Rob Banham: trash type
Lettering on wheelie bins
The following piece of research on wheelie-bin lettering was inspired by two things; firstly that doing my PhD has made me go a little bit strange and secondly that I wanted to see what people would say when I knocked on their door and said ‘sorry to bother you but please could I take a picture of your bin?’ The responses I got ranged from ‘whatever turns you on’ to ‘are you from the Typography Department’. One friendly passer-by after enquiring what I was doing stated in no uncertain terms: ‘you can’t do that mate that’s dodgy as …’.
The humble wheelie bin
A lot of people feel the need to identify their bin, usually with their house number presumably so that it can’t be swapped with the one that belongs to the students next door. Some people add their street name – perhaps to combat possible theft by people living on other streets in the surrounding area who have the same house number. In one case the number was clarified by spelling it out – perhaps the author thought that this would provide extra security – like when writing out a cheque. Even more extreme are people who put their postcode on to their bin, thus safeguarding themselves against inter-city wheelie-bin theft and, of course, aiding any good Samaritan who is trying to return a stolen bin. Of course none of this will actually prevent someone taking your bin – and it will probably be your next door neighbour who does it. Less brazen bin thieves will cover all traces of the previous owners.
Most of the examples illustrated here are from Reading where I have a long walk from my house to the Typography Department. Believe it or not lettering on bins is the most interesting thing to look at on the way. I should perhaps mention that I have tried to show every example at more or less the same scale to aid comparisons and that I restricted myself to the lettering on the side of bins only – many also have lettering on the lid but this is difficult to get good photographs of.
I began looking at lettering on bins because I found it graphically interesting due to the way the numbers are worn away by the elements. Normally the result of the deterioration is an outline letter and eventually just a clean spot where the rest of the bin has faded in the sun while the number was covered. However, the focus of my paper is not the visual appeal of these numbers – I became more interested in other aspects such as methods of production and what the letters and numbers that lay-people have produced reveal about their knowledge of typography.
One thing that quickly becomes apparent is the great variety of forms which are used, especially for numbers, some of which are distinctly odd. The number one, in particular, appears in many different forms, but probably in only one case is it unquestionably wrong.
When looking at production methods it soon becomes obvious that for most people the number on their bin is strictly functional and that they are not really bothered what it looks like as long as its more or less legible. This means that the most common method is to slap on a bit of leftover paint, usually white emulsion, without any forethought or planning. Sometimes the results are not too bad but often I was left wondering why they even bothered.
The majority of those who do care about the appearance of their bin usually buy stickers especially for the job presumably an acknowledgement that they don’t have the skills to do it themselves. However, I won’t be mentioning stickers again here because the letterforms have not been produced by the owner of the bin and to be honest I find them pretty boring! The height of wheelie bin vanity, and I hope I’m not offending anyone here, comes in the form of a large wrap, usually an image of foliage which is used in a bizarre attempt to camouflage the bin but only succeeds in drawing attention to it.
People who have decided to paint their own number make a lot of common mistakes. Often the width of the brush they have chosen is entirely unsuitable for the height of the numbers they paint with it meaning that all the counters close up. The consistency of the paint is another source of problems for many people – paint that is too thick or too dry leads to scruffy looking letters. Paint that’s too runny is obviously difficult to control and in some cases this can lead to a complete disaster.
Most of the painted numbers have been produced using a brush but there are other methods – paint can also be applied using an aerosol (probably the most common method after the brush) or a sponge. Many of the nicer examples I have come across have been produced using stencils – obviously it is much easier to use a stencil than to attempt freehand lettering, especially on the kind of scale most people attempt on their wheelie bin, as this is something the majority of them have probably never attempted before.
Although by far the most common, paint is not the only material people use to put a number onto their bin. The most frequent after paint is probably to use sticky tape and the important thing here is to use something with plenty of stick. Masking tape doesn’t really do the job! Electrical tape on the other hand seems to last pretty well and I have found several examples where it has been used. Another way to produce these numbers is to use a felt-tip pen. Black is always the colour used which has the obvious drawback of being difficult to distinguish from its background. This problem is avoided if you have a different colour bin and can also be overcome by creating your own different coloured background. The best felt-tip example I’ve discovered, although that’s not saying much, is drawn on top of a silver background. There are also some instances where the number and even the street name has been cut from patterned paper.
The most interesting examples I found tended to be those which deviate from the white paint standard which pervades the world of wheelie-bin lettering. This deviation may take the form of a bold colour, the effect of using a second colour as an undercoat, or extremes of scale – very small or very large numbers. Other variations are away from the standard horizontal format – occasionally numbers are run vertically, diagonally, or stacked on top of each other. Another unusual addition is an abbreviation for the word ‘number’ (although the temptation to do this if you live at number ten must be difficult to resist).
