Letterhead Fonts is a nice source of information as well as a supplier of awesomely sign-friendly fonts, many designed by real hand letterers. Choosing letter styles for sign work requires special considerations that are not always necessary in other media.
The following link is to a tutorial about how good design principles should be applied to even small, unimportant copy. It’s brief, but well done.
The US Patent and Trademark Office, as of January 14, has changed a number of fees in connection with trademark registration.
Notable is the jump in the fee for filing a paper application for trademark registration. The per-class fee for filing an initial application is now a whopping $600, an increase of $225 over the previous $375. The fee for filing an online application has increased from $325 to $400, a bump of $75.
It has always been more costly to file a paper application as opposed to an electronic one, but now the difference is $200 rather than a mere $50. Why the big difference? According to the USPTO’s website, it is part of “incentivising.” Electronic filing is more efficient and it costs less. Filing online is therefore preferred and encouraged.
Other fees increased
A number of other fees have increased as well. Filing a Statement of Use has doubled in cost, from $100 to $200, and a Request for an Extension of Time for Filing a Statement of Use has gone up $75. There is even an apparently new charge called an Additional Fee forExpedited Service, a “rush” charge. It’s $160.
In addition to providing incentive to file electronically, the increases are also part of an effort to “better align fees with full costs,” according to the government website.
It should be noted that these price increases are in connection with federal trademark registrations only and do not affect trademark registrations at the state level. Most states in the US offer trademark registrations at a much lower cost than what the USPTO charges, though the protection is more limited. In addition, trademark rights also derive from simply using a trademark in connection with goods or services. These are called common law trademark rights, and are limited to the geographical area where the mark is used. To prove common law rights in a trademark, it must be shown that the one claiming ownership of the mark was the first to use the mark in a geographical area.
For example, a website about logo design makes this comment:
When successful, a logo will tell the story of the brand without requiring any words. It will tell a compelling story about your brand, consistently. It’s how your customers will remember you, and it’s the way you will stand out in a crowded marketplace. It’s how the most beloved brands are born.
Is this really true? I would agree that a successful logo can eventually tell a compelling story without words. But is it how most beloved brands are born? Hardly.
A newborn logo usually tells nothing
There is no doubt that the beloved Nike swoosh tells a story that is both compelling and persuasive. It tells a story, not just of sports apparel, but of athletic endeavor in general. In addition, it has tremendous eye appeal in its simplicity, and it is quite memorable.
But did the Nike logo tell this story when it was born? No. It didn’t tell anything at all. In fact, when it was first presented to Nike executives, they did not really care for it that much. They were hoping for something along the lines of Adidas’s three stripes. But they went with the swoosh anyway and it has become wildly successful in the Nike branding scheme. It conveys a story of athletic achievement, even excellence.
But, again, it wasn’t born that way. And so it is with the logos of most “beloved brands.” Look at the following logo images and ask yourself: If you did not already have an accumulation of experiences and associations in connection with them, what would they mean to you? In other words, if you saw them for the first time, what story would they tell?
On seeing these logos for the first time, they would tell you nothing. They might even mislead you a little. What does Target’s “target” say? The first impression might be a message about archery or firearms rather than “upscale discount store.” Looking at these logos now, and being familiar with the companies behind them, they are filled with meaning. Even the yellow star has quickly become recognizable as part of Walmart’s new look. Though the Walmart logo does not reveal much on its own, it seems to be part of a strategy to improve the image of the discount retailer. Notice the subtle difference in the tag line. The old logo’s tag line was “Low Prices Every Day. Always.” The new tag line is “Save Money. Live Better.” It’s an obvious effort to avoid the impression of peddling only price. Whether the changes have actually improved Walmart’s “discount” image or not, the revised design of the logotype has quickly become a familiar new look. It is no longer a dated-looking hyphenated name, and the capital M is gone. It is a nicely improved design (in my opinion). And, by the way, do you know the difference between the two Target logos? Did you know they are two different companies and have no connection to each other. One is US and the other Australian. Trademark infringement is not an issue because they don’t compete in the same countries. I know what the Target store sells in the US because I shop there. I don’t have a clue what Target sells in Australia. Why? Because the logo doesn’t tell me.
