Standing in the Gare du Nord train station in Paris in 2012, Dorrian Porter was transfixed by a sign. The station’s arrivals and departures board—a classic split-flap analog sign that constantly turns its wheels of characters, click-clacking updated information on trains, tracks, and times—had a presence that Porter calls “magical.” While he stood there staring at it, all he could think about were the walls in his children’s bedroom.
“I put quotes on my kids’ wall when they were younger,” Porter says. The split-flap station sign looked to him a more elegant, and more interesting, version of the pen-and-paper approach he’d been using. That kernel of a thought eventually grew into Vestaboard, an app-controlled and wall-mountable 132-slot split-flap sign. Like a miniaturized version of the sign in the Gare du Nord, it was designed to hang in a home, showing real-time information like weather forecasts or sports scores, or just an inspiring quote to start a kid’s school day.
Vestaboard is not alone. A 10-year-old company in Philadelphia called Oat Foundry has built its business around creating custom mechanical split-flap boards. And the online DIY community has a robust pool of makers creating their own bespoke split-flap signs.
It’s perhaps an unlikely new life for a signage technology that had its heyday in the 1950s. Split-flap signs, based on a clock design dating to the early 1900s, were once common tools for updating the frequently changing transit information in train stations and airports. In recent decades, they’ve largely been replaced by more easily updated, and more affordable, digital screens and televisions. But for many, the analog charm of a split-flap sign, with its individual character slots spinning their way through letters, numbers, and punctuation, is hard to turn away from.
For Porter, bringing this throwback technology into the home was a personal wish that had a wider appeal. Since launching the company in 2015 and debuting the product in 2020, Porter’s company has sold more than 7,000 Vestaboards. He says most customers use them to send messages to family members or display real-time information, especially sports scores. “It was great for the Australian Open this past weekend,” Porter says.
And it turns out, there’s a much broader interest in split-flap signs outside the home market. Oat Foundry, a mechanical engineering and product design firm founded in 2013, has made the production of split-flap signs its main line of business. Mark Kuhn is one of the company’s cofounders, and he says the split-flap sign started out as a one-off build for a restaurant. After working through the design, the company realized the technology had a wider application than its conventional use. They bought back the rights to the sign from the restaurant and turned it into a product that has taken dozens of shapes for hundreds of clients.
Oat Foundry’s split-flap signs are now used to display welcome messages in hotels like the Ritz Carlton, sale pricing on menu items in restaurants, art in museums like the Whitney Museum of American Art, and even personalized recommendations for customers in cannabis dispensaries. They’ve created custom installations for companies like Netflix, Google, and Carnival Cruise Line, and continued to develop software allowing the signs to turn their individual character spools in patterns like the dripping text from the Matrix movies. “It has more gravitas than something on a screen possibly could,” Kuhn says.
Creating these signs, and connecting them to the internet and smartphone apps, has taken years of work for both Vestaboard and Oat Foundry. “For as simple a thing as it looks, it was actually incredibly complex to design,” Kuhn says. “A two-foot-by-four-foot board that we make has like 50,000 parts in it. To get them to all work in concert in way that’s reliable and works for years to come was a huge challenge.”
Vestaboard’s smaller and standardized size made it slightly less cumbersome to engineer, but Porter says it still contains about 14,000 parts. When he showed it at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in 2018, the company still hadn’t figured out how to get the individual character modules into a frame that could be hung on a wall. “That took another year or so,” he says.
Re-engineering a technology that dates back more than a century doesn’t seem so difficult, but both Porter and Kuhn argue that the products they’re creating are much different from the large-scale transit boards and the small-scale clocks of the past. “I’ve had a few people say, well, it already exists, why don’t you just go get one of the companies to make you one?” Porter says. “They cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions of dollars. They use large character units. They go into large commercial industrial settings.” Vestaboard, which retails for $3,295, weighs about 55 pounds and ships to customers much like a TV would. “Creating that with a design and at a price point and with a manufacturability was really challenging,” Porter says.
Kuhn says Oat Foundry started building its signs and the individual flaps with sheet metal, but eventually moved onto a recyclable plastic that could be produced en masse in-house. Building mostly custom signs for large companies and retailers often means each project is unique, requiring different sizes and shapes, such as the curved board the company built for Netflix or the Pantone-matched red sign it built for Kit Kat. Prices can range widely.
Customer requests have also led the company to take the typically text-based split-flap display in new directions. “We kept hearing from folks that they want this for digital merchandising, for retail, for art,” Kuhn says. “It required a new product.”
So, Oat Foundry created Picture Flap, a board that uses the split-flap technology to display a grid of digitally printed square foot images. Retailers like Shinola have used it to display watches, and customers like Netflix have used it to show off new releases. Kuhn says there’s strong growth in the cannabis dispensary market, and Oat Foundry has even created a companion device that customers can use to get product recommendations using mixing board-style sliders.
Both Vestaboard and Oat Foundry are also doing a fair amount of business in the office context, either for branded lobby displays or for more workaday informational boards for things like event schedules and wayfinding. “That whole market has been around for 30 or 40 years,” Porter says. “Digital signage is the name of the game there. And we fit that with a much better aesthetic, in my opinion, and almost the same functionality.”
The turning letters of a split-flap sign may be a charming or even useful addition to an office, but clacking sound could be a distraction. “In an office environment, they want it to be very quiet, so we actually have built settings in where it will slightly reduce the rotation speed or it will limit the number of modules that can turn at any given times,” Kuhn says. The sound effect is like a gentle rainstick.
Bars, another major Oat Foundry’s customer, have the opposite concern. “Bar owners want them to be as loud as possible, because they have to get over the din of the bar. If you have a ten-foot-by-ten-foot board and all of the motors and flaps are turning at once, you’ll hear that ch-ch-ch sound very loud,” Kuhn says.
And while most of the signs Oat Foundry is making are a far cry from the split-flap’s transit station roots, some do actually display real-time transportation information. One installation is at a San Diego bar called Nolita Hall, which is situated right below the flight path of planes landing at San Diego International Airport. Pulling in data from flight trackers, the sign displays the aircraft type, carrier, speed, and origin of planes as they pass over the bar’s large skylight.
A forthcoming project will make an even stronger transit connection: Oat Foundry has built a 40-foot-long sign for Google’s office near the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The sign will show, in real time, how many of the company’s bike shares are available. It may not have the scope of the split-flap sign at the Gare du Nord, but it will have the magic.