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Type as visual identity: a walk through New Haven, Connecticut

Attached to almost every building facade is a sign or logo; a way of displaying to observers what lives inside. The name or brand is often accompanied with some indication as to what is behind the facade: coffee, crafts, crawfish - we get an immediate impression from these descriptions. Yet we gather so much more about what is inside through the appearance of these signs; whether we choose to enter is about more than the written description, it's about whether we feel a connection.

The sign we see is a combination of the chosen words and the accompanying colour, typeface, size, and quality of print. We may not consciously stop to consider and debate these aesthetic choices, but each aspect helps us build an overall picture. We align this picture to our own identity and ultimately choose to enter the buildings we feel an association with. Stepping back, the collection of signs and logos that adorn spaces ultimately reflect the community they represent.

This relationship between signs and the community is ever apparent in New Haven, Connecticut. The city is the home of Yale University and, although it was the first planned city in the USA, has suffered in the post-industrial era, experiencing both economic and population decline. Yale has worked to integrate itself with the wider community, yet a look at the logos and signs in the city visually illustrates a social dichotomy.

Cover image: Cajun Boiled, New Haven, photo by Mark Leonard

Ezra Stiles College, Yale University, New Haven, photo by Mark Leonard

It's immediately apparent when you're outside a Yale campus building. The ubiquitous blue, Matthew Carter's iconic ‘Yale’ typeface, and the references to age, the Ivy League, and achievement all make it clear that you are walking around the university. These visual signifiers project Yale's brand and display the size of the university, whilst also offering convenient photo-ops for proud parents and aspiring applicants. For the thousands of people that are part of the Yale community, they represent belonging.

Yale-China Association, New Haven, photo by Mark Leonard

Stepping outside of the Yale campus onto the nearby leafy streets, the bars, cafes, and bookshops are adorned with attractive logos. Stylish fonts are paired with pleasing hues – all printed in super high quality. Gothic fonts are posted over bookshops; neon-lighting is used evocatively outside of a modern clothing store; and hand-drawn chalk marks the opening hours of the local dairy shop. Inside all of these venues is the sound of excited conversation between students in blue hoodies.

Atticus Bookstore, New Haven, photo by Mark Leonard

Yet step one street further away from campus and the muted, modern colour palate becomes bright and loud. Typefaces are embellished with effects designed to grab attention – bubble fonts, three-dimensional lettering, and text of varying sizes. The signs become more utilitarian, using wording to signify exactly what goes on inside. Neon signs are used to provide easy clarification about whether the venue is open or closed or to advertise brands within. The text is loud and full of emphasis.

Convenience Stores, New Haven, photo by Mark Leonard

Liquor Store, New Haven, photo by Mark Leonard

Tandoor, New Haven, photo by Mark Leonard

Type is the strongest ambassador for visual identity, it serves as a cultural way-finder for social progress, class divide, and sweeping gentrification. Cities and towns across America are working to revitalise areas and encourage more community interaction by building new parks, installing better lighting, and improving on public amenities. Typography is what remains as a reminder that diversity and economic polarisation are difficult things to gloss over.

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