Drive-by Marketing

One of my favorite architectural styles is a great example of marketing

In America the 1950s saw 2 big societal changes which had a big impact on how much and how far people travelled:

1. A huge rise in car ownership

The 1950s began with 25 million cars on the road, most of which were old and in poor condition. No cars or parts were made during the war, for obvious reasons. But by 1950, most factories had transitioned to a consumer economy, and they produced over 8 million cars that year alone.

By 1958, there were over 67 million cars registered in the United States, more than twice the number at the start of the decade. American culture was beginning to be built around the car.

2. The massive expansion and improvement of interstate highways

One of the key challenges for military defence is moving units around quickly and efficiently. If you need tanks in one place, and they’re in another, you need to get them to the right place, as fast as you can.

While serving as Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in World War 2, US President Dwight D. Eisenhower developed an admiration for the German Autobahn system as an essential component of the Germany’s military defence. He decided that the US needed something similar.

He expanded the National Highway System with interstate highways across many parts of the United States. The wider, multi-lane highways allowed traffic to move at faster speeds, with few or no stoplights on the way.


It’s my way, or the highway

More and more people were now moving around, and they were moving further and faster. This lead to new business springing up and offering products and services to these travelling families and business people. Places to stop for gasoline, food, drink, groceries, entertainment, and to spend the night.

This lead to an arms race among these businesses to see who could capture the attention and dollars of the passing customers.


Give me a sign

Marketing, at its core, is pretty simple. You have products and / or services to sell, and you want to draw people’s attention to them. Ideally, you want to draw people’s attention to them when and if they are likely to buy them. Marketing, I would argue, in its purest form, is the signs and motifs used to get people’s attention.

There are two major factors that can affect how likely your signs and premises are to get the attention of people speeding passed:

  1. The wording
  2. The visual elements

You could put up a sign that says you make the best bacon sandwiches in the entire country. You make sure the text is big and can readable by cars as they fly by. Maybe that will work. But you could also make the sign really stand out visually too. Maybe make it pink, in the shape of a pig, covered in lights, and with a moving tail. Maybe.

Sign designers and architects were tasked with finding the right visual styles to get people’s attention. They tried buildings that looked homely, signs that used arresting photography, pig-shaped signs (okay, this might just be my idea).

But one visual style really stood out and over time has developed a cult following – and is also one of my favourite forms of architecture. That style is Googie.

Googie (pronounced GOO-jee) is a mixture of Modernism, American car culture (which thrived in Southern California), and Space-Age retro-futurism. The term Googie comes from a coffeehouse in Hollywood designed by John Lautner, who was at one time an apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Googie’s Coffee Shop at Sunset Blvd and Crescent Heights, West Hollywood

As an architectural style, Googie includes unswept roofs, curvaceous, geometric shapes, and bold use of glass, steel and neon. Googie-style signs usually boast sharp and bold angles, intended to suggest the aerodynamic features of a rocket ship.

With the increasing prosperity of the United States during the 1950s, American designers celebrated this new affluence with optimistic designs. The development of nuclear power and the reality of spaceflight captivated the public’s imagination of the future. Googie architecture reflected this by incorporating energy into its design with elements such as the boomerang, diagonals, atomic bursts and bright colors.

One of the most famous examples of Googie – the Las Vegas sign

Even if you have no love for this style, and I appreciate it would be too bold for many, you can appreciate how it would grab the attention.

Would you drive passed this without noticing?

For me, Googie represents three things:

  1. A bold and confident approach to design from a time of peace and prosperity
  2. A willingness to adapt to societal changes and tastes
  3. An understanding of the need for a business to be bold and distinctive to succeed

If I could redesign my house along these lines, I really would. Even if it upset the neighbours (and it really would).

Sadly, many Googie structures were destroyed as tastes changed. But there is a list on Wikipedia, perhaps it’s time to plan a road trip?


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