Fontly, a free iPhone app, is designed to help users find and preserve historic type.

Neon signs, hand-painted storefronts, architectural lettering--everything is fair game.

You can pull up a map and see the type other people have tagged nearby.

It’s a cool crowdsourced solution for historical preservation.

You can view the collection on the web at http://font.ly, too.

Signs--and the type we use on them--tell a story about the history of our cities.

"I’d even argue that some of these signs are landmarks," says the app’s creator, Brendan Ciecko.

Label the sign when you tag it to provide some context.

Co.Design

An App For Finding (And Preserving) The Old Typography All Around Us

Download Fontly for your iPhone and you’re liable to start seeing historic typography everywhere you go.

These days, even those who don’t spend their days toiling in design are likely familiar with some of typography’s many powers, be it the ability to make us believe a passage of text, the capacity to help dyslexics read more effectively, or just the power to stretch an eight-page term paper to the required 10 pages. But it can be easy to forget that type faces aren’t limited to the options available in a drop-down menu in Microsoft Word. Our world--our real world--abounds with unique, expressive typography, from neon signs to hand-painted storefronts. Fontly, a free app for the iPhone, is dedicated to preserving these typographical treasures.

There are two primary ways to use the app: You can pull up a map and discover the postings other users have made in your area, or you can use the iPhone’s camera to take your own snapshots and add them to the Fontly map (which can also be perused online at Fontly). Either mode should put you at least a little bit more in tune with the vintage type all around you.

As Brendan Ciecko, the app’s creator, explains, typography serves a higher purpose than just labeling stores or decorating buildings. In fact, he says, the typography of yesteryear is uniquely suited for telling us stories about the cities and towns we live in:

The idea for Fontly was inspired by my growing interest in history, the urban landscape, and the eras and evolution of typography and visual style. After traveling from city-to-city, country-to-country, I started realizing that there is a story to be told about places, people, and time … and this story lives in signage. Without picking up a history book, you get a sense of who inhabited the Lower East Side of NYC or Boston’s South End or Krakow’s Old Town; which immigrants settled, what the community valued, their distinct aesthetic, and commercial activities of the past and present. It’s all there.

In fact, for Ciecko, Fontly has more to do with preservation than mere appreciation.

"The larger goal of this project," Ciecko told me, "is about highlighting and preserving these instances of typography. Found-lettering and signage of historic or visual significance should be protected. I’d even argue that some of these signs are landmarks! It’s a part of our heritage, it gives us a sense of place, and it’s inspirational on many levels."

"I want Fontly to become a tool not only for typophiles and designers," he continued, "but for preservationists, architects, students, and anyone who shares these values."

And soon, Ciecko told me, Fontly will be available to even more would-be preservationists: an Android version is currently in the works.

You can grab Fontly from the App Store or check out what other people are posting on its website.

[Lead image by David M. Schrader]

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21 Comments

  • Sean Roper

    So much potential with this app. There are some navigation issues, and it really needs the ability to give a thumbs down to a bad choice, but otherwise it's great.

  • Rob Yelvington

    I was just out west and I came across an old deserted restaurant in Virginia Dale, Colorado.. I had to pull a u turn and come back and get a photo or two.  

    I love old signs,and I would love to share my photos with others who have the same passion I do.  I'm gonna search out the neon project, because I really love old neon too.   

    I'd love to be a regular contributor, from the looks of it, Lansing Michigan is not well represented on this site.  Until now!  

  • Barbara Salvadori

    When I search for an App, I am expecting a tool or something unique.
    This is just a collection of Signs shared between people. 
    Not really an original idea. I was expecting something like an app that could read a sign and detect a font... this would be a cool tool for designers.Barbara [London UK]

  • Brendan Ciecko

    Hello Barbara, most of the instances of vintage typography being posted on Fontly are pre-digital and one-of-a-kind with no corresponding font. Being able to detect which font is being used isn't applicable to such content. I would suggest that you check out WhatTheFont by the fine folks at MyFonts - it's a very helpful tool for what you're looking for.

  • Patrick King

    I agree wholeheartedly with Mike about the misuse of the word "font." It's truly a losing battle, but thanks for keeping up the good fight. 

    I wouldn't see that all of the typography on older signs is necessarily custom, plenty are composed of recognizable typefaces. Still, unless the sign includes a complete showing of a typeface variant, with all its attendant characters, it's not a font.

  • Mike McVicar

    Not trying to be a negative nancy here but I find it kind of odd that an app for documenting vintage signage and typography would be called Fontly when there are actually very few "fonts" involved. Most of what we see here is custom typography and one of a kind hand lettering, which is the opposite of a Font. Though I understand that the laymen's usage of word "Font" is more widely accepted these day, here in particular it downplays the extreme dedication and mastery of craft that these signs exhibit. Don't be fooled, banging out any old font on the computer and slapping it on a sign isn't going to give you the same results. Though it can be a good starting point for studying and appreciating the beauty of letterforms and composition. That being said, more power to these guys and I hope to use this App once it allows uploading from the Camera Roll. Thanks!

  • Brendan Ciecko

    Mike and Patrick, thanks for the feedback. At Fontly, we are fully aware that the content isn't of anything font-based and that most of the content is pre-digital lettering, some of which are derived from typefaces, some not.

    I agree that these are not, by definition, fonts... but we wanted to create a name that resonated, short, easy to follow, and to create something new and fun. It's an idiom.  There are countless examples of misnomers that have been accepted, even in cases of irony. I'm glad that you pointed this out, as it's an important point and distinction that should be stated.
    Just as you do, I hope the users understand and appreciate the incredible commitment and contribution that sign-painters and pre-digital-age typographers have made to our world and our surroundings. I've always found these works to be inspiring and hope that more people and eyes move in the same direction.
    If you have any feedback, suggestion, or just want to chat about typography... my e-mail is brendan@font.ly

  • Shawmut

    Holy crap! I live about 15 seconds walk from Sahara. Wasn't expecting this, I'm just an average joe font lover :)

  • Arno Ford

    as a sign designer who loves type, this sounds like a great app.....i would probably use it for what i would consider well done signs of this time period too. arno

  • Christine

    I love to travel and will totally use this app. I've seen so many cool signs that I've wanted to share with people. This is awesome.

  • krzystoff_oz

    that app sounds terrific -- so when are you releasing a version for the other 75%+ of smartphone users who have a non-iPhone ?

  • Brendan Ciecko

    Thanks for the feedback. We're currently working on an Android version and hope to have it up very, very soon!