Tony Cesare: You're Not Welcome

The campaign to replace bad village signage begins today!

Being a graphic designer is both a profession and an obsession, a blessing and a curse. I’ve been taught to see things most people overlook or happily ignore, not unlike that kid in the Sixth Sense, minus Bruce Willis and the whole dead people thing. 

The first is the disturbing realization that most graphic designers are an obnoxious bunch of arrogant hipsters, which means every day for me is kind of an exercise in self-loathing. The second is bad design, and specifically bad type.

I hate bad type. No, hate isn’t strong enough. Detest, abhor, abominoathe (which is a word I just made up combining ‘abominate’ and ‘loathe’). See that? I hate bad type so much I’m rewriting Webster’s.

Nothing makes me wince more than retail signage executed in all caps script; it’s a crime against typography. Just don’t do it. Please. Another is a handwritten sign where the “designer” didn’t anticipate the length of the message and was subsequently forced to make every successive character smaller and smaller until the last words in that “bathrooms are for customers only” sign are squished and a half-inch high.

There’s a Chinese restaurant I purposely avoid ordering from because they have a menu board in the window that features some of the most gruesome and glaringly bad handwritten type I have ever seen. It’s as if the proprietors handed a marker to the cook and forced him to write down the daily specials while simultaneously keeping an eye on the woks.

But of all the offensive examples of bad type (and bad design for that matter) none aggravates me more than the “Welcome to Downers Grove” sign along Highland Avenue.

Everything about it is awful. The random shape that vaguely suggests Texas as drawn by a toddler. The bad script typography that suggests a dollar store holiday card your Aunt Tootie resends every year. The terrible two-tone beige on brown that reminds you of cushioned patio furniture on the set of some '70s-era porno filmed in a tennis club. It gets worse, however. The all-caps dirty white brick welcome signage opposite 31st street is the signage equivalent of government cheese: generic and tasteless.

With all the development going up around the downtown area and our glorious new Belmont Avenue underpass finally opening up for use, how did we overlook our pathetic welcome signage? Wasn’t there a dollar or three to spare after the hole was dug and the concrete poured to hire a competent graphic designer to improve the very signs that welcome visitors to our humble village? How can we have overlooked it?

Why the exaggerated hysteria over village welcome signs? There are bigger issues, right? You’re not a schizophrenic graphic designer who apparently has too much time on his hands, so why should you care?

It’s simple: first impressions mean everything. With all of the encouraging changes that have taken place in our village over the last decade, shouldn't our signage follow suit? What’s wrong with a little updating, something reflective of where we are going versus where we’ve been?

Have you seen Lisle’s village signage? Sculpted white concrete with a Maple tree silhouette in sunk-relief (a nod to Morton Arboretum) and a handsome condensed serif font. Why can’t we do something like that? We don’t have to go all Schaumburg and create signs that rival Mount Rushmore but do our signs have to feel like apartment complex signage on the east end of Davenport? Aren’t we way cooler than that?

How about a heroic image of Pierce Downer himself, sleeves rolled up to reveal powerful biceps honed from farming the Grove, a well-worn sickle resting along his massive shoulders. Or maybe a tag line that references our place in the lore of the Underground Railroad? How about the carved in relief as a symbol of our history?

Thus, I’m officially kicking off the "Our Signs Suck" campaign to replace our village signage along both Highland and Ogden Avenues. In the coming weeks I will set up a PayPal account where I’ll be asking anyone interested to click and donate a dollar to the cause. As such, I am pledging half of my monthly pay as an intrepid Patch journalist will go directly to the fund, which will leave me enough every month to go to the movies—by myself. It’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make. Won’t you do the same?

Have an idea for our village signage? Send it to me at rigatony43@yahoo.com and I promise that I will share it with the village hierarchy, whom I’m absolutely certain will be contacting me for this cause any day now.

