Introduction: Look Like Your Enemy: Create Signs That Confuse, Astound and Parody!

About: Eyebeam OpenLab Research and Development Fellow 2006-2007, Eyebeam Senior Fellow 2007-20010 You probably have seen his work already and don't know it. Check the site.

In this instructable you will learn Design Camouflage. In past projects I have appropriated and refined various techniques to mimic government or corporate signage. Using the methods outlined in the following steps will allow you to temporarily borrow the legitimacy of a company or organization, while delivering a different message.

Like in my previous instructables, I'll be using past work as an example - a work from 2005, The Emma Goldman Institute for Anarchist Studies. In this case, the campus was in the midst of an expansion and state construction projects require signs describing the construction project and budget. The Emma Goldman Institute sign created dialogue about the priorities the school places on research and funding and had the local papers explaining the basics of anarchism for their readers at the same time.

I have also used this method on other projects like changing street signs, creating bogus products like this Soap Box, and even the signs in Ronald's Crisis.

For more inspiration see:
The Billboard Liberation Front's handy manual
California Department of Corrections

Step 1: Supplies

You'll need the following.

- tape measure
- digital camera
- printer
- appropriate substrate to print on such as:
- paper
- adhesive vinyl
- tyvek

- image editing software like GIMP or some proprietary alternative
- vector editing software like inkscape or proprietary alternative
- a healthy sized font library is helpful, but not necessary.

- provides links to open source alternatives to proprietary software

Step 2: Choose a Target

Find a sign you'd like to change. Make sure it's reasonably accessible and your change will not cause any inadvertent damage or confusion. Then snap some digital photos and measure the outside dimensions.

When taking photos remember:
- try to get as close to a "head on" shot as possible.
- color balance your camera so your colors are as accurate as possible
- minimize any distortion by zooming in a bit. This will help avoid curved lines on the edges of your shot that may happen with a wide angle lens.

Step 3: Straighten Your Photo

Bring your photo into your favorite image editor (GIMP, Photoshop, etc). Most have some capability to straighten photos, but more than that you want to distort the edges until your sign is as straight as possible.

I am assuming some working knowledge of image editing. I wont go into as great detail here because this is the kind of thing you can find in books or elsewhere online, so here's an overview.

First drag some guide lines over your image. My guides are in the image below - cyan lines that form a rectangle around the billboard.

In photoshop you'll want to select all, then choose "free transform" from the edit menu. Hold down command and mouse over the corner. You should be able to grab each corner and drag it until the edges of your sign run parallel to your guides. If you're lucky, you can get it perfect, but it's just important that you get close.

Images below show before, during, and after.

Remember to adjust your levels and make sure the photo is as close to accurate exposure-wise a possible.

Step 4: Match Fonts

Next you want to learn what fonts you need to mimic the style of the sign. We do this using an online tool called What The Font.

First, crop your image so that you have just the text (see example image below). Save that and upload it to What The Font. Make sure your image fits within the minimum and maximum size for What The Font. Detailed instructions are on their site.

The site gives you the opportunity to identify letters it's having trouble with so it can present the best guess as to what the font is. Make corrections or change cases as needed.

On the results page, What The Font usually gives more than one match and lets you decide which is the best. Make note of all your fonts...

Hopefully they're fonts you have on hand. Personally, I collect fonts for projects like this and keep a pretty large library of them around. However, once you know the names of the fonts you need, you can forgo building a collection and just buy them piecemeal. Most projects wont have more than 3 fonts. Hopefully they're cheap!

Step 5: Set Up Your File in Your Vector Editor

I am assuming you have beginning to intermediate experience with vector editing software. If you don't some tutorials should have you up to speed quickly.

- Open your vector editing program.

- Take the measurements you made in Step 2 and create a file with dimensions that match that size. If your sign was 30 inches tall by 50 inches wide, set up your file to the same dimensions. Create guides along those lines if they can be helpful for you.

- Take your straightened digital image and place it on a layer. We'll call that the base image. Align the base image so the outside edges of the sign in the picture match up with the correct dimensions and/or guides. Lock that layer.

- Start recreating the sign on the layers above the base image. Work up until you have eliminated the base image entirely and you have a new sign.
- use your digital image as a guide to placement.
- use the eyedropper tool to match colors
- since you know the fonts, use the base image to gauge the correct sizes.

Note: You can be off a couple inches and it wont make to big a difference. Using this method should get a close enough match to the look and feel of the sign to be passable.

Also, if you need any corporate logos for your design, most can be found here:
And it's probably smart to brush up on your understanding of Fair Use Doctrine and Copyright so you can explain why you can do this if anyone asks ignorant questions.

Step 6: Print & Install

When you're done you should have a file that matches the old sign very closely. See the before and after pictures below.

Depending on what resources you have available, you have a few options to output your design.

Inkjet or Laser Printer
If you're lucky enough to have access to a 36 or 42 inch wide inkjet printer, you can pull off some amazing large scale results. But smaller printers can work as well, especially if your sign isn't too big.

Adhesive Printable Vinyl
Adhesive Printable Vinyl is like a giant printable sticker. It's available from sign supply stores and very useful. Throw a clear adhesive laminate layer over the top for a little shine and your work will look completely legit. I used this combination of materials for the graphics on Simmer Down Sprinter and on Packard Jennings and my Bus Stop Bench Project. I sorta fell in love with this stuff that year.

Vector Cut Vinyl
Sign shops can cut colored vinyl, often for reasonable prices. One color can be overlaid on another for a 2 color design. This is how we made the signs for the Puppet Street Project.

8 1/2 X 11 Sticker Paper
Available at most office supply stores. Affordable. Also, if you can tile your printing job onto multiple pages, this could work for semi-larger scale pieces.

Overhead Projector
Print your sign onto a transparency and you can project it to scale and paint your sign by hand. Low-tech, and it works!

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