Honest EdsEd Mirvish did not invent the painted sign, or the circus sideshow graphic, and I am not sure that Honest Ed’s garish style is wholly unique or original, at least in a strict design sense, but the hand-made, low-fi aesthetic of Honest Ed’s discount store is a fixture in Toronto. The red, blue and yellow painted signs that adorn almost every inch of the department store, are critical to its identity and the overall shopping experience, and have become part of one of the most memorable brands in Canada.

It all started in 1948, when Mirvish was looking for a way to create a carnival atmosphere in his discount shopping mecca, Honest Ed’s Department Store. Show card painters became a major part of the brand, and the store became emblazoned with glowing neon signs, humorous card stock signs with one liner gags like “Honest Ed’s is for the birds…cheap, cheap, cheap”. The whole package became a three-ring circus that was the store, the playful platform for Mirvish’s old school salesmanship.

A successful enterprise for decades, it was only recently, with massive changes in the Canadian retail landscape, that the store began to decline. Eventually, the property value exceeded the value of the brand itself. But let’s think of the good years, and reverse engineer what made this identity so strong and understand how it became such an important part of Toronto’s  identity.

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Strong Visual Identity

Brand is about experience, and the Honest Ed’s experience starts outside: the location is one of Toronto’s key landmarks.  Like a vintage casino, the building features a massive block-long logo sign, an exterior smothered with light bulbs and shouting signage that coaxes the pedestrian to step inside. Once through the front door, the assault continues, you are bombarded with an eye-popping amount of information. Almost every item is marked with a hand-painted sign and price. A design palette of primaries, blue, yellow and red, and a consistent stylish Slash typeface, chosen because it’s the fastest to paint, the signs have remained and retained their own unique look and flavour.

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All of this combines into a systematic visual language and identity of Honest Ed’s. The family of graphic elements are applied in a flexible and almost infinite variety, but one that has such a strong base that it can only be recognized as Honest Ed’s. This demonstrates that the retailer cares about the impression it makes, and understands that this typographic style generates a unique customer experience, helping the store to stand out from the coolness of other stores, and the bleakness of efficient design.

Connecting With People

Forging a connection with people is what all brands want to do, and Honest Ed’s accomplished this in a few subtle ways. The hand made and low cost interiors, and hand painted signage draws customers in, they are unpretentious, approachable and warm. Unique in a landscape of modern printing, these hand painted signs are still being created in the age of the ink jet/ laser printers. They are literally unique and special in that they are never quite perfect and they express an obvious human touch. Digital process and production have pretty much eradicated this typographic sign painting language and style. Although there has been a recent hand drawn, DIY revival, it has largely remained in the design/art world and is not reaching into the popular culture. Even Ed’s signage is honest and unmasked.

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Toronto is a tough design environment. This is an example: the dilemma of having a unique and high individual style that Ed Mirvish created, which had a huge impact on the Toronto visual landscape, but will ultimately disappear. With a few exceptions like the excellent work by artists Sarah Lazarovic, Robin Tieu and Barr Gilmore, interpretations by local band Hooded Fang and clothing brand Stussy Canada, and the modest exhibit curated by John Martins-Manteiga, the identity has never reached deeply into the creative class nor has it been picked up as a city style, even though it indeed is one. The city has become design unsavvy, as expressed by the recent transit wayfinding (a designer’s dream project and one that cities usually use to express their design expertise – and perhaps even uniqueness) redesign, a mirror replica of the famous Massimo Vignelli New York Subway work. The design of the Ontario provincial logo, which tore down a classic modern masterpiece and was replaced by a pale attempt is another potent example. Design is not finding a home here. Perhaps, at best, the lost legacy of the Honest Ed’s identity will be a warning sign, a chance to see how design creates emotion and how we have a deep design history to tap.

We sent photographer Lorne Bridgman out to show us the last days of the  Honest Ed’s style.

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