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Designer Craig Winslow Is Bringing Ghost Signs Back to Life

By Libby Nicholaou

Six years into his career, Craig Winslow—recently named one of Adobe’s four 2016–2017 Creative Residents—has already lived in two cities named Portland, had a life in 3D design (working with clients like Burton, Beats by Dr. Dre, and Xbox), and launched his own design studio. Now he’s setting his sights on his next big adventure: creating “light capsules” documenting some of the nation’s most interesting ghost signs.

It all started when Winslow moved from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Oregon, a cross-country trip that he turned into a Kickstarter-funded art project called Projecting West. As he and a friend, designer and illustrator Mike Ackerman, made their way across the United States, they created and shared daily narrative light installations. On the sixth day of the trip, Winslow was struck with a new idea. 

He shares, “An emotional moment a week into Projecting West inspired the entire idea for the light capsules project.” Later, when Winslow heard about Adobe’s Creative Residency, something clicked. “Initially, with the idea of preserving ghost signs through light capsules, it felt like an element was missing. The idea of documenting ghost signs in this way felt bigger than a Kickstarter, and I didn’t want to just create some one-off video. I realized the Residency could give me a huge platform for sharing the work, something much larger than what I could do on my own.”

Just a day before the application deadline, Winslow completed his project plans and submitted them to Adobe. “I pulled an all-nighter to get it done,” he shares. “But given that I had this project on my mind for over a year, it was mostly a matter of mapping out the details.” 

Watch a brief video taken on the sixth day of Winslow and Ackerman’s Projecting West—this ghost sign inspired Winslow’s Creative Residency project.

GHOST SIGNS, HERE WE GO

Having been selected for the Residency, Winslow is just beginning to pursue this passion project, which he hopes will preserve the original sign designs, provide historical data to the public, and draw attention to unacknowledged lettering artists of the past.

He says, “I've always had an excitement for type, but ever since the day I realized the project, I’ve been seeing ghost signage everywhere. There’s an immense amount of stories behind these mostly defunct businesses. There’s an entire medium that predated billboards and advertisements as we know them today.”

Living in Portland, Oregon, with its many old signs and industrial vibe, and a particularly influential weekend trip to Astoria, Oregon, helped seal the deal for Winslow. He adds, “It’s time to make the project happen.” 

Ghost signs in Astoria, Oregon. 

THE PROCESS

Having combed through cities block by block over the past few years, Winslow has a solid idea of the ghost signs he’d like to re-create. “I detour through towns and look around,” he says. “I found a bunch recently hiding in Twin Falls, Idaho, and Baker City, Oregon.” His next steps will be to track them on Google Earth, photograph them in person, and find any available historical references to help give context and inspire detail.

He’ll use Adobe Photoshop CC to correct any skew in the photographs, use Adobe Illustrator CC to create vector versions, and then animate the images in Adobe After Effects CC. He says, “It feels like very tricky visual type archeology…I’ll be using projection mapping to project the animated originals back onto themselves, bringing these ghost signs back to life in person for everyone to see.” 

Winslow re-created a ghost sign in Grants Pass, Oregon using historical references and Adobe Creative Cloud tools.

AN ARTIST’S DUTY TO PRESERVE THE PAST

“We get so excited for new advances in technology, and we tend to look forward to the next big thing, but we don’t often look back anymore. There’s so much to learn from those who have pioneered before us, a lot of which gets lost to time and left behind in the noise,” says Winslow. “Artists have an amazing power to make old things interesting again.”

We asked Winslow what he’d say to sign painters of the past if he met them in a bar. “I’d ask them whether or not the signs they painted were passion projects or just for the job,” he says. “They were essentially painting giant advertisements, so I wonder whether there was a negative view of ads back then like there is today. Either way, I’d assure them their work will become timeless, adding to the character of the cities as they exist today.”

More of Winslow’s favorite ghost signs.

There’s a market for hand-painted signs today, and shops like New Bohemia Signs in San Francisco and Noble Signs in Brooklyn more than willingly respond to the need. “We value hand-painted signs today because they require expertise and it’s a novelty specialization.” says Winslow. “But back then, it was just the way it was done. Who knows if they considered it art.”

And although Winslow’s talents reach far and wide, it’s clear that the projects he takes on are hyper-curated. He adds, “One of the best bits of advice I received back when I was an intern was to continue to be selective. It will pay off.”

Meet Creative Resident Craig Winslow and learn more about his work, in our video.

The Adobe Creative Residency empowers talented individuals to spend a year focusing on a passion project, while sharing their experiences and processes with the creative community. Visit our Creative Residency page for updates on Craig Winslow’s work and to learn about the other 2016–2017 Residents.