The Apple computer logo
The Apple computer logo has gone through a few permutations in its history. The rainbow version, Apple’s second logo design, was used from 1977–1998 and does not tell a story, at least not inherently. It has no implicit connection to computers at all. The first logo did. It was designed in pen and ink by an early Apple partner who left the company. But that first logo was quickly seen as unsuitable. Current Apple logos preserve the shape of the apple in the 1977 version, but without the stripes. Actually, the shape has been refined a little down through the years. There is now a starkly simple black version of the apple and some chrome-looking versions.
Urban legends have arisen around the supposed symbolism connected to the Apple logo. One of them is that the stripes are a reference to the flag of the gay community—because Alan Turing, the inventor of the first real computer, was gay. Further, Turing reportedly committed suicide with a cyanide-laced apple. But according to the Apple logo’s designer, Rob Janoff, the various stories about its symbolism are all bogus. He said the logo didn’t have any symbolic meaning, other than the fact that it was a play on the company name. In fact, Janoff wasn’t even given a design brief, other than a request by Steve Jobs to not make it too “cute.” In an interview with Janoff, when asked what other designers should look out for when designing logos, he said, “The main thing is to make it simple, because designers especially young designers tend to over-design or clients want too many things in there. I think people who tried to work a logo too hard, having too much meaning, wind up with something that’s too complex.”
Janoff actually designed two versions of the apple. One with the bite and one without, in case Jobs thought the bite was too cute.
The swastika tells a story, too, and not a happy one. But it was not born that way. In more than one of the world’s religions, this symbol has been beloved for centuries, and as recently as the years between the two world wars it was the proud emblem of the 45th Infantry Division of the United States Army. This army division was originally a US National Guard unit based in Oklahoma, and the crooked cross, a Native American symbol, was chosen as an acknowledgment of the state’s heritage. Does this surprise you? The swastika is a logo whose story has changed radically.
When we look at a well-known logo, we see more than just a stylized word or a graphic image. We see a world of associations and experiences that have accumulated over the life of the organization or product it represents. But a logo design is not born with these associations. They are the result of time and, likely, aggressive marketing. A newborn logo is very much like a book with blank pages. It does not tell a story. And it does not necessarily need to.
Does this mean that a logo should not tell a story? No. There are numerous logos that do reveal something of a business or the product or service of a business. There are many designers who have cleverly created marks that are simple yet contain visual clues that are revealing to some extent. But as to the question of whether a logo needs to do this to be successful, the answer is, no it does not need to.
What are some characteristics of a good logo? It should be memorable. It helps if it is attractive. Simplicity is good, but not an absolute requirement.
But a logo does not need to tell a story, at least not when it’s first designed. It’s like an empty pot waiting for meaning that will be poured into it by experience and the passing of time. Only then will it tell a story.
An interesting read is the book, The Swastika: Symbol Beyond Redemption? by Steven Heller. Heller is author, editor and co-editor of more than one hundred books on design and popular culture.
A logo is often one of a company’s most valuable assets. A logo mark may represent the company, its image and reputation, or the reputation of its products or services. Many logos are protected by trademark registration. Many more benefit from trademark protection without registration. Because a mark may be such a valuable asset, many companies have branding guidelines in place to carefully control the use of company logos.
It’s a given that a company’s logo should appear prominently in its signage. But what should a sign maker do if a sign buyer orders sign work featuring logos that it does not own? Should sign companies act as trademark police and require proof of permission before they put a logo on a sign? Most do not. They simply produce the work in good faith, assuming that the sign customer is not infringing by displaying the logo, though many sign shops, when asked to place a national logo on sign work, make an effort to obtain branding guidelines from the sign buyer or the national chain.
