For signboards, big is no longer best
“Yeah ... Like art projects done by kids,” the other man agreed.
The two men were talking about a signboard shaped like a rough star cutout with a funny name that read “Blue Star, Big-eared Fox,” adorning a famous restaurant-bar in Samcheong-dong, in north central Seoul.
The men were two of about 30 people in the signboard business who had travelled up from South Chungcheong to participate in the so-called Signboard Academy.
Run by the Signboard Culture Research Institute, a.k.a. Better Signs, the three-day civic workshop seeks to educate people who make the signboards on what makes a sign both beautiful and marketable.
On day two of the curriculum, which ran from Monday to Wednesday, the students went on a field trip to Samcheong-dong as well as Myeong-dong central Seoul and Sinsa-dong, southern Seoul, three thriving areas in the capital. The course participants examined the signboards and debated with some gravitas the unusual materials, sizes and shapes.
“Don’t only look at the signs,” yelled Kim Yeong-bae, the principal of the academy. Kim is also a professor of advertising and public relations at Semyung University.
“The key is how well the signs fit into the general atmosphere of the streets, the towns.”
Kim went on to explain that signboards don’t have to be big and flashy. “They can be small and not contain much information, yet still be highly effective,” he said.
Some of the signboards in Samcheong-dong were made of rusty sheets of metal. Some were the size of A-4 paper. A sign outside a rice shop simply read “Ssal,” which means uncooked rice in Korean.
“In the good old days, it was just black calligraphy on plain wood,” said Mun Yong-seok, who has been in the signboard business for about 20 years.
“It’s interesting how things have changed over the years, using all sorts of things to complete a signboard, even a plant.” Mun pointed to a signboard that used ivy to highlight the name of the shop.
“The signs fit in with the neighborhood, as if nestling in its arms,” said Yun Jeong-gyu from Nonsan, South Chungcheong, who has been in the business for eight years. “It’s impressive how they’ve designed them to fall in line with the shape of the building.”
The Semyung University professor picked the areas for the field trip with a clear intent. Store owners in Samcheong-dong and Sinsa-dong, tend to put up creative and fun signboards because they want to, not because they have been ordered to by the local government.
The Signboard Academy, an annual event, was launched in the summer last year with signboard makers from Gyeonggi.
In recent years, an increasing number of people have begun to feel repulsed by the rampant overflow of signboards in cities all over the country. Some critics even refer to the signboard phenomenon as a form of urban pollution. They complain that huge, neon signs covering an entire building can confuse people instead of guiding them, which is, after all, a signboard’s primary function.
“One time, I was looking for a specific hospital. But it took me a while because my vision was swamped by hundreds of signboards of all colors and shapes,” said Kim Yeong-hye, 55, who lives in Bundang, Gyeonggi, where there is another major cluster of signs.
Incredibly, the central shopping center in Suwon, Gyeonggi, has 1,282 signboards for 478 stores, according to the Suwon city government, which is launching a project aimed at replacing old signboards in the shopping center with new ones starting next year.
There is in fact a law in place that clearly limits the number of signs a shop can put up and the area they can cover, among many other clauses.
But the law is rarely respected.
While the government estimates that about 50 percent of signboards in Korea are illegal, civic groups claim the figure is closer to 80 or 90 percent.
“Most people are not really aware of the law,” said Choi Wu-jeong of the regional development policy bureau of the Ministry of Public Administration and Security. “They usually think, ‘It’s my building, it’s my store. Why do I need to get approval for what kind of sign I put up?’”
According to a government press release in March this year, if the administration were to enforce the law as it stands, it would have to take down 54 percent of existing signboards.
Such a move is unlikely to go down well with store owners and small businesses whose signs get removed.
Realizing that promoting the law is more crucial than cracking down on violators, the ministry has teamed up with the Signboard Culture Research Institute and launched the Good Sign Award last year.
This year the top award went to a jewelry accessory store called Eunnamu in Samcheong-dong.
Local governments are getting involved. The Seoul city government released guidelines in April stipulating that a single shop should have no more than two signs and that they should not exceed 80 percent of the width the store. The regulation is currently 100 percent.
In addition, the Seoul city government is running a competition for the most creative signboards. The winning 21 entries will be used for new signs, according to the competition guidelines.
One area that underwent a major makeover is a two-story shopping center in Apgujeong-dong, southern Seoul. “Before, the signs were large and inconsistent,” said a pharmacist who asked not to be named. She has worked in the area for 30 years.
“They’ve now become neater and smaller. Customers seem to like it. They say the new design actually makes the shops easier to spot.”
The signboard clean-up project was jointly funded by the district office and shop owners.
The Incheon city government has designated Songdo International City a “special outdoor advertisement zone.” A shop is allowed only one sign, among other regulations.
Suwon in Gyeonggi and Geoje in South Gyeongsang earlier this month announced similar plans.
“A signboard plays a deciding role in creating a city’s image,” said Choi Bum, a design critic and the president of the Signboard Culture Research Institute.
“Our hope is that with these efforts, people will realize the importance of a sign that harmonizes with its surroundings.
“We hope that people will start competing to have the best signs, not in quantity or size, but in quality and design. But this can only happen with awareness and in coordination with the government, shop owners and signboard makers,” Choi said.
By Kim Hyung-eun Staff Reporter [firstname.lastname@example.org]