The Ugliest Sign in America

By Dan Koeppel


I’m just going to come out and say it: This is the most ubiquitous ugly object in America. Sure, our nation is obsessed with miltary-sized automobiles for personal use, backyard Bigfoot statues, and chicken nuggets— and all those things are grotesque and common. But this 20-inch placard, with a pair of glowing blue swooshes that wrap around four letters in bright red — O-P-E-N — is everywhere. I’ve noticed that not just in my home town of Los Angeles, where it is a mainstay of mini-malls, massage parlors, and marijuana dispensaries, but all across the United States; on a 10,000-mile automotive journey this past summer, we saw thousands of them, many replacing aged, flickering neon on the classic two-lane highways — Route 66, Highway 50 — that define the idea of the American road. And in a small way, these newer, ugly signs represent the end of that idea.

So how did this modern defilement happen? What possessed a nation of shop owners to lose their collective minds? And what’s to be made of fact that these signs are actually, secretly technological marvels?

China Commodity City, Yiwu, China (Richard John Seymour/Institute)

“We sell about 100,000 each year,” says Doug Martin, founder of CM Global, a Wisconsin-based manufacturer of retail open signs that uses LED technology as a cheap way to replace traditional neon.

The open sign you’re most likely to encounter is oval-shaped. The blue swooshes are usually made of separate dots, as are the red letters. A newer iteration — and this has become one of Martin’s most popular models over the past year or so — introduces sharper angles, with square red letters on a rectangular blue frame (the idea is to look like neon. It doesn’t really work, for reasons I’ll explain in a moment).

Neon-like or not, Martin’s sign has become standard issue for American retailers, mostly through sales at Costco, where it retails for $79.99.

But those 100,000 are just a tiny fraction of the market. Search the term “Open Sign” on alibaba.com, the Chinese e-commerce company, and you’ll find thousands of identical-looking products, some costing as little as five dollars. They are priced for ubiquity — and for total domination of the store sign market.

Open signs built by Martin and thousands of offshore imitators have actually replaced two separate and far more aesthetically appealing iterations of storefront displays. The first is the old-fashioned paper open-and-closed sign (though these days, they’re more likely to be made of vinyl).

Usually bright red, store owners hang the sign in their door and flip it when they arrive or depart their place of business. Though there are hundreds of manufacturers of manual open signs, the biggest is Cosco, a century-old Illinois company that also makes price tags and box cutter knives. Cosco’s top seller is Model 98012, which offers a cheery “Come In, We’re OPEN” one on side, flipping to the sad-but-deferential “Sorry, We’re Closed” on the other. The sign’s biggest attribute is price: My local hardware store sells the 98012 for $2.99, and there are no associated energy and maintenance costs.

But classic lines and economy aside, is a plain piece of printed plastic really what modern retailers want? “That depends on what you’re trying to accomplish,” says Wade Swormstedt, publisher of Cincinnati-based Signs of the Times magazine, a 110-year-old trade journal for the placard industry. Swormstedt is signage royalty. His grandfather, father, and brothers all have worked at the magazine, and the industry’s annual media prize is called the Swormstedt Award.

“If you want to say whether or not you’re conducting business,” Swormstedt says, a plain paper sign “is fine.” But that may not be enough these days. “The on-premise sign is still the most economical form of branding for a small business, especially if you’re competing against national chains with readily-identifiable logos.”

This is especially true given the demise of the so-called “Privilege Sign,” which was a retail placard given free to store owners by a supplier of a product sold within.

The most common privilege signs had Coke or Pepsi logos on them. Those signs have been vanishing since the 1960s, according to the Ephemeral New York website, which tracks remaining examples of the retail artifact. Without such signage, Swormstedt says, a flashy placard is “the most valuable tool a shopkeeper can utilize.”

The first retail signs likely date back to the ancient Greeks. At first, they were fairly simple: If you were in the business of salting pork, for example, you’d simply have a picture of a pig in front of your shop or market stall.

By the beginning of the 15th century, merchants throughout Europe — especially those selling alcohol — were required to offer a street-side display indicating the nature of their business. The most elaborate signs, according to Nelson James of Signs.com, used ornate wood carvings and gold leaf to lure customers. That began changing in the mid-1800s, when artificial lighting and commercial printing turned sign making into a craft fundamentally based in technology.

