Main Street U.S.A here in France has really got me thinking about the specific role that graphic design plays in theming. The examples I have seen are truly astounding. Disney in general has always had a good handle on vernacular re-creation, and the Parisian park’s Main Street is no exception.
However, although the parks stateside do a solid job, the designers have outdone themselves here. The reasons are twofold. First, Disney was given the specific mandate to impress European audiences. And second, creating a Main Street that made sense to the European conceptions (or misconceptions) of American culture and history required that the basic formula be rethought.
So, not only did they have go above and beyond, but Disney’s creatives needed to innovate. And in graphic design, impressing and innovating produces really stellar work.
The original Main Street U.S.A. in California is all about a nation in transition—from gas to electricity, from horse to automobile, from telegraph to telephone. This basic theme is repeated in Paris; however, the commercial (read: capitalistic) aspects of American society are grossly amplified. For the first time, billboards and advertising broadsides of all kinds are peppered throughout main street, becoming as strong a design voice as the architecture itself.
Which means some truly spectacular examples of period-piece graphic design.
What I love about the work, however, is even though it is designed in general for a lay audience (read: European middle-class tourists and their families), Disney researched the material so thoroughly that the various specimens hold up even to serious scrutiny.
Designers often decry the Hollywood misuse of typography in period films—blatant inaccuracies abound. Not so here.
Typography has an important role in thematic environments. First of all, it can convey “hard narrative”—that is, it can directly tell a story through signage, placards, wayfinding, etc. Second, it adds a vital level of detail to historical representations.
Type has been with us for quite some time, and most conventions of certain historical eras are readily identifiable, even to the untrained eye.
We know a lot about typography, even if we don’t, simply because it surrounds us in our daily lives. Adding type is yet another shortcut to comprehension in the thematic designers’ toolbox.
You could argue that apart from a few signs for the bathrooms, all of the typography on Main Street U.S.A. is completely gratuitous. And I’d agree.
But it is this gratuity that adds an extra dimension—another level, yet another read—to this thematic representation of turn-of-the-century america, imagined for european audiences.
One feels overwhelmed at first glance, but then compelled to take a closer look. If all this detail is here, what else is there to see? What else might I be missing?
These small nuances encourage the visitor to take their time and examine the scene more closely. Closer examination equals immersion, and immersion is what theming is all about.
All graphic artwork © Disney Enterprises.