An Origin Story of Sorts: Better Letters

A decade ago, Better Letters 'launched'. But it's origins go back further, as Sam Roberts reflects.

"Better Letters" in cursive white lettering with a black/blue/red block shade on orange background.
Better Letters by Utile Studio for the Summer Showcase in 2017.

On this day in 2014, I was helping to host the first ever Better Letters sign painting workshop with Mike Meyer, Ash Bishop, and Mark Josling. It was held at the Type Tasting studio in London, and the wonderful folks at A.S. Handover kindly made a short film about the weekend.

Three man standing in front of a metal gate with the words "Chocolate Factory" cut out above their heads.
Mark Josling (@spectrumsigns), Ash Bishop (@brilliantsigns), and Mike Meyer (@this_is_the_real_mike_meyer) outside the Chocolate Factory in Stoke Newington ahead of the two-day Better Letters workshop in February 2014.

The workshop followed three consecutive nights showing Sign Painters and Horn Please at The Roxy in south London, and in many ways these events 'launched' Better Letters. However, the name existed before this, and so here is the origin story, as best as I can remember it...

Kratie, Cambodia, and Beyond

From 2010–12 I lived in Kratie, Cambodia, working as a VSO volunteer with my wife. I'd been engaged with ghost signs since 2006, and while I was there I wrote my first book, Hand-Painted Signs of Kratie.

Cover of a book with a central panel giving the title in English and Khmer surrounded by thumbnail photos of hand-painted signs.
Hand-Painted Signs of Kratie (2012) by Sam Roberts.

Towards the end of our placement, I started to think about what I could do outside of Ghostsigns to champion the craft of sign painting. Something that I felt (and still feel) was important was that the craft should thrive, so that people in 100 years' time can enjoy the fading remains of today's work.

This led to the idea of a website/directory that customers could use to find craftspeople close to them. There was a lack of awareness that sign painting could be commissioned, and I thought a directory could help in a small way. This remained at the back of my mind as we travelled through Laos, Vietnam, Australia, and New Zealand at the beginning of 2013.

Array of four photos showing hand-painted signs on top of a tower, a shopfront, a wall, and a corrugated siding respectively.
Sign spotting in: the Mekong Delta, Vietnam (top left); Pakse, Laos (top right); Melbourne, Australia (bottom left); and Christchurch, New Zealand.

When we got back, I took a short-term contract with D&AD where I'd first worked in 2003. However, I had changed as a result of the experience in Cambodia, and had a desire to do something different with my work.

Working Identity

While thinking about how to make a shift in my career, I read the book Working Identity by Herminia Ibarra. In it, she presents a series of case studies of people that radically altered their career paths, and what facilitated the changes. These consisted of two broad areas of activity: experimenting with new working identities, and forging new professional networks.

When my contract at D&AD came to an end, I decided I would try to put the book's findings into practice. I had enough savings to survive for six months, and spent that time experimenting and trying out new things.

Man in leather jacket holding a green plastic umbrella and pointing at the wall behind him while others look on.
The first ever Ghostsigns Walking Tour in October 2013. Check out the umbrella!

These experiments included applying for a PhD (couldn't afford it🙁), developing the first ever Ghostsigns Walking Tour, and building the bare bones of the online directory idea. Here's what I wrote to people about the fledgling website in the summer of 2013:

"I've just set up my planned worldwide directory of sign painters and other lettering artists. This is to showcase great work and allow customers to find people for jobs. It can also list events in the world of painted and other hand-crafted lettering."

Fail Fast

Ultimately, my approach to a global directory never took off, although Signcrowd is now doing much the same, and I still maintain the event listings aspect at online. However, what the project did do was bring me into contact with more sign painters around the world, helping me to grow my network within the trade.

Film poster done in the style of a sign painter's sketch for a job, and marked up with various corrections.
Ira Coyne piece promoting the Olympia Film Society screening of Sign Painters in August 2013.

During this time, I had been seeing screenings of Sign Painters popping up around the world, and was gutted there wasn't one happening near me. I obviously wanted to see the film, and decided that hosting an event in London would be my next experiment. Here's what I wrote to director Faythe Levine on 3 December 2013:

"I'm getting a lot of interest in a London screening for the film. How do you run this? Is it possible for me to buy a license for the film from you and then promote it and sell tickets over here? It has to happen, I'd like to do it if it can work for you too."

After figuring out the venue and ticketing logistics, I opened sales for a one-night-only screening to take place on 5 February 2014. The event was picked up by Creative Review and sold out, so I added two more nights, which did the same.

Group of men at night on a London street, with a hand-painted A-Board in front of them advertising a film screening.
Outside The Roxy for the first of three nights of Sign Painters and Horn Please. The A-Board was painted by Ash Bishop and Mark Josling who are on the left of the photo, and shows the event as being co-presented by Ghostsigns and Better Letters.

Roll the Dice

In the process of pulling the screenings together, Ash Bishop at Brilliant Signs called me to propose the idea of a workshop with one of the film's stars, Mike Meyer. Sarah Hyndman at Type Tasting offered her studio as the venue, and I rolled the dice by putting tickets up for sale—it was a bit of a gamble, as the only way I could afford to fly Mike over was if I sold enough tickets.

Fortunately, it was a good call, and the workshop ended with 18 pairs of paint-covered hands, and smiles all round, as people got to fuel the fire in their bellies after seeing the film. Those screenings, and the workshop, led many to seek a new direction for their own careers, which reflected the journey that I was on at the time.

The A.S. Handover film documenting the first ever Better Letters workshop in London, February 2014.

Mike asked if I would help him line up more workshops, and so our partnership was born. Recounting some of this in The Showcards Book, I said:

"It's likely I've missed some but, by my count, in the 6.5 years 2013–20 Mike facilitated 178 events in 56 cities and 20 countries over four continents."
Spread from a book with columns showing years and events run during them. To the right is a hand-painted sign that says "Sign Painter".
Index from The Showcards Book, showing Mike Meyer's workshops around the world from 2013–20.

Looking back now, I can't quite believe how much we achieved in a relatively short space of time. This was on top of taking on sign painting commissions, hosting a Letterheads event, producing films, and more. The pandemic forced a hiatus in our activities and, like my time in Cambodia, changed me and what I wanted to do next with my work.

Adventures in Sign Painting

Just before Covid 19, I'd helped to deliver the manuscript for Sign Painting, and this, along with the ghost signs book, reignited my passion for research and writing. While I'd thought about a Better Letters magazine before, it was only in early 2022 that I set about work on all things BLAG.

Man positioning four different issues of a magazine on a rack in a library.
Celebrating two years of working on BLAG with the first four issues. Photo: Edgar Gonzalez.

The rest, as they say, is (recent) history, and I'm excited to see where this latest iteration of my adventures in sign painting takes me next.

And I thank you for being part of the journey.