Tony Cesare December 06, 2011 at 07:11 PM
I consider a rebranding an elemental part of our village infrastructure, same as streets repair. Now, given my profession that's to be expected, but here's the thing. Given a choice between spending a dime on generic, template based signage or repairing the crap we have, I would leave it all be until such time as we could afford to solve the problem. It's like home repair. My wife is always after me to replace the cracked glass on our century old windows. I say tape over it if you feel a draft otherwise leave it be until we have the money to replace them with new, energy efficient models. Why spend money on a band aid? Why patch crap? Moreover, there are enough graphic artists and architects here in the village who might be willing to be part of a committee (free of charge, of course) that 1. Identifies what makes our village unique and 2. Presents those findings to the council and, pending approval, 3. Determines how best to translate that to signage. Once that design is created and approved, a sign maker is brought in and materials are selected, and the signage executed. Just sayin'...
goddess December 06, 2011 at 07:19 PM
As long as they pick good designers.
Scott C. December 06, 2011 at 07:20 PM
Tony, why make that decision before you have all the facts? I say get the facts, then make a decision. Operating here in the abstract without real facts is an exercise in the absurd. How far do you let it deteriorate before it becomes an obvious need? Or do you not agree that any point of deterioration requires repair or replacement if a comprehensive plan isn't in place? I'm just going off the information here - that the branding project is on hold indefinitely. In my opinion, you don't let broken crap sit until the perfect, fully funded plan is in place to fix it. Because that perfect plan is often indefinitely elusive. And goddess, while its a nice idea to have signs perfectly match the rest of the Village's branding, these aren't drapes sitting in our living room...they are stand alone signs out on the corner of town. Your desire for perfect uniformity is a nice want, but in my opinion it really isn't a need. I have never in my life driven into a community and wondered whether their signs match their community's branding plan. Ever. In fact, until today I've never even thought about it. But I sure have taken note of some dismal looking signs.
Tony Cesare December 06, 2011 at 07:44 PM
Scott-I agree that at some point repair becomes neccesity, and that is unfortunate. However, how often does that band aid solution become the permanent one? That's my fear. I also agree that often the ideal (or in my opinion proper) solution is elusive. That too is unfortunate, and lands you right back where you started-with a bad design. Once again, it's my background but I always notice well thought out branding programs in both communities all the way down to retail, to me it's a sign of pride and professionalism.
goddess December 06, 2011 at 07:47 PM
It's more than a nice idea. It's an important one. Design isn't about making things pretty, that's decorating. Design is a problem solving business using mostly visual elements. And you're right, drapes are a bad example. It's more like buying all the siding and windows before designing your house. For most people their exposure to the brand are those signs. It's vital that they convey the message and branding of the village. I haven't seen any falling apart, but if they're out there they should be repaired or removed. I'm just saying that the village shouldn't spend a lot of money redesigning and building expensive monument signs until they've done the branding.
Scott C. December 06, 2011 at 07:55 PM
goddess, look at the pictures above posted in connection with this article...you don't have to look much further. I have not said the village should spend a lot of money redesigning and building anything. I have only suggested that we should get the facts necessary to make an informed decision and not just let them continue to crumble. On one hand, Tony seems to suggest that we should let them crumble away until that decades-long delayed perfect and perfectly funded plan comes along. On the other hand, he seems to think the problem is important enough to have writtne an article about it...
Ray December 06, 2011 at 08:09 PM
The house is already built, so it's OK to replace the siding.
Tony Cesare December 06, 2011 at 08:13 PM
I am an enigma, aren't I? Seriously, I wrote the article because I think it's a problem, but I'm not advocating a band aid approach, but rather a comprehensive rebranding, for which I hope the money will eventually become available. As for the existing signage, I have a suggestion. Remove them completely. Better nothing than bad.
Scott C. December 06, 2011 at 08:46 PM
An enigma indeed...but a good and thought provoking one I'm glad is here writing on the Patch (a little holiday love for you there Tony). "..for which I hope the money will eventually become available." Which our own Mayor indicates has been lacking for a decade. Not holding my breath. So something should be done about what is falling apart now. I agree that nothing is better than leaving the bad for all to see. I'd still like to get some simple numbers on a professionally done sign and maybe a design or two offered by a local graphic designer...if only we could find one. Oh wait! Hey, Tony...how's things? But seriously, my folks' cul de sac (of about 20 homes) in Darien pitched in for a beautifully done wood sign (as large as any "Welcome To" city sign) that has stood the test of time and design for 20+ years and still looks great. This shouldn't be a heavy lift.
Patricia December 07, 2011 at 04:18 AM
Curious what you think of the holiday decorations at the train station, Tony?
Doug Grier December 08, 2011 at 02:36 PM