Many bins that stand out from the rest feature some kind of decoration, usually in the form of an abstract mark or pictorial addition. This could be a simple underlining of the number, or a frame around it. Pictorial examples include flowers and stars, and one house excelled with three different images – each on a different bin perhaps to identify bins belonging to different flats at the same address.
The inhabitants of another house have used their bins to proclaim their support for football teams – Tottenham Hotspur Football Club and Grimsby Town and another house I came across had bins inspired by children’s TV characters Bill and Ben the Flowerpot men.
In some cases a picture, a symbol, or an abstract mark is all that has been used to identify a bin. Two such examples are single letters – one uses an X, not as a Roman numeral but as a simple identifying mark a bit like an illiterate signature and the other is a large letter K. Other examples include a stencilled image, a strip of silver foil wrapped around the bin, and plus and minus symbols.
Sometimes the lettering is not produced by the owner of the bin – in one example an enterprising vandal has turned ‘basement’ into ‘basement jaxx’ who for those of you who don’t know had a couple of hit records not too long ago. I also came across a more sinister addition to someone’s bin which proclaims the owners to be ‘fiends’. Something else I found graffitied onto bins was a smiley face; initially I thought it had been done by the bin owner but then I found several more examples. In fact there were so many – all in one housing estate in Reading – I gave up taking pictures of them. Theories about these faces range from kids messing about to the existence of an underground cult whose members identify each other by the faces painted on their bins!
I found all of this very interesting, sometimes amusing, but what I really wanted to find were examples that showed some typographic awareness – evidence of having sketched things out beforehand, of serifs, thick and thin strokes, or the use of a recognisable type face. With this in mind I cast the net wider to take in the bins of some members of staff from the Typography Department at the University of Reading – and found nothing, although to be fair they had no numbers rather than bad ones.
It is perhaps predictable that such examples are thin on the ground – although I did find plenty that were completely lacking in typographic awareness or in fact any kind of awareness at all! Some are simply misspelled and on this note, although it’s not a bin, I couldn’t resist including a sign found on the wall outside a house on London Road, which the owner of the house has had professionally made.
In many of the really poor specimens it is the use of the hyphen, or lack of it, rather than bad letterforms that makes them poor. Many people have obviously not thought about how long their street name is and as a result it often it runs around the side of the bin although one example at least shows an ability to learn from this mistake. When words are broken its often in a strange place and without a hyphen – some examples are at least consistently bad. Two of the worst I have come across are ‘Donni-ngton Gar-dens’ and ‘Addin-gton Road’ – the latter also mixing upper- and lower-case. The hyphen can also be over-used in one case appearing at the end of one line and the beginning of the next. Many people avoid the issue by using an abbreviation instead – Addington Road being one street name which no-one seems sure how to shorten.
One of the things I was looking for in my search for typographic awareness was examples of seriffed letterforms and I did find one or two with at least a suggestion of them. One of the reasons I found so few might be if only a number is given it might not be one which has serifs because some numbers – zero and eight – are always serifless and in many typefaces other numbers are often without serifs as well. The number one is also difficult to judge because bars at the top and bottom could be regarded as an integral part of the letter and not necessarily serifs. I concentrated instead on looking for numbers with thick and thin strokes. In some examples there are undoubtedly thicks and thins but which could hardly be described as showing typographic awareness although again I did find one or two examples.
I also found a handful of bins which showed evidence of guidelines and sketching out beforehand but unfortunately, in the only case where this can be seen in a photograph the guidelines have made things worse not better. Two bins make use of non-ranging numbers one of which even has a hint of small-caps. Other rarities include examples where the numbers have been nested or kerned.
I have been sent two examples from outside Reading which show both skill in rendering letters and typographic awareness. The first belongs to Graham Hudson and is beautifully produced in black on a white background. I also received a photo from Ann Pilar which is of undoubtedly the most typographically aware bin lettering that I have seen – but then this bin does belong to one of the lecturers in the design department at Stafford. Chris Burke’s Pragma typeface has been used (black small-caps) which was apparently chosen for its well designed numerals, the point size was governed by the limits of an A4 printer and the space between the two numbers has been reduced using tracking.
Finally my favourite example – one into which the bin owner has put a lot of time and effort and which really needs to be appreciated in the context of the rest of the house – which it has been painted to match.
I hope I’ve inspired everyone to paint beautiful numbers on their bins, if you do, or if you come across any interesting examples please let me know [you can contact the author through the conference organisers].
Rob Banham lives in a cupboard in the Typography Department at Reading University where he is doing a PhD. He is an active member of the Friends of St Bride and is interested in wheelie bin lettering. When not saving libraries or photographing bins he edits The Ephemerist.