Neon Sign Preservation Goes Digital

Apr 8, 2019

You’ve heard of classic neon signs of bygone buildings being preserved in museums and boneyards, but one professor at the University of Nevada, Reno is taking preservation digital. Dr. Katherine Hepworth is working with a team to document neon signs from Reno’s past, as well as signs left standing, with the goal of eventually allowing all to access and enjoy the design and history of the signs. KUNR’s Holly Hutchings talked to her about the project and has this interview.

Historical researcher Katherine Hepworth is playing the long game when it comes to preserving Reno’s old signs, while also working quickly. She, along with UNR History Professor Chris Church and a team of grad students, wants to document old signs, particularly the neon ones, in a completely online forum. While collecting records and documents from decades of signs that have been taken down, they are also working swiftly to take photos and write articles about the signs that are still standing.

“There is an element of a race against time,” Hepworth explained. “With the expanding and, somewhat, booming nature of the economy in Reno and the changing cityscape, there’s definitely an interest in design and an attention to the built environment.”

It’s not just about the signs themselves - it’s about the way they communicate visually. Hepworth is a graphic designer and historian. When she moved to Reno five years ago, she found herself marveling at the Western vibe emanating from the signs that she passed on her daily commute through the downtown corridor.

“I was struck by the beautiful architecture and the beautiful signage from [a] kind of mid-century sign tradition. It was both beautiful but also really unique compared to what I had learned in my research training was American graphic design from the 20th century,” she said. “I would drive downtown every day from home to work and think, ‘Someone needs to do something to protect these signs!’ because over the five years I’d been in Reno, I saw them coming down.”

With her unique expertise in design history, she quickly realized that she is the person for this job. 

The website Hepworth and her team are working on is called The Reno Type Archive. It is a digital archive of Reno’s rich design history, based on the “type,” or “font” for a layperson, that has been used in the signs over time. When finished, it will have thousands of references to signs from photos and historical documents. It will also have vector images available for download, meaning that people all over will be able to 2D and 3D print replicas of their own signs from the site, or use the vectors for other creative projects. 

She says the letters, symbols and overall composition tell a story of the changing economics and social makeup of the region, as well as the different groups that have used typefaces to convey their stories. These factors speak to traditions of general sign-making along the way, as well as local themes that mattered and made their way into the signs. 

Hepworth acknowledges the many dedicated historians and preservationists that work to physically preserve these symbols of Northern Nevada history. She also admires the work of collectors, like Will Durham, and his efforts to snatch up defunct signs. But she said there was a need for this digital preservation project because with losing the signs, we also lose elements of design and typography that are distinct to our region.

“Looking at a lot of the signs, you see these themes emerge of composition that speaks to broader trends in sign-making in the United States, but you also see local variations that I’m very interested in,” Hepworth said. “For example, the Silver Spur Motel, with its oversized spur next to the letters. There’s this very Western theme in them that’s very unique and hasn’t been documented much before.”

The goal of this project is to provide open source files so that everyone can access these materials with minimal hurdles. Reno may one day be home to a museum of neon, which is a goal for preservationist Will Durham. In addition to a physical museum, Hepworth wants to provide online access to this content.

“I want this history of Reno signs to be available to people, whether they can afford the gas to go to the museum, whether they have the physical ability to go to the museum, whether they are a kid in a rural location in Nevada. I want this important aspect of Nevada history to be, if not as accessible, nearly as accessible to people in remote locations.”

So far, over 100 undergraduate and graduate students at UNR have participated in research on the project.

The project is in its infancy - the research stage. It's has received some internal UNR funding from the Center for Advanced Media Studies, so the site should pick up more steam. A working prototype of the site is slated for early 2020. Until then, Hepworth’s students will keep documenting neon and the signs on their class website.