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.
[Lead image by David M. Schrader]