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City Talks at the McCord Museum: are billboards visual clutter or vibrant art?

On January 27, Concordia professor Matt Soar debates the future of Montreal’s cityscapes
January 21, 2016
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By Matt Soar

“Signs and posters can certainly add colour and vibrancy to our cityscapes,” says Matt Soar, associate professor in the Department of Communication Studies. | Photo by Geoff Llerena (Flickr CC) “Signs and posters can certainly add colour and vibrancy to our cityscapes,” says Matt Soar, associate professor in the Department of Communication Studies. | Photo by Geoff Llerena (Flickr CC)


The McCord Museum’s
City Talks event on January 27 is titled Billboards and the Urban Landscape: Creative Challenge or Zero Tolerance? Of course, life rarely fits into neat little binaries, and the title of this event is no exception.

I say this as someone who — before he finally became a Communication Studies professor at Concordia — was an advertising art director (and before that, a house builder).

Take, as another example, my research on promotional signs in Montreal, which always invites several related questions at once: Are there too many? Are they an eyesore? Are they very poorly designed? Are they worth saving? Well, after 10 years on the case, including articles, interviews, a symposium, an interactive film, and starting the Montreal Signs Project, my answer is unequivocally: it depends.

If the title of this particular City Talk is a bit of a low-flying provocation, the actual event promises to be stimulating and rewarding. It’s being co-organized by Héritage Montreal, a local non-profit that for 40 years has valiantly sought wider appreciation (and, sometimes, preservation) of Montreal’s eclectic architectural and urban history.

I can also vouch for my honourable co-panelists: when we met for a preparatory conversation at the McCord last week, they both had an abundance of perceptive, nuanced ideas about the contemporary urban environment. 

In Fall 2011, Peter Tsatoumas, the owner of the Navarino Café, donated this iconic sign to the Montréal Signs Project. It now lives on the fourth floor of the CJ Building, Loyola Campus. | Image courtesy of the Montréal Signs Project Peter Tsatoumas, the owner of the Navarino Café, donated this iconic sign to the Montréal Signs Project in 2011. It now lives on the fourth floor of the CJ Building, Loyola Campus. | Image: Montréal Signs Project

My own position is that signs and posters can certainly add colour and vibrancy to our cityscapes. It’s also startlingly clear that some old signs can be incredibly evocative, as visitors to the Montreal Signs Project collection, in the Communication Studies and Journalism Building (CJ) on the Loyola Campus, often discover.

The ads we see on urban billboards can also be stirring, or amusing — after all, some of our brightest creative minds inevitably gravitate to the ad business. (Perhaps I was precociously creative at the age of 20, but I clearly wasn’t all that bright: I simply saw the British advertising industry as my best chance to be incredibly arty and earn piles of cash in the process.)

That all said, urban billboards are often very large indeed, and carry very few words, for one simple reason: they’re designed to be seen from a moving vehicle, at speed. In this context, I would maintain that they simply don’t belong in urban areas.

If we support thoughtful quality-of-life initiatives such as planting more greenery, bike lanes, strategic pedestrianization and traffic-calming features (cobbles, bollards, speed bumps), then we should also limit the number of urban billboards — or remove them entirely, as the Plateau–Mont-Royal neighbourhood has attempted to do.

The event on January 27 will be a great opportunity for the community to mull over these ideas, while (of course) avoiding overly neat binaries. So, if you do attend, and someone asks if you prefer red or white wine, just tell them it depends.
 

Matt Soar is an associate professor and BA programs director in the Department of Communication Studies at Concordia. He is founding director of the Montreal Signs Project and is currently in pre-production on a web documentary about the history of the sign making industry in Montreal.

The McCord Museum’s City Talks event Billboards and the Urban Landscape: Creative Challenge or Zero Tolerance? takes place on January 27 at 6 p.m. in the J. Armand Bombardier Theatre at the McCord Museum.

Check out Soar's Farine Five Roses art project

Thumbnail by AV Design (Flickr Creative Commons).

 



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