UK-based lettering artist and type designer Oli Frape has captured the country’s mood in his latest personal project, Sign of The Times. Inspired by old-school signs and adverts, these hand-drawn posters tackle the nation’s current state with a dry smile.
If you live in Britain, chances are you might be feeling a little… worn out. From underfunded public services to the ever-soaring cost of living, being a Brit has recently felt somewhat tougher than usual. To sum up this national feeling of exhaustion, Oli Frape has made a series of beautiful yet sardonic, hand-drawn posters.
Made in the style of early to mid-century temporary advertising signage, Sign of The Times uses its charming, ephemeral aesthetic to make biting, satirical observations about how it feels to live in Britain in 2024. These include colourful letters that spell out the somewhat contrasting messages of ‘Hopes & Dreams Sold Out’ and ‘Fresh Horror Daily’, along with humorous phrases that echo ‘advertising speak’ such as ‘Doom, Dread & Malaise guaranteed!’ If you live here, you can probably relate.
“These posters respond to the world around us and the sometimes pervasive feeling of bleakness and doom created by conflict, political instability and the constant culture wars in the media, amongst other things,” Oli tells Creative Boom.
Part of the appeal of Sign of The Times is its conflicting tonality. While it looks all upbeat and happy on the surface, the more gloomy messages create a compelling tension. One that deliberately flies in the face of the received wisdom that self-initiated lettering work needs to be positive and palatable.
“Most of us don’t feel upbeat all the time, and I don’t really take pleasure from being instructed to ‘be nice’ or encouraged to’ hang in there’ on days where society seems pretty bleak,” Oli explains. “Those kind of phrases sometimes feel disingenuous or out of step for me in the current climate, and so I wanted to make something that felt more true to how I feel.”
Sign of The Times isn’t cynical for the sake of it, though. Instead, Oli hopes that the posters can help others feel seen by acknowledging the gloom that many people might be experiencing. There’s also a very knowing sense of humour ticking away beneath the surface-level bleakness. “These posters acknowledge some of the horrors of life but with a dry and knowing smile.”
They’re also very carefully calibrated. With Britain currently wrestling with a culture war, where any opinion can quickly descend into tribal bickering, Oli knew he had to balance his messaging with precision. As he stresses, they’re political, but not party-political.
“The interesting thing is that most of us can agree on some of the feelings these posters express, but as soon as you mention Brexit or a specific party, it becomes tribal, and we get lost in the same old arguments,” he explains. “So ultimately, these posters are intended to unite rather than divide.”
To help smooth some of the more sardonic messaging, Oli used lettering heavily inspired by traditional signs that were commonplace in grocery stores and market stall displays. Known as ‘show cards’, these signs struck Oli as the perfect use of hand lettering to convey his message because they are engaging and impactful.
“They’re also not too finessed or perfect; they echo my tone of voice and approach to my lettering work in general, but they are also the perfect way to express content that is a little darker or melancholy,” Oli adds.
To make these posters, Oli began by working in Procreate. “I used to be really militant about the authenticity of any work I made with textures – everything was painted IRL and scanned in to be art-worked – but whilst I still make lots of my work this way, I have also developed an approach using digital brushes and textures that is super useful and helpful for certain jobs and client projects,” he says.
“My aim further along in the project is to hand-paint a few posters too and possibly have some screen-printed should there be enough demand.”
While digital tools might have streamlined the project, it wasn’t without its hurdles. “The biggest challenge for me with a self-initiated series like this is the battle of not losing faith in the idea once I’ve started,” Oli reveals.
“I tend to make many stand-alone pieces for my work, and so any idea only has to survive one execution. Fortunately, this project felt like it had legs, and quite honestly, there are a lot of things to satirise in modern British society, so I’m hoping to make more posters over the coming months.”
Oli’s main goal when setting out to make this series was to make work that felt true and authentic to him, hoping it might appeal to other people who felt the same way, too. “There’s something valuable in creating a connection between people and acknowledging shared experiences with a sense of humour,” he concludes.
“I’d love to continue building the collection with a view to printing or painting some physical versions and then showing them somewhere all together in one place in due course.”