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Neon has a following. And Kate Widdows is a loyalist. She’s an independent letterer and typographer who designs everything from typefaces and record covers to GIFs and, you guessed it, neon signs. She’s also found a way to merge the two, having pioneered animated neon lettering for the web, work which has been exhibited internationally at design festivals and art galleries. These signs charmingly flicker and proudly glow, their pixels looking strikingly similar to the physical signs too often relegated as “cheesy” or “off taste.” In reality, these signs are works of art, handcrafted by perfectly melding the principles of science and creative freethinking.
We asked Kate a few questions about reaching peak neon fan status, and how that appreciation transitioned into her own bright work.
How did you become a "neon preservationist"?
Through a series of seemingly casual typographic explorations, I got on the neon train about seven years ago. While on a DIY artist residency in Geneva, Switzerland, I immersed myself in a month-long, daily neon GIF project to better my skills in letter construction and typographic expression. I fell deeply in love with physical neon signs, learning as much as I could about them. Connecting with other neon enthusiasts online led to involvement with a newly conceived neon festival, which was being developed by the well-established advocacy group, San Francisco Neon. Initially, I was hired to simply design the logo, but I was gushing with ideas, and eventually was crowned co-producer of the Neon Speaks Festival and Symposium. A neon-focused festival had never been held before, and it brought together tube-benders, restorers, preservationists, museum directors, architects, and everyday neon enthusiasts from all over the U.S. One thing was made abundantly clear to me: historic neon signs are disappearing from the American landscape very quickly.
In Portland, a chance sighting of the in-progress demolition of the Chinese Village Restaurant at 82nd and Stark drew me into a long and dramatic battle to save the gorgeous animated neon sign that stood in its parking lot. There is nothing like seeing a beloved sign disappear to induce a persistent paranoia about what might go next. These signs are unique works of art, and once they’re gone, there’s no getting them back. I began leading neon tours in Portland in 2018, as a way to bring more attention to historic neon. Later, I created an advocacy group with Michael Mintz of Neon Gods, a local neon restorer and repairer who shares my passion for neon. We call it PDX Neon, and it’s been in slow development, but our intention is to become a resource, a point of connection, and a layer of protection for endangered neon signs.
What's unique to the design of neon letter signs compared to others?
On a visceral level, a neon sign has allure. Neon is like a naked bolt of lightning frozen in time, and the glow it gives off is nothing short of magical. The quality of light is unmatched in its beauty and its ability to stir the soul. Unlike mass-produced plastic, vinyl, or LED signs, all neon signs are individually hand-built by skilled artisans. This makes every neon sign a totally unique piece, displaying the signature style of the bender. Neon is still among the brightest sources of light around, and can be seen and read legibly from great distances. These signs are a form of folk art, currently being immortalized by the myriad neon museums springing up all over the world.
What do Portland's neon signs say about our culture?
Portland’s collection of neon signs is surprisingly plentiful, which I think speaks to two aspects of Portland that are unique: its slower pace of development, which is the biggest threat to old buildings and signs, and its long history as a community built on ingenuity and imagination. The proliferation of unique neon signs reflects the wonderful city-wide dominance of independent businesses. Thematically speaking, many of Portland’s older neon signs include symbolic markers of our city’s past, such as the horse and rider at Portland Outdoor Store, the log at Mt Scott Fuel Co, the white stag, and the rose at Roseway Theater. In other signs, culture is signified typographically, and in fun and exuberant ways—for example, the angular lettering on the roof of the Alibi Tiki Lounge, the Bagdad Theatre’s billowy capitals, and the frantically flashing inline script of Mary’s Club. These signs are anchors to our cultural history, and while I’d love to think that their continued existence is evidence of their necessity to our landscape, a lot of it just comes down to luck.
How does the ultimate fabrication of your work affect the creative exploration?
Most neon signs are strictly linear, and further, all designs must be mono-linear (tubes are a consistent width throughout). There are scientific reasons for this relating to air pressure, gas, and the electrical charge. For typographic neon, you are essentially writing with light. So with such emphasis on movement of line, the designer is constrained, but also faces infinite possibilities. This line is not endless, however. A single-stroke letter “O,” for example, will not be a closed shape; it will have a small gap where each end of the tube takes a hard turn to connect to power. The neon sign industry also has a limited color palette, like how the color brown has not yet been achieved. Some aspects of design will be unpredictable, in relation to the sign’s environment and existing light. But when you make it to that magic moment when the sign is finally installed and lit, it is absolutely worth all the work and sweating the details.
What's your process for creating custom typography?
These days, I do a mix of inky brush lettering and purely digital comps. Or sometimes, I will begin with the brush, scan, and edit in the digital realm. When I do use wet media, I work at a relatively small scale—I’m more of a show card letterer than a sign painter. But I admire the fuck out of sign painters, and I have learned a lot from them.
I’m fairly obsessed with scripts, which I think are an opportunity to present a more soulful and energetic vibe. In my work, I’m always reaching for swoon-level lettering pieces. To me, this means projecting emotionality and vibrancy, and sometimes a sense of playfulness, while safeguarding legibility and longevity. For a wordmark-based logo, for example, I begin by listening and learning. I go through a series of brainstorm and brain-dump activities, and I explore ideas through sketching on paper. Other considerations include legibility at different formats and media, color studies, historical references, and compatibility with other typefaces. In the end, I want my client to love the results, and to be able to see their wordmark every day and still feel good about it.