That trend accelerated in the 1920s, when neon — the first such sign in America was over the door of a Los Angeles Packard automobile showroom — began to dominate sign making. A neon sign is fundamentally a form of fluorescent light. A glass tube is filled with gas; when current is applied, the electrons in the gas begin to scatter, bumping into each other, emitting photons, or light.

China Commodity City, Yiwu, China (Richard John Seymour/Institute)

Neon is spectacularly flexible and inarguably lovely. Genuine artistry is needed to delicately bend glass. It is mostly a by-hand process, which is why the neon tableaux that once dominated Route 66, Las Vegas, and Times Square were so unique and evocative. And neon is durable. Yes, the glass tubes can break, but barring accidents, it is a simple and energy-efficient technology that can last decades (just ask the owner of your local dive bar how long he’s had that Budweiser sign in his window. He likely can’t remember).

The neon open sign is so mundane that nobody knows exactly when the first one appeared, but the visual style modern LEDs attempt to imitate is a clue that they date back to the earliest days of the technology. The key is their color — blue and red, with the familiar swooshes and rounded letters. Those colors have now become a sort of unspoken tradition, says Kenny Greenberg, a neon artist and sign restorer based in Long Island City, New York. Red-and-blue means old in neon, since those shades were once the easiest for a sign maker to create: Red is the native hue of excited neon gas, and blue can easily be achieved with the addition of a few drops of mercury (other colors, requiring different gasses, didn’t arrive until later).

Greenberg says that neon has moved in and out of favor over the past forty years. In the 1970s, plastic signs — like the kind that hover over gas stations — became popular. They used molded logos that were internally lit by standard or fluourescent light bulbs. Neon and neon-like color schemes made a brief comeback in the New Wave-drunken 1980s, but by the mid-2000s, Greenberg says, “it was obvious that LEDs were going to be big.”

The light-emitting diode has been touted as the light source of the future, and most likely, that’s true. If you’ve purchased a light bulb in the past year, there’s a good chance you’ve chosen, or at least considered, an LED over the swirled-spiral compact fluorescents (CFLs) whose market domination was cemented by a ban on traditional light bulbs — incandescents — that rolled out between 2012 and 2014.

Incandescent, CFL, and LED light bulbs.

The advent of LEDs is part of a massive shift in lighting that’s been sweeping everything from giant retail signs to your average in-home lightbulb over the past decade. Here’s a brief crash course: Incandescent bulbs are based on the technology popularized by Thomas Edison. They illuminate via a filament that glows when electricity is applied to it. Incandescent bulbs are cheap to make, and provide a cozy glow — something akin to a fire — but they’re awfully inefficient.

The first attempt to replace incandescents in standard home sockets came with the CFLs that began appearing on store shelves in the 1990s. Like neon, CFLs generate light via the stimulation of gas in a glass tube. Their biggest advantage is economy. A CFL can last years and requires far less power to produce the same amount of light as a similar incandescent. But as household lighting, CFLs are problematic. They give off a rather sickly, grayish native hue, and don’t work well with dimmers.

Since the beginning of this decade, LED bulbs have been touted as a cleaner, better-performing alternative to CFLs. An LED is fundamentally a tiny semiconductor. A typical LED bulb is made up of at least a dozen individual diodes, usually arrayed in a dome shape. Like fluorescents, the basic color of the most common LEDs isn’t all that pleasing — a cool blue — but the spectrum can be effectively modified through various manufacturing techniques.

But because the price of LEDs has plummeted, even as capabilities have increased, the sign industry has embraced the technology. That’s the case in places Las Vegas and New York, where showstopper-type LEDs have almost completely replaced neon; and at the most basic retail level. Swormstedt’s publication has been surveying shop owners on sign choices since 2002. That year, it broke down to 48.8% neon, 3.8 % LED, 35% fluorescent, with the rest incandescent or fiber optic. LED market share has increased steadily since then, finally pulling ahead of neon and fluorescent last year, when the split was 20.1% neon, 28% fluorescent, and 40.9% LED.

“If a shop wants a cheap bad look,” says Marcus Thielen, a Duisburg, Germany, physicist who studies sign and lighting technology, “go with LEDs.” Certainly, LEDs can be gorgeous — check out the massive sign Walgreens erected above its flagship Times Square store in 2008; with over 12 million individual diodes, the 17,000-square-foot sign emits a 20-hour-per-day loop of advertising and images.

