David Gissen: The Appearance of the Letters of the Hollywood Sign in the Smog and at a Distance

Conceived, coded and written by David Gissen
Typography by Jon Sueda

Opening April 2, 2016, 6 pm
Continuing 2 – 24 April

Ever since the Hollywood Sign was erected in 1923, many have captured the experience of air pollution in Los Angeles by photographing, drawing, and painting the city’s most famous icon as it disappears into the city’s hazy sky. From the artworks of Ed Ruscha to tourist photographs, these representations portray the impact of hydrocarbons and ozone in disrupting our perception of distance, shapes, and shade—a phenomenon known as “contrast reduction.“

Because the Hollywood Sign is so iconic, everyone knows that it is composed of the letters H, O, L, L, Y, W, O, O, and D, but few consider the actual legibility of its letters in these hazy conditions. During major bouts of smog, and when viewed from a distance, the sign’s capitalized letters can appear to create strange spellings, such as “NCLLYWCCD,” “HDLLYWDDD,” or even “KGIUVWUUU.”

The above alphabetic mutations are corroborated by ophthalmological research from the Pelli-Robson Contrast Sensitivity Chart. Created in the 1980s, the chart tests how people see type in low-contrast situations such as very dim light. Its format resembles a traditional eye-test chart with rows of capitalized letters, but in this case they are printed in gradations of gray that eventually fade into a white background—as if obscured by fog. Ophthalmologists observing patients using the Pelli-Robson chart discovered that with reduced contrast the letter H often appears as an N, K, E, or F; O appears as a C, Q, D, or U; and D appears as a P, R, or U, among other misidentifications.

According to studies based on the chart, the Hollywood Sign’s letters could hypothetically be perceived as about 1,700 different words when contrast is significantly reduced, and at least 100,000 different words in conditions of contrast reduction caused by severe smog. Of course, the list of possible words only increases when viewing the sign from a greater distance or at highly oblique angles. Hundreds of thousands of people view the sign every day from various vantage points in Los Angeles.

Although the air quality in Los Angeles is considerably better than it was 20 or 30 years ago, the continued distorted appearances of the Hollywood Sign offers an ironic statement about the actual legibility of the city’s most iconic monument. For those of us who read and write about the environment of cities, seeing the smog-induced words yielded by the Hollywood Sign continues the representational project initiated by artists, residents, and tourists to capture life in this evocative atmosphere. The distorted spellings visualize the totalizing impact of a polluted environment. It creates many distinct and disturbing realities—within spaces, on artifacts, inside our bodies and, in this case, even inside our minds.

Posted in Past

Comments Off on David Gissen: The Appearance of the Letters of the Hollywood Sign in the Smog and at a Distance


Woodbury University Hollywood Outpost opens with its first show of the Fall 2017 series on Saturday, September 9th at 6:00pm with A 5th Ecology curated by Scrap Marshall & Berenika Boberska. A 5th Ecology invites […]

Continue reading →

View all


Emerging technologies of design and production have opened up new ways to engage with traditional practices of architectural drawing. This exhibition, organized by the CCA Digital Craft Lab, features experimental drawings […]

Continue reading →

View all


After a successful opening of Punk Povera at WUHO Gallery on Saturday, January 16, 2016, the show is starting to get the attention of the press and the arts world. The Los […]

Continue reading →

View all


Opening Reception November 9, 2017, 6:00pm 6518 Hollywood Boulevard Los Angeles, CA 90028 277 obelisk monuments mark the US–Mexico boundary line. Constructed in three distinct phases (1849–1856, 1891–1912, and 1964–1968), […]

Continue reading →

View all