At Our Wit’s End

At Our Wit’s End

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Contributed by:
Frances Yllana


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At Our Wit’s End

Are we losing out wit and sense of humor as we strip signs and neighborhoods of their playfulness?

In the book A Smile in the Mind: Witty Thinking in Graphic Design, Edward de Bono makes the case that wit is more than a source of intellectual playfulness, but a serious force in the world of design.

De Bono explains the strength of wit that happens almost instantly when you observe the cleverness of design: It wins time, it invites participation, it gives the pleasure of decoding, it gives a reward, it amuses, it gets under one’s guard, it forms a bond, it goes deeper, and it is memorable.

In the space of strip malls and shopping centers, plain roadways, and city skylines, what wit can do is not only create landmarks that serve as beacons for direction, but also feel-good character that is scientifically proven to actually make you feel good. So, if laughter is the best medicine, why have we stripped our neighborhoods of the playfulness illustrated below?

Pictured left to right: Centennial Liquors / Stemmons Highway and Walnut Hill Lane; Glo Cleaners / North Abrams, Gaston, Commerce; Anchor Motel / Harry Hines; “Sonny the Steer” at Charco Broiler Steak / Jefferson Ave, Oak Cliff // Illustrations: Frances Yllana

A Brief Wit-Story

Roadside attractions are as American as the Ford pickup. As car culture evolved and long-distance road trips grew in popularity between the 1920s and ’70s, businesses saw these strips of open road as opportunities to profit, resulting in the prevalence of gas stations, motels, restaurants—and strip centers—popping up along the routes to serve travelers. These businesses employed marketing teams to conceptualize roadside attractions modeled after “world’s largest ...” tourist traps to bring in drivers. These marketers hatched ideas that birthed larger-than-life signs and fiberglass giants, and restaurants shaped like teacups, ice cream cones, and other food items—all making these advertising gimmicks into their own must-see destinations.

These witty attractions came in every size and shape with some growing more iconic and collectible than the rest over time. As related advertising campaigns for these roadside attractions ended, businesses closed, maintenance of these iconic statues fell to the wayside, and fewer and fewer of these giants were created to take the place of the demolished ones.

However, in the late ’70s more preservationist groups formed to document and protect them, like the Society for Commercial Archaeology. The more iconic of these statues and signs include the 12-foot-tall Big Boy Restaurant statues, the Tastee Freez twins, and the varied assortment of Muffler Men, which have all grown giant followings and forums of their own dedicated to their preservation and collection.

Pictured left to right: Alamo Plaza Hotel Courts / Fort Worth Ave.; Mercantile National Bank Weather Tower / Downtown Dallas, Main St.; Beef House Restaurant / Garland, TX

Have We Lost Our Wits?

From a graphic designer’s standpoint, when it comes to the whittling of wit from our strip centers and the stripping of our roadside attractions, there are a handful of reasons that might be working against the best interests of our endorphins:

  • Graphic designers have abandoned humor for streamlined style. The McDonald’s logo used to have a man with a hamburger bun for a head, while Burger King featured a king holding a giant drink while sitting on a giant burger. If you take a look at just the changes seen in the Burger King and McDonald’s logos in the last century alone, time, materials, and “evolved taste” have seen brand mascots, intricate detail, and custom typography lose out to super-simplified letterforms. The instantly charming “a-ha” of logomarks today are more about cleverly hidden connections than they are overtly humorous mascots. When these characters are no longer in the brand pillars, you won’t find them in the signs or structures outside the front door.
  • Wit can be an expensive cost that’s hard to justify, when technology can deliver other brand touchpoints en masse. The production of the signage illustrated in this feature is much more expensive—especially for an establishment with multiple locations. The costs have dropped considerably for brand touchpoints that previously required much more significant investments—like websites and printed materials. Thus, it’s a hard sell to create custom sculptures or signage that go beyond logos with backlighting and prominent positioning included with the retail lease agreement.
  • The rise of anchor stores. Is it possible that anchor stores, and their natural attraction of visitors, rationalized the demise of more attractive and visually interesting signage for smaller businesses within our strip centers?
  • The owners or the city won’t have it. Sometimes the anchor store is the only visual call-to-action allowed from the roadside. Sometimes the landlords won’t allow for a witty landmark. Sometimes the city/neighborhood has restrictions even the most humorous client can’t overcome. Sometimes wit is only what it is allowed to be.

Pictured left to right: Cabrera Auto Service / Loop 12 and Lake June; Raven’s Nest Pharmacy / Oak Cliff; Rocket Skating Palace / Cockrell Hill Road; Reddy Kilowatt / Power & Light (DP&L) Substation

Saving Our Wit

In a previous Columns article, “To Save or Not to Save: The Moral Dilemma,” David Preziosi noted: “Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever. That’s a historic preservation mantra which has driven numerous efforts to save places important to communities across the country. … The only way to prevent many of these places from disappearing is to add a layer of legal protection in the form of special preservation zoning.”

But as he notes in his article, it’s a moral argument that lies between historical preservation and ownership. So, even though there are preservation efforts including the Landmark Commission and what the City of Dallas refers to as protection for “extraordinarily significant signs,” there’s no guarantee that time and advocacy will be effective enough to save what we have.

Pictured left to right: “Tango Frogs” at Taco Cabana / Lower Greenville Ave.; Ray’s Sporting Goods / Oak Cliff; Egg Roll Hut / Columbia Ave. 

Does Character Matter?

According to a 2014 survey conducted by FedEx to explore differences in design and marketing trends across generations, 64% of millennial small-business owners placed value on graphic wit and signage while in contrast their Baby Boomer counterparts placed higher emphasis on more simplified designs.

In fact, millennial small-business owners are more likely to use signage more than traditional marketing elements like direct mail or brochures. This could have to do with a better appreciation of humor or it could have more to do with the “Instagram effect” on marketing and how it’s turning street-accessible wit back into a marketing strategy. The cost of producing more “extraordinarily significant” signage could yield a higher return on investment for smaller businesses with an already growing awareness of the changes needed to compete with the Amazons and online delivery services available. It might be that bringing back signage that makes people stop, remember, and create a memory—in their mind or in their social feeds—can endear target customers to a store and more so their brand. In an environment where there’s a visual overload of homogenous signage, it’s an opportune time to see a revival in wit.

Frances Yllana is executive creative director at Imaginuity.

Wait...There's More!

Where are our wits? The signage and statues illustrated in this article have a rich history and fanbase. Some inspire more “water-cooler-worthy” and “did-you-know…” chatter. Learn more here.

We asked a handful of Dallasites what memories they held of memorable signage past and present. Read their responses here.

A Few Notable Sites to Get Lost in:

●    Society for Commercial Archaeology—Established in 1977, SCA is the oldest national organization devoted to the buildings, artifacts, structures, signs, and symbols of the 20th-century commercial landscape.

●    Roadside Architecture—View over 2,500 pages and 60,000-plus photos of buildings, signs, and statues from all over the country. 

●    USA Giants—This site is dedicated to collection, chronicling, and restoration of Muffler Men. and