But those LEDs aren’t trying to be something they’re not: They’re proudly digital — not an attempt to fake analog, feeling as contrived as artificially introduced crackles and pops on an MP3 file.

The difference is pretty apparent at a modest retail landing pad I visited in Los Angeles this past winter. The Eagle Rock Center, a mile from my house, is a typical Southern California mini-mall, with 35 parking spaces and ten retail shops. You can drop your laundry, eat a taco, fill a prescription, get a tooth filled, and have your hair cut in a single visit, topping it all off — though your dentist may frown — with a cool serving of luscious frogurt. I chose the Eagle Rock Center not just because it is close to home, but because the battle between neon and LED open signs seems to be playing out in epic fashion at the center’s storefronts, with eight of each kind of sign.

Of all the LED open signs, the worst-looking — by far were of the still-popular first generation. In those, the attempt to duplicate neon comes via a series of unconnected dots; each dot is a single diode. First generation or not, that style, cheap and pixilated-looking, is still hugely popular; a $23.99 incarnation — listed as a “must-have item for business store owners” — is the number one selling product in Amazon’s tellingly-misnamed neon sign category.

An employee at the California Cuts hair salon grunted when I pointed out that her dot-based LED open sign already had two burned-out diodes, leaving wide gaps in the letter. “It’s just two years old,” she said.

LED vs Neon

There’s a certain correlation between price and quality when it comes to LED signs. The cheapest ones, I learned, break frequently. In fairness, there were two broken neon open signs at the bakery next door — but with neon, as long as the glass is intact, electrical problems can easily be fixed, usually by little more than replacing an electric cord. (LED signs are mostly a tossable item.)

Every store owner I spoke to at the shopping center cited energy efficiency as a reason to use LEDs. But I was surprised by another reason: neon — beautiful as it is to those with delicate aesthetic sensibilities — “doesn’t feel cool,” as the manager of the Super Copy print shop told me. “It looks old fashioned.” Next door, that notion was confirmed by Humberto, owner of La Fuente, a Mexican restaurant that uses three of Mystiglo’s Costco-offered square-lettered LED signs. They were purchased when the restaurant itself was renovated a few years ago, transforming from a humble taco joint to an upscale hangout. “The LEDs fit that image better,” Humberto said.

“That’s the kind of aesthetic we’re going for,” says LED sign maker Martin. Even so, he says, the real advantage of LEDs is potential. His company and its competitors don’t just make one sign. Dozens are available. And some are beginning to look like miniature versions of the New York Walgreens sign. Because LEDs are essentially microchips, they can be programmed. Signs with variable messages, multiple colors, and automatic on-off cycles are all available and becoming more affordable.

As for neon, Greenberg says, it will continue — but likely at the high end, the same way retailers like Restoration Hardware sell replicas of Thomas Edison-designed incandescent bulbs. “There’s an aesthetic to neon that people will always want,” Greenberg says, “though maybe not as the sign for a basic Laundromat.”

And not just in America. Last October, my wife and I ventured off to the mountains of Guatemala, where we stayed in a lodge on the shores of Lake Atitlán. There, in the volcanic high country, ancient traditions still hold fast. One of them is Maximón, a Mayan saint who dwells — in effigy form — in tiny hillside chapels. We visited partly out of touristic curiosity and partly because we were encouraged to have a blessing conferred on my wife, who was six months pregnant at the time. The shrines of Maximón feel ancient. The life-sized effigies are dressed in traditional clothing and are offered money, tobacco, and whisky; usually as elderly priests lead supplicants — the sick, the poor, the curious — in ritual prayer. When we visited, the room was brighter than I thought. We’d been told that only candlelight was used, but instead, there was another, sparkling light source, plugged into a newly installed power outlet. It was made of dotted LEDs, multi-colored, flashing. “BIENVENIDO,” it said. Welcome.

As the local priest sprinkled holy water, I asked our guide if he knew where — in this remote village — such a sign could have been purchased. His look indicated, perhaps, a surprise at my lack of sophistication. “Walmart,” he said, “in Guatemala City. Isn’t it beautiful?”

Are you human? Recommend this story.
Follow Matter on Twitter | Like us on Facebook | Subscribe to our newsletter