities for Bushwick’s new generation of hipster bars, restaurants and boutiques.

Neighborhood needs

We’ve seen how vernacular design can reflect local taste. But what about local needs? Paying attention to the way people use publicly accessible surfaces can yield insight on the unique conditions of a place.

These notices, pasted to doors and entry buzzers, are ubiquitous in this part of Bushwick (as they are throughout parts of New York City with buildings lacking doormen). The language here is different from the sometimes terse signage we’ve previously examined (“NO I.D. NO BEER”). Here FedEx is addressed “Dear” with liberal use of “please” and “thank you.” There are countless stories of New Yorkers unable to receive packages at their apartment building despite posting these written pleas, so it’s no wonder these tenants resort to the kindest wording possible.

I had somehow not noticed these small stickers until recently, but they are even more common than the delivery instructions. I assume that gate servicing companies pay canvassers to take a ream of their stickers and plaster them on every rolling gate they can find — which means almost every storefront in all five boroughs. Some gates have stickers for more than 5 different companies. Sometimes the stickers are layered, suggesting that competing companies emulate graffiti artist tactics and aggressively plaster over each other’s advertisements. Though mostly exclusive to this very specific business, the medium has been appropriated by other types of businesses, as the upper right example shows.

This phenomenon is a response to something that’s locally plentiful. Bodegas (small convenience stores) ostensibly get sent tons of these free decals, most of which advertise beverages. This special vernacular style of collage has in turn emerged. Bodega collages are always ecstatic, elaborate and can be surprisingly artful in their compositions.

Vernacular Photoshop

When I set out to take photos in my neighborhood, I figured I would probably end up ignoring most of signage designed with computers. As I mentioned previously, when appreciating vernacular design I have a decided bias towards the handmade. But I couldn’t help notice a handful of examples of digitally-crafted vernacular design that were outstandingly strange and imaginative.

I tend to avoid too much color in my own design work. Over the years I’ve come to feel that it’s not my strong suit. Vernacular designers are fortunately not afflicted by this kind of self-doubt, and while the results of their work are sometimes…well, a bit rough around the edges, their tendencies towards risk-taking can result in wonderful successes. The gradient used in the background of this sign is wildly unrestrained. Who would have guessed this would be the perfect backdrop to mildly repulsive, bulging photographs of meat?

Untrained designers typically have an aversion to white space. What’s the deal with that emptiness? There should be stuff there! The resulting work can be ineffectual at best, but occasionally it’s delightfully chaotic. In the concert poster on the left, the designer has used every inch of space to communicate the stacked lineup of bands, even going as far as forcibly conforming their logos to the same trapezoidal shape. It feels playful, intense and joyous, just like the cumbia music it’s promoting.

The two examples on the right are similarly all about abundance. Lopez Deli & Grocery bombards the viewer with realistic, barely staged food photography. I can imagine this making plenty of passersby hungry enough to stop inside. El Nuevo Castillo, on the other hand, is totally false but aspirational in a way that its potential customers would likely identify with.

Looking at my photographs of “vernacular Photoshop,” I realize what I love about vernacular design is the wild choices. Any novice designer does work like this at first. The lessons come later. A novice designer might learn that their choices should be meaningful, not just cool looking. Or that less is more. Or that making the type a bit smaller and adding more white space is a good trick for making graphic design that looks “professional.” Or that clients aren’t really digging gradients with more than 3 hues these days.

These lessons are valid and important for young designers to learn. But it’s also essential to learn to notice your own inhibitions. When they get in the way of imagining an original design solution, perhaps the lessons have been ingrained too deeply. The best remedy might just be taking a long walk in your neighborhood and getting inspired by the weird, funny and odd design that quietly exists all around us.