Takeover Tuesday: A Splash of Colour: How Typography Defines the British Seaside
In this edition of Takeover Tuesday our Graphic Design Lead, Neil takes a look at seaside typography and how it’s helped shape these very British holiday destinations.
Ever since I was young, I’ve had a love of the coast. Long summer holidays were spent with my grandparents at their caravan in Fleetwood. We’d take day trips to Blackpool for sticks of rock, the illuminations and fish and chips on the promenade - it would be fair to say that for me, seaside resorts, especially Blackpool, have a lot of nostalgia attached to them. Then in recent years I found a new reason to keep going back - the typography.
From the distinctive neon signs and painted shop fronts to the brightly coloured pier-side lettering, typography is a defining element of many of the country’s most beloved coastal towns and cities. Its role in shaping the identity of these unique places has been crucial and, as such, it’s a big part of the British seaside story.
A Brief History
The British seaside resort has a rich history that dates back to the 18th century, when the industrial revolution transformed the way people spent their leisure time. As cities became crowded and polluted, many began to seek out fresh air and open spaces by the sea. This led to the rise of seaside towns like Blackpool, Brighton and Scarborough which became popular vacation destinations for people from all walks of life.
As tourism became an important industry, businesses and local authorities began to use graphic design to promote themselves. This included everything from simple painted signs to elaborate neon displays. Typography was a key part of marketing these destinations to potential visitors, as it helped create a distinctive visual identity for each resort.
Over time, the typography evolved to reflect changing cultural geography and sociology. In the mid-20th century, for example, the rise of package holidays led to a shift towards more modern, streamlined designs. However, even today, many seaside towns still feature traditional hand-painted signs and other examples of vintage typography.
Place branding is an important tool to assist the economic, political, and cultural development of cities, regions, and countries. And so, it is also vital that seaside towns assess their positioning and message to attract visitors and tourism.
Recent rebrands of resorts and theme parks have taken a sympathetic approach, understanding the nostalgic view of the British seaside. The designs look back, applying tradition, whilst also reinterpreting through a contemporary lens. Dreamland, Margate has recently updated its identity using colour which directly references vintage neon signs and appeals to families through its use of contemporary fonts and imagery.
Blackpool’s Pleasure Beach has also been repositioned using a bespoke font as part of their guideline - “The variable width of the typography also allowed us to write messages in a way that echoed the park's Art Deco heritage” - Johnson Banks. So, whilst moving forward to help regenerate these often tired and forgotten parts of the country, agencies are also looking back to reference the areas heritage and history.
Study and analysis
As I’ve started to dig deeper into this subject, I’ve discovered there are other designers with a shared love of seaside type.
Sarah Horn, born and raised in Blackpool released her book ‘Ensuites Available’ photographing the Lancashire town’s many hotel signs, holding them up as beautiful examples of seaside type. “It’s a photographic, celebratory tour of its social history. The city gets a lot of negative press, and I think if someone more removed designed this book, it might start to make it feel like a joke. In fact, we’re honouring this bonkers town!”
Justin Burns, Head of Art & Design, Leeds School of Arts at Leeds Beckett University, is exploring the graphic language of the seaside for a PhD and has written several articles for Eye Magazine on the subject - “we want to see if typefaces are associated with these vacation scapes and, if so, assess their impact. We then consider how an improved understanding of typography can inform better design decisions for destinations”. Through this research Burns has classified serif, fat face, scripts, slab serifs etc. and the associated fonts creating case studies to identify the unique attributes of each location explored.
It’s encouraging to see designers shining a light on the beauty and historical importance of this seaside vernacular signage, helping to shift perspectives on how these overlooked places are being viewed.
Preservation and Restoration
As with any historic aspect of the built environment, preservation and restoration comes with its own set of challenges. The very nature of seaside signage, often exposed to harsh weather conditions, means that it deteriorates quickly. Furthermore, the cultural geography of seaside resorts means that many of these signs have been altered and added to over the years, making restoration a complicated process.
In some cases, community-led initiatives have been successful in restoring signage, such as the recent restoration of the Dreamland amusement park in Margate or the successful preservation of the Blackpool Illuminations. Originally created in the 1870s, the Illuminations feature miles of neon lights, creating a magical atmosphere. In recent years, a concerted effort has been made to update the lighting to more energy-efficient options while still retaining the original charm and character.
It is my hope that the great British seaside evolves without losing the identity which makes it so special, of which type is a big part. When walking on the promenade or in the back streets it’s genuinely exciting to spot a nicely designed hotel vacancy sign or weird combination of type on a shop front which you don’t see anywhere else, and if they were somewhere else it just wouldn’t work. It’s truly unique. Only at the seaside.
- Dreamland Margate, designed by wtf creative
- Pleasure Beach, designed by Johnson Banks
- En-Suites Available, by Sarah Horn
- Justin Burns - ‘type specimen’ designs as part of Resorting to Type exhibition at The Margate School Gallery in September 2021.