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Research Project: MoV October 5, 2011 Winnie Chuang, Sherman Tam, Shiyao Yu


research summary For this project, we were asked to explore a sign in Vancouver and design a smart phone interface for viewing the specific site as a response to our investigation of the social, political and economic impacts of the sign on the city as well as its residents. The particular neon sign that we studied is the Bowmac sign, also known as Toys ’R’ Bowmac. Erected in 1958, the 29 meter high orange sign was commissioned by the Bowmac car dealership on West Broadway as a response to the heavy competition between car dealerships in the Vancouver Auto Row area. The largest freestanding sign in North America at the time, the Bowmac sign was filled with red neon and was comprised of over 1,200 incandescent light bulbs. A magnificent display of technology, artisanship and commercial spirit, the Bowmac sign could be seen 18 miles away and stand as one of the city’s landmarks.


Since the Bowmac sign is so iconic, there is a vast reservoir of stories and personal experiences involving the sign. The fact that it used to be a car dealership adds to the sentimental value of the sign for many locals. Everyone who drives by can see the sign, but no one really hears about the stories. Did someone buy their first car here? What was the story behind that? Did someone important ever visit the Bowmac personally? The web is full of blog posts about people being recalling their experiences at the car dealership and even at the Toys’R’Us. If there’s anything that people now can relate to is buying their first toys and their first cars. Aesthetically, the spirit of the 50s and 60s when the neon signs in Vancouver were thriving is an important part of the experience of the sign. The advantage of augmented reality is being able to transport the user back to such a time to experience the sign at its best.

Bowmac sign circa 1982 - 1983, by Barbara Elizabeth Wilson http://illustratedvancouver.ca/post/1682657294/bowmac-sign

Our goal for this project is to devise a smart phone interface that offers a glimpse to Vancouver’s history and encourages users to share their memories of a specific site. Through visuals, sound, and story-telling, users interact with each other and experience the site on a variety of levels.


visual research By the 1950s, a number of car dealers had begun erecting signs of large signs in an effort to attract customers. The Bowmac dealership countered this fierce competition with the 29 metres (80 foot) tall Bowmac sign. Some of the sign’s unique features include: its giant size; its distinct 1950s letter font; its lavish use of technology (comprised of 1,200 light bulbs and large areas of neon lighting); as well as the Las Vegas style marquee base. The orange background of the Bowmac sign was repainted to the current red and blue colours. Fifty years have passed since Vancouver’s neon heyday. With the passing of time, most of the neon signs have been taken down and fallen to disuse, the Bowmac sign is no exception, its eventful fate saw it through disrepair and disuse. With change of property ownership in the 1990s, the Bowmac sign faced removal. This invoked a protest from heritage advocates and a compromise was made: the result is sign with reduced illumination and covered by a 3/4” metal sign with Toys’R’Us spelled out in coloured letters. The Bowmac sign was designated a heritage landmark in 1997. Bowmac sign, by Paul Chui http://www.ultrapaul.com/2006/photo10.html


Looking east from 1200 block of West Broadway in 1982.

by Gregory Melle http://www.flickr.com/photos/canadagood/3067930483/

A shot from the east looking west of the sign in 1994. by Gregory Melle http://www.flickr.com/photos/canadagood/3068053549/


The sign in 1996, just prior to the city of Vancouver declared it as a site of heritage and prevented it from being taken down. by SqueakyMarmot http://www.flickr.com/photos/squeakymarmot/201149094/

The sign as construction for the Toys’R’Us store begins.

http://vancouverneon.com/images3/westside/bowmac1.jpg


As an iconic product of an era when Vancouver was known as the “neon capital of North America”, the Bowmac sign stands as a testimony to a community’s changing values and perceptions as Vancouver transforms and adapts to the changing times. An examination of quotes taken from different instances in history serves to illustrate this point. “Vancouver is a city of perpetual fete... Vancouver has no rival and her signs will continue to illuminate her business section with a brilliance and variety that is a source of pride to her residents and a surprise to her guests.” (Vancouver Sun, 1934.) “The statements that Vancouver is beautiful and Vancouver is ugly do not really contradict each other at all. The setting is lovely with a character of its own which can give Vancouver a permanent personality - and which can give its citizens a personality, too. But within that setting some of the works of man can be quite hideous. They can be...and they are.” (Warnett Kennedy, City Alderman, 1959.) The sign as it stands today on West Broadway. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Bowmac_comparison.jpg


Ugly or not, neon signs serve to represent a section in time as temporal and spatial manifestations that stand as by-products of our constantly shifting values and perceptions. While our visions change dramatically with the passing of time, there is something that is universal – the desire to shape and define our environment for the better. With different forces constantly pulling in different directions, perhaps the best way to respond is live with the society at its moment, and try to enjoy every bit of it, bitter or sweet: “I think the BowMac sign is probably my favourite in the city right now. It’s such an anomaly, and so incredibly heinous looking with the Toys’R’Us sign masking three quarters of it, that I can’t help but love it. It’s a living monument to the sometimes schizophrenic personality of our city, where you’ve got some people yelling about saving something, then an equal amount of people yelling about inevitable change and finally a smaller sect standing in the middle trying to make sure that everybody’s happy... and how sometimes we just end up with an ugly piece of shit on the side of the street because of that. Love it or hate it, it’s like the state of our city summed up in a single object!”

