Better web design through sign painting

Facebook designer Scott Boms explains how he gained a new perspective on web design through sign painting.

Designers are inherently drawn to opportunities to create. Some with a pencil. Others with a mouse. And others still with a perfectly paletted sign painter's quill. Although I've had a keen interest in typography and letterforms throughout my career, I first stumbled into an obsession for painting signs during a weekend-long workshop at New Bohemia Signs in San Francisco, since when it has become a healthy counterpoint to my day-to-day design work.

That I had to stumble into the field makes sense when you consider how little evidence of sign painting or show card writing exists in my hometown of Toronto (aside from the walls of retailer Honest Ed's with its illuminated signage). On the other hand, it's a healthy cottage industry in Northern California, where I currently reside.

Aside from the opportunity to use type more expressively and in considerably different ways to when designing with pixels, sign painting taps into the aspect of my personality that feels intensely rewarded by producing something using my hands. If the web is fast, sign painting is definitely slow.

Authentic expression

To me, creating something by hand is the most sincere, authentic form of expression. It's where focusing on the act of 'doing' and losing oneself in the moment happens the most naturally. (The paint fumes may also be partly to blame for that.)

I've found sign painting to be both restrained and liberating, complex and simple, tedious yet exciting - all in equal measure. It's genuinely difficult to master, yet those challenges encourage solutions that are inherently more honest and direct; freeing rather than stifling.

Aside from often intense physical and mental demands, sign painting involves a certain degree of physical danger. If it isn't from painting high up on the side of a building, it's from producing patterns (known as 'pouncing') using a high-voltage Electro Pounce machine. Not that I would know anything about being repeatedly shocked by this device. Nope. Not at all.

Ultimately, what's allowed me to keep at it has been the ease with which I was able to construct a rudimentary sign-painting studio at home. That led to building a more complete studio with fellow designer Jez Burrows in Facebook's Analog Research Lab, where we both continue to pursue the craft.

Earlier this summer, that brought my outside interest back into my day-to-day work, through producing signs to support Facebook itself. Does that mean future opportunities? Maybe, though it's not something I'm focused on.

Instead, I've got a backlog of sign ideas and countless hours of practice strokes to pull first.

Words: Scott Boms

Scott Boms is a communication designer at Facebook.

This article originally appeared in net magazine issue 248.

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