The list of decrepit infrasructure in DG is quite long.
Tony Cesare December 08, 2011 at 03:26 PM
I think I'm thrilled that the village was able to do anything at all this year, considering our budget. It's not exactly a Lincolnwood worthy display, but it's something...
Mark December 11, 2011 at 12:19 AM
I don't seem to understand the need to pay 92,000 or whatever to some firm to tell us what we want anyway. Isn't there any local talent around here that would like a shot at it? How about some of our students making a class project of it? That would combine a real world education along with the possibility of their creation being seen by all for years to come. Should they come up with something, perhaps the village could make a donation to their higher education fund. Surely that would be cheaper than some "consultation".
Martin Tully December 11, 2011 at 07:01 PM
I agree with goddess that a comprehensive, professional and successful branding effort is about much more than conducting a grade school competition for a new logo. That said, there is always more than one way to skin a cat and the Village is looking into creative options about how to accomplish a proper branding effort and secure new gateway signage that is both consistent with that branding and reflective of the quality of our community. Thus, while the specific pre-Recession budget item is currently off the table, the goal has not been forgotten -- especially as it is a component of other important goals, such as robust economic development efforts. Please stay tuned.
Scott C. December 11, 2011 at 11:13 PM
Its a great idea to be consistent, no doubt. But I still submit that nobody - and I mean nobody, outside of maybe a tiny fraction of people "in the know" - driving in and out of our community (or any other community for that matter) at any given time will have any ability (or will care at all) to discern whether the single sign they see is consistent with anything, much less any comprehensive branding effort. I'd still welcome even a ballpark figure of what it costs to repair or replace a sign so we have some idea what we are actually talking about.
Bill White December 12, 2011 at 12:07 AM
One reason community branding might be a "need" rather than a "want" is the ongoing decline in Downers Grove sales tax receipts, not solely on an absolute basis (which can be explained by the larger economy) but also on a relative basis compared with other Chicago-land communities. Having a higher sales tax rate due to the home rule sales tax surcharge doesn't help matters, either.
Ray December 12, 2011 at 01:58 PM
I'm with Scott here - and unless you're trying to be like a Nashville "Music City" or Austin "Live Music Capital of the World" or whatever it's called, the whole concept of a suburban town as a "brand" will be lost on the vast majority of people. When I drive into a town and I see the name of the town accompanied by "The Friendly Village", or "Village of Faith" or "A Progressive Community" or "The Lilac Village", it really doesn't mean anything to me or determine whether I go into that town to shop or run an errand. 9I assume these are like "brands"?) But I equate a nice sign to a nice, clean front of a house and a crappy sign with a house that has old Downers Grove Sun pages for curtains.
goddess December 12, 2011 at 04:33 PM
Branding isn't just a logo and a tag line. It's even more than just looks. It is a comprehensive message of how the Village wants to present itself. It includes the logo and signage, but also the verbal message. It's the identity. Just as we could not describe all that we are as individuals with a single logo and tagline, neither can the village. Branding isn't about if everyone can remember the signage, it's about what they think and feel when they think of Downers Grove. The village wants to be in control of that message. If someone asked us for a couple sentence description of DG would our answers even be close to one another? With a consistently applied branding we would find that we were using the same "language" do describe the village. It's like magic. Now imagine there is someone doing site research for locating a business in Downers. With properly applied branding you are giving that person the same language. They go back to the office using the words, images and feelings of the village that is part of the branding. Branding is kind of a quiet marketing message. It's selling without being about SELLING. It helps attach an identity to the village that the village controls. There can be multiple angles the the brand. One for attracting residents & one for attracting businesses. Everyone likes to believe that branding doesn't impact their opinions, but it does. Start paying attention to it, look for it. You'll see it everywhere. From large corporations to politicians.
Scott C. December 12, 2011 at 05:10 PM
Goddess, I fear you may be missing the point. Nobody is arguing what branding is or isn't, or that it isn't nice to have, important, etc. The point we're making is that when an average Joe/Jane passes a sign standing by itself on the corner of town (any town), they generally don't have any idea (or really care) if/how/whether/to what extent it matches the rest of the community's branding. Its a sign on the corner of town. Its a nice idea that it might match some larger scheme, yes. But it isn't essential to having a pleasant looking sign that isn't falling apart.
Jack December 12, 2011 at 05:23 PM
Lisle spent at least $40K in consultants for "branding" since 2007. I say - "at least" - because contract stringing and no-bid contracts are common in Lisle and 40K is what one can find in meeting minutes as publically approved at a Village Board meeting. This does not include staff time dedicated to this effort, and does not include the costs to implement the branding plan. That was just for consultants fees. Compare downtown Lisle to Downtown DG - pretty clear a branding plan does not attract business.