Vancouver it its neon heyday, 1958. http://vancouverthenandnow.blogspot.com/2010/04/granville-street-neon.html

Bob Kronbauer Managing Editor/ Executive Director, Vancouver Is Awesome

“ A new neon renaissance is upon us.” Granville St. today with a renewed sense of energy. http://www.vancitybuzz.com/2010/01/first-look-the-new-granville-street/


mood board The 50s and 60s had a lot of bright bold colors and was a booming era of consumerism. In the aftermaths of World War II, economy expanded and a significant amount of wealth was transferred to the middle and lower classes, creating a pool of disposable income that fueled a desire for consumer goods, such as automobiles.


sketches general explorations


concept ideations

app home page exploration cold, cool feeling

app home page exploration cold, cool feeling

app home page exploration vibrant but legibility issues

‘the sounds’ ambiguous toggle button, lacked heirachy

‘the sign’ text in all caps, lacked heirachy

‘the stories’ positioning of comments distracting, lacked heirachy


final concept the sign description and history. the site augmented reality view that will remove the Toys’R’Us sign when the user points it at the Bowmac sign. the sounds ambient street sounds from the 50s-60s – old car horns and jazz. the sound toggles on while other features are used so as the user walks around the street, with the ambient sounds playing through the headphones. the stories posts by other people and their personal experiences and stories involving the location and or sign.


the sign description and history. the user can press the sound icon to toggle voiceover to read the text. this feature can be used in the background as the user explores other features.


the site augmented reality view that will remove the Toys’R’Us sign when the user points it at the Bowmac sign. the user can simply hold up their iphone at the sign, at any angle, and by using augmented reality, the app will show the user the sign as it is originally meant to be seen.


the sight augmented reality view that will remove the Toys’R’Us sign when the user points it at the Bowmac sign. the Bowmac sign in it’s original state, without the Toys’R’Us sign, viewed through augmented reality.


the sounds ambient street sounds from the 50s-60s – old car horns and jazz. the sound toggles on while other features are used so as the user walks around the street, with the ambient sounds playing through the headphones. the immersive sound experience can be toggled on and off through the main menu.


the stories posts by other people and their personal experiences and stories involving the location and or sign. the live feed shows real-time updates that other users post about the sign. users can also record a audio clip of their story to make the story more personal.


the stories posts by other people and their personal experiences and stories involving the location and or sign. users can directly post their story from the app along with viewing other stories.


self assessment As with every other attempt to comprehend a moment in history, the investigation of a place is one that’s ongoing. As our current environment changes, our perceptions and views of the past also change and it would be interesting to document this shift. With our limited amount of time for this project, it would have been our wish to delve deeper into the personal connections that many residents hold with the Bowmac site – perhaps in the forms of interviews and audio-recordings. Beginning in the late 1930s, Vancouver underwent a transformation as part of an international re-thinking of our living environments. Changes took place on a variety of levels, most obviously seen in the areas of architecture and city planning. The disappearance of neon in Vancouver was part of this revisioning of our city and re-definition of the modern life. With a more comprehensive research and thorough understanding of the changes that occurred at the time and are currently taking place, mobile interface holds much potential in offering a more comprehensive experience that transcends time and place.


reference Bollwitt, Rebecca. “Neon Vancouver Ugly Vancouver.” Web log post. Miss604. Sixty4media, 27 Sept. 2011. Web. 01 Oct. 2011. <http://www.miss604.com/2011/09/neon-vancouver-ugly-vancouver.html>. Bollwitt, Rebecca. “Toys R Bowmac.” Web log post. Vancouver Metblogs. Bode Media, Inc., 7 Apr. 2007. Web. 25 Sept. 2011. <http://vancouver.metblogs.com/2007/04/07/toys-r-bowmac/>. Canada. Community Services. Planning Department. Post-1940 Register Update and Statements of Significance 2006. By Robert A.J. MacDonald, Rhodri Windsor-Liscombe, and Jean Barman. City of Vancouver, 2006. Web. 20 Sept. 2011. <http://vancouver.ca/ commsvcs/planning/heritage/register/illustrated%20hcs.pdf>. Entheos_fog. “Granville Street Neon.” Web log post. Vancouver: Then and Now. 10 Apr. 2010. Web. 03 Oct. 2011. <http:// vancouverthenandnow.blogspot.com/2010/04/granville-streetneon.html>.


Fujita, Mari and Oliver Neumann. “From Consumption To Consumption: Constructing Territory In Vancouver.” ARCADE. Northwest Architectural League. Web. 03 Oct. 2011. <http://www.arcadejournal. com/public/IssueArticle.aspx?Volume=23>. “Heritage Revitalization Agreement - Bowmac Sign.” City of Vancouver. 21 May 1997. Web. 25 Sept. 2011. <http://vancouver.ca/ ctyclerk/cclerk/970529/pe4.htm>. “What’s Your Favourite Heritage Sign, Vancouver?” OpenFile. Thefile Inc., 18 July 2011. Web. 01 Oct. 2011. <http://vancouver.openfile. ca/vancouver/file/2011/07/whats-your-favourite-vancouver-heritage-sign>. Mood Board Photo Sources - 50s Fashion: Vintage Fashion and Beauty Ads - 60s Fashion: Vintage Fashion and Beauty Ads - http://images.photo-visible.com/photo_public/2010/5/800/800_559.jpg - http://www.anythingaboutcars.com/images/1958_Edsel_Pacer.jpg - http://redwingsteelworksplans.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/06/91.jpg - http://www.realbollywood.com/up_images/50s16991.jpg - http://russellbuchanan.files.wordpress.com/2010/09/50s-family-300x297.jpg

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