The Shape of Signs to Come

Why are so many of our resort marquees going vertical?

Photo by Jeffrey J. Coleman

Photo by Jeffrey J. Coleman

I had a moment recently. I was standing at the southwest corner of the Cosmopolitan’s Boulevard Pool, looking at the massive high-definition LED screen atop the Harmon Corner: 60 feet tall by 306 feet long, the largest screen of its kind in the world.

As I admired it I thought of Blade Runner, Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi masterpiece, in which Harrison Ford moved through a world of electronic billboards that covered entire buildings. And then I realized that the story of Blade Runner is supposed to take place in November 2019—just less than six years from now. I began to panic a little, because as amazing a film as Blade Runner is, I don’t want to live in the dying world it depicts.

Then I turned south to look at Aria’s skyscraper-like marquee. In a break from the horizontal signage that dominated the Strip for decades, Aria’s gone vertical, with what photographers call “portrait” orientation. The sign was showing an animation that I liked, so I took out my smartphone to film it … and suddenly, I realized that Aria’s LED sign—like those of the Cosmopolitan, the Wynn and the Linq—were all shaped and proportioned just like iPhone screens held vertically—as if they knew I was taking pictures. I began to panic a bit more. Had I been figured out? Did the Young Electric Sign Co. figure out a way to make me look at their signs—by shaping them like something I carry in my pocket, something I look at a hundred times a day? And do they know I’m a Replicant?

I took my concerns to Brian Henry, a media designer who served as a senior design associate at YESCO from pretty much the time he finished high school in the late 1990s to last year, when he became the principal of his own design firm. Henry had a hand in designing many of the signs of Las Vegas’ Blade Runner era, including Aria and the monster sign at Harmon Corner. And while Henry professed ignorance to the Replicant thing, he said that I was at least partially right about the phone thing.

“That’s an old format, you know? Old advertising,” Henry says. Back in the 1930s, everything from neon theater signs to liquor billboards used to be tall and vertical, because that’s what grabs you: “The landscape format is more soothing and calming and comforting. The vertical shape demands your attention.”

And yes, it doesn’t hurt that the new LED signs of the Strip are of a shape that you’ve been considering more closely than television or movie screens these past few years.

“Personally, I feel if you’ve seen this rectangle so many times, have one hanging on a wall at your house. … I think people are tuning it out,” he says. “Portrait is still a unique format.”

It’s also a format that’s well-suited to the kind of pedestrian-friendly, New Urbanism-inspired plazas that are now being built on the Strip, at Linq and alongside New York-New York. Horizontal billboards and marquees are creatures of the automotive age—in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, they’re 200 feet long to accommodate high-speed traffic—and the Strip is no longer a smooth cruise; it makes sense for signage to be reconfigured for standstill traffic and the sidewalk schlep.

But while Henry has a great love for the vertical sign in front of the Linq, he has doubts about the trend that resulted in its creation.

“Harrah’s and MGM are both very much ‘build it out to the street and give people what they want right now.’ If people want a Yard-garita, they’re not going to have to walk very far to get it,” Henry says. “I have mixed feelings about that, because it reminds me an awful lot of Atlantic City. But portrait signs do fit into that, because it’s a more vertical environment.”

In other words, long, tall LED signage is about to become a much larger presence on the Strip, as restaurants and bars compete for business at street level. Are we headed for a time when our structures will pretty much be made of LED signs? Henry believes so.

“There are mechanical limitations, but I think those can be overcome,” he says. “This future that everybody predicts, where everything becomes a visual surface—I kind of feel like that’s inevitable.”

Luckily, one big thing stands between us and Scott’s prediction for November 2019: It’s the fact that designers like Brian Henry have seen Blade Runner, too.

“It’s up to our industry to make sure we don’t turn into a dystopia,” Henry says.