In early 2008, my good friends Matt and J Whitson approached me to design a logo and on-air graphics for a television show they were creating for Alabama Public Television. The show would be called We Have Signal, and it would be a 30-minute live music show chronicling the bands that came through Birmingham to play at Bottletree Cafe. As odd as it sounded at the time, these would be bands of the Whitsons’ own choosing–punk bands, noise bands, and whatever other eclectic sounds that enthused them–and with virtually no oversight from the top brass. All on public television. In Alabama.
And oddly, they got away with it.
As a friend of the brothers behind the show, I was in on a lot of those early conversations, and I had a front-row seat as it blossomed from a crazy “what if” into a real show that was broadcast into millions of homes every week. The beginnings of We Have Signal had the feel of a classic John Hughes plot, where a band of rag-tag rejects puts their minds together and ends up being able to create something truly magical because the grown-ups aren’t looking. It was this adolescent electricity and enthusiasm that resonated with me when I designed the graphics for the show. To me, it felt like a high school project–like an idea you’d scribble logos for on the cover of your notebook in school.
The logo and on-air graphics fit the early aesthetic of the show pretty well. I wanted it to be nerdy and very A/V club, so I modeled the lettering off of Courier, which made sense to me. With the artistic direction in place, we filmed a show intro, which was my bandmate Darryl and me driving through town in our band’s van to load in to the club. Our friend Aaron provided the intro music, and all the parts started to fit together. This was beginning to look like a show–like something we could get away with.
And it worked. They got a whole season on the air without any real complaints. Soon, Justin Gaar and Paul Rogers joined the APT development staff and bumped the camera work up to pretty spectacular levels. Soon, bands were requesting to be on the show. Soon, the APT development staff had racked up an armload of regional Emmys for this crazy little show that was flying under the radar. And soon, my scrappy, DIY logo treatment didn’t fit any more.
Rumblings of revamping the logo and on-air graphics began around season 3, but congressional action and state budget cuts put the future of the show in jeopardy. Laying low and sticking to what they had was better than speaking up and reminding management that there was another show around that could be cut. With those dark days at least temporarily behind them, the staff decided that with season 6 we would finally rebrand the show.
We knew a lot more about the needs of the show 6 seasons in than we did when we were scrapping to throw a show together in 2008. We knew we had a show that would work. We knew we had a show that would attract some of our favorite bands. We knew we had a show with the potential for growth, syndication, and awards. We needed a visual identity that was as mature and sophisticated as the show had become, and one that could grow with the show instead of holding it back.
With that in mind, I got together with the creators of the show to throw out some ideas and new directions over a few beers. We’re all audio nerds of varying degrees, and one of the themes we kept coming back to was 60s and 70s HiFi gear. With that in mind, I drew out some sketches based on the lettering and layout of a few of the logos we discussed as well as another idea that just came out of nowhere as I started sketching.
After reviewing these initial concepts, I felt we were again painting ourselves into a corner by confining the logo and visual look to a particular and identifiable theme. Conceptually, I wanted the logo to be more of a watermark or brand, something that would overlay onto the content without dominating it, but that also had enough personality to stand on its own. For We Have Signal, the content is their product, and I wanted the logo to serve as a frame for that content. With these emerging objectives in mind, the sketch that had come out of nowhere was the right fit.
After some refinement, I worked up the final logo for air, along with a modified version as a standalone for avatars and stickers as well as an intro treatment and title sequence for the show. For the titles, I used FF Good, which reinforces the modern mechanical aesthetic of the logo, and for the subtitles, Freight Sans, which contrasts nicely with the other text.
I’m proud to have been able to work with the APT staff on a variety of projects over the years, and happy to finally get the opportunity to bring We Have Signal up to speed. If this post is your first time hearing about the show, do yourself a favor and watch a few episodes. Earth, Tortoise, Monotonix, and GY!BE are my favorites.
More videos and show info at wehavesignal.org