goddess December 12, 2011 at 05:35 PM
Ironically Scott, you're missing the point. It doesn't matter if the average Joe doesn't care if the sign matches the branding. I would assume most people have more important things to worry about. But for branding to be effective the details must be correct. The town doesn't have the money to do it's branding project now, but it should be done. It's a vital step in attracting residents and businesses. I get that you don't think it's important, but really, it is. I would be for taking the signs in need of repair down until they can be done right instead of spending good money the town doesn't have on signs that will be redone in a few years when the branding project is done.
goddess December 12, 2011 at 05:43 PM
1. Down town Lisle is much smaller and has almost no charm or anything going for it. 2. I don't know if they went with a competent branding agency. Price is no measure of that. 3. Lisle is attaching their brand to the arboretum and it's already working.
Jack December 12, 2011 at 07:11 PM
1. Lisle is a little smaller (not like we're comparing Lisle to Chicago) - and agreed, not one ounce of charm in Lisle. Most people associate Lisle with Lockformer water contamination - a reason a marketing make-over with some green-wash was needed 2. Lisle contracted a company named Tandem Design Strategic Marketing... http://www.villageoflisle.org/weblink7/DocView.aspx?id=63171&searchhandle=6595 3. Yes - Lisle is "using" the Arboretum. They still haven't figured out the hypocrisy of a "green" marketing campaign using the Arboretum when one cannot walk or bike from anywhere in Lisle to the Arboretum for lack of sidewalks/bike paths. http://www.villageoflisle.org/home/index.asp?page=690 I don't think the $40K marketing investment is paying off or "working" as most people don't even know Lisle has a downtown (other than train station) despite the marketing costs in addition to some $20 Million invested so far on one block.
Tony Cesare December 12, 2011 at 07:15 PM
Exactly. I like what Lisle has done, taking advantage of a natural asset like the Arboretum to create an identity for the village. I would love to see an entire branding effort created and approved, then executed in stages to make it cost effective. Naturally village signage would come first. It should be consistent with whatever message and image the village wants to reflect. We make purchase decisions based on brands every day, the car we drive, the groceries we purchase, the clothes we wear. Yes, cost is an issue, but I'm willing to bet brand strength or perception is a greater factor in our decision making. I should know, I've built a career around it!
Jack December 12, 2011 at 08:10 PM
Lisle newest "identity" is one the powers-that-be are chosing to ignore. Lisle has been named one of the Top 20 "Best Places for the Rich & Single" in 2011 and 2009 by Money Magazine. For some reason, Lisle choses not to market national recognition (which didn't cost a dime!)
Patricia December 12, 2011 at 08:43 PM
goddess, one of our favorite restaurants(which by the way is so busy on the weekends, there are people waiting in a line out the door). Yerbabuana. they also have a very nice bakery/restaurant. Last weeend the entire downtown area was light up by luminaria lining all the streets (very charming), and they have that beautiful pond and park area just west of the main street. Maybe you should go visit before you totally bash them.
goddess December 12, 2011 at 09:36 PM
Sorry, I didn't mean to insult Lisle. I used to live there and I love Yerbabuana. It's just the down town area is smaller than Downers and some unfortunate architectural choices in what I'm guessing to be the 70s means, to me, that the main drag of Lisle does not have the same charm as Downers. Though there are a few buildings in downtown Downers I could do without as well. Just my opinion.
Patrick Murphy January 19, 2012 at 04:43 AM
If your going to have Denise Richards then equal billing should go to Cammi Granato. Perhaps a neon that has her plowing Denise over on her rear end. Nothing against D.R. I just lean for talent over eyebrows, hair and lips. Although they run a close second.
Patrick Murphy January 19, 2012 at 05:10 AM
With Mayor Tully's ackowledgment of the need and logical explanation of why it's on the backburner perhaps true grass roots is the way to go. Is a firm that includes "Consultant" in it's name really necessary? They all carry the kind of price tag Mr. Thoman mentions. Brings to mind all the extremely talented artists our own high schools potentially have on minimum wage retainer. Yes, it can start with a contest of sorts. What better than our own young artistic minds to guide us into and through the new millennium with our signage. Maybe different designs for each entry point. I understand the potential can of worms we might open with what is and isn't art, but I'm reasonably certain we can avoid an automobile Shish-Ka-Bob like a certain Berwyn shopping plaza embraced for way too many years. And why not involve some of our drafting/engineering classes and other trade classes within the school as well? The $92,000 could be better spent on school equipment to make the project feasable. IIT wouldn't farm it out why should we? And lastly we would certainly avoid any Band Shelter type cost over runs.
Patrick Murphy January 19, 2012 at 05:16 AM
Great idea Tony and thanks for awaking us to something that's been there every day even though most of us found a place in our blind eye to keep it. With recent cost overruns with our band shelter it may be more prudent to change the name of our town to match the existing signage. "Da Grove" or maybe "Downers Hood" might blend nicely on the existing structure..


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