Signage: A Sign of Americanization?

India Billboards

What are the effects on a country that begins to transforms itself from thousand-year-old traditions to modern technology? A new book, “India Becoming: A Portrait of Life in Modern India” by Akash Kapur explores that question. A native Indian, Kapur returned to his country in 2003 after living in the United States for over a decade. He writes about the Americanization of India, from the entrance of multinational corporations such as McDonald’s and Starbucks to the growing prosperity of even India’s most impoverished citizens. But it’s not all a rosy transformation from old to new: Kapur laments that tradition is being lost in the mix.

He’s not the only Indian scholar with this observation. Gaurav Mathur published a paper in the magazine Design Issues, “Signboard as Mirrors of Cultural Change.” He points out that the changes occurring in India can be seen in the signage. And like Akash Kapur, he laments India’s loss of culture and tradition:

“A foreign language and monotonous uniformity are replacing variety at an unprecedented rate…Today, most signage, banners, and billboards look similar. The rich visual and symbolic culture is moribund.”

All societies go through changes and adapt to technology. In addition to advertising, pointing direction and announcing an institution’s presence, signage also acts as a sign of change.

Handmade Signs From the Past

When I was a child growing up in Salt Lake City, Utah, our local grocery store had handmade banners that were changed weekly. The banners hung over various parts of the store and announced sales, specials and events. They were constructed of long sheets of butcher paper, hand-painted with poster paint. The signs were truly works of art; they featured multi-colored pictures to go along with the text. A local artist spent his days making signs for all three of the grocery store locations.

In India, handmade signs still proliferate. They’re less expensive than four-color, wide format printed signs and don’t require the technology needed to mass produce their glossy, modern cousins. And Indian businesses love their signage. If one sign is good, twelve is even better. But little by little, American technology is creeping in.

India Banner

New Technology

My local grocery store began using modern printed banners and signage in the 1990s. For awhile after the switch, the signs were boring and when they featured pictures, they were pretty cheesy.  It didn’t seem as though technology was adding any value to the signage; in fact, it was detracting value. I missed the old handmade signage and wondered if “improvements” were helping or hurting.

American companies began moving into India en masse in the mid 1990s. As consumer-centered businesses came in, so did their logos and signage. The golden arches of McDonald’s quickly became the cultural icon in India that it already was in America. Shopping malls sprouted up and began pushing out local markets and bazaars. The differences in signage, as Gaurauv Mathur points out, began to become more and more apparent. Old-world markets offered handmade signage and do-it-yourself storefronts; American companies had glossy, mass-produced signs and brick facades.

Integrating Cultural Traditions with New Technology

McDonalds PuneIndia
McDonalds PuneIndia

In my grocery store, the signage kept evolving. As designers all over the country became more proficient with design software and printing technology, creativity returned. Now the signs are interesting and unique again. The grocery chain (now 12 stores) focuses on its history and markets itself as being a store that is a Salt Lake City icon. The signage portrays the company’s founding brothers and lends an air of tradition to the stores, all of which have also evolved. What was once a tiny, local grocery store has become a large, modern store with all the latest developments in produce storage, deli offerings, grind-your-own-coffee-bean kiosks, etc. The signs are big and glossy, too. But they’ve combined tradition with technology.

India is in the middle of a struggle to do the same. While Mathur worries that his country’s rich cultural heritage might be lost, he realizes that he (and other designers in India) needn’t sit back and watch American companies replace Indian culture with their mass-produced signage. He says,

“Whether we like it or not, globalization and its impacts are here to stay. Change is inevitable, and the design community cannot simply lament the past. It is best to ride the waves of transition and steer to establish an Indian identity rather than fall prey to the global semblance.”

The handmade signs in both the United States and India were/are signs of local culture. Signage technology can destroy tradition, or simply improve the method of spreading it through the society. Creative, talented designers have figured out how to do this in America; Indian designers can do the same.