Blue Pencil on Characters

Reviewer Paul Shaw, New York-based typography scholar and writer.

Note that this is not a Blue Pencil takedown but a thumbs up for a book that does what it should do. What makes Characters stand out is that Banham has told the stories behind them. The book is not just a collection of cool images, an occasion to wallow in nostalgia for the past—a time before computers, the internet, franchises and chain stores, international corporations, etc a time before Helvetica! – but Banham has researched the history of how the signs were conceived, designed and manufactured and he has gone beyond that to describe what the signs have meant to different generations of Melburnians—thus his book is about place as well as about time.

It is about signs and lettering in Melbourne, Australia (he calls it type which is usually incorrect—but this is a common problem as my own walking tours in New York City sponsored by the Type Directors Club are called type tours when they rarely involve type).

The one flaw in this well researched, well written and well designed book (all by Banham himself using I think at least one typeface of his own)—is that there is no map to non-Australian readers—which I hope there will be many—the references to the Yarra River, Flinders Street, the Eastern District and other places draw a blank Melbourne’s geography needs a visual aid for the reader. 

Much of the book is familiar to anyone who has been on one of my walking tours: neon signs, Art Deco inscriptions, quirky letters that function as architecture, amusing vernacular forms, street and transportation signage, hidden letters, ghost signs [which Banham calls by another name] and so on.

The stories are short but Banham explains eloquently why these signs, especially the large neon ones, matter to Melbournians and much of what he has to say should resonate with residents of other cities on other continents who are dismayed at how the relentless pace of modernization and globalization has increasingly stripped places of their identity, their uniqueness, their personality.

Banham’s book is often a tale of tragedy and heroism, of signs that have been brutalised and destroyed but also of signs that have survived against all odds and the people who have been responsible and apparently in Melbourne a strong architectural preservation law or ethos that extends to signage though money for upkeep with neon is a continual issue he notes. Banham does not shy away from the problems inherent in wanting to keep the signs of the past alive when the businesses they represented and glowed for are long gone. This book is what Just My Type should have been; good stories, accessible entry to type for a general audience that is reliably researched and devoid of snotty attitude. Banham is fair to all, even when he is critical.