Occasionally, a retailer will say, “We didn’t ask permission to use their logo, but we sell their product so it will be okay to use it.” The retailer reasons that he or she is giving their supplier free advertising—and who would object to that? In reality, the use of a protected logo without permission constitutes infringement. And rather than view the display of it as free advertising, the company owning the mark may be more concerned about how it might affect its name and reputation. Why so?
Here is a purely hypothetical example. A siding company believes it would be a selling point to put the Alcoa logo on their signs since they use Alcoa aluminum products. So they order signs with the Alcoa logo on them. Alcoa later contacts the siding company and tells them they are not allowed to display the logo on their signs and to remove it. They explain to the contractor that, while they appreciate his loyal business, his use of the logo without permission is trademark infringement.
Why does Alcoa not view this as free advertising in this fictitious scenario?
Trademark law protects a reputation by preventing confusion
Trademark protection is designed to prevent confusion among consumers. Alcoa may have no desire to be in the siding installation business, but the sign with Alcoa’s logo could give consumers the wrong impression.
And what if the siding company does shoddy work? The improper use of the logo on the sign could conceivably tarnish Alcoa’s reputation or the reputation of its products. It may have taken many years of aggressive marketing for Alcoa to develop a respected name in the aluminum products industry, and protecting this good image may be a high priority for the company. So trademark protection can serve to protect the good name of a brand. Further, if a siding customer is unhappy enough, they may decide to start a lawsuit, even naming Alcoa in the suit, since the Alcoa logo is on the sign.
Consequently, Alcoa avoids this whole bundle of problems by simply not allowing their logo to be used on siding company signs. They may feel that the small amount of advertising the sign gives them is not worth the potential problems.
It’s true that many people, including a well-intentioned siding contractor, may view this as a case of a large corporation using a ‘big stick’ unnecessarily. But that’s because most people don’t realize the potential danger to a trademark of allowing even small infringements to go unchecked. Trademark protection, for it to stay in force, requires watchful management. Trademark protection for a mark may live or die depending on how vigilant the trademark holder is in defending it. The government has put the responsibility for policing infractions squarely on the shoulders of the trademark owner. There are no ‘trademark police’ provided by the US Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO), or any other government agency.
Trademark attorney Erik Pelton, in a recent blog, gives this advice:
Deal with any potential infringements quickly. The more investments of time and money someone puts into using a name [illegally], the more attached to it they become and the more complicated getting them to stop is likely to be.
Vertically stacked letters, a common treatment a century ago, is not a preferred layout technique for sign work.
Though sometimes requested by clients, stacking letters vertically is not only awkward-looking but it compromises legibility. As explained by typographer Ellen Lupton in Thinking With Type, “Roman letters are designed to sit side by side, not on top of one another.” If it is necessary to stack letters, they should be all capitals. Lower case letters treated this way take on a precarious look that is visually unappealing. It also helps to carefully adjust the centering optically of each letter.
A simpler and more readable solution for a narrow vertical format is to rotate the entire line of text. A vertical axis is thus achieved, but the natural relationship of the letters sitting on a common baseline is preserved.
Does this mean that letters should never be stacked? No. In fact, sometimes this treatment is an easy way to achieve a retro look. But it should be used judiciously and with an awareness that it can limit readability.
There were two different business owners, with two different philosophies on promising deadlines.
The first one, the Promiser, tried to accommodate everyone’s needs. If someone needed a job done the next day, he rarely said no. If someone requested a job be done in three days, he said okay. If they needed it in two weeks, he told them, “No problem.” If instead, a customer simply asked when a job would be done, he gave them a completion date based on how quickly he thought he could get it finished. Some customers didn’t ask for completion dates. They just approved the job and said, “call me when it’s done.”
But problems arose for the Promiser when things didn’t always go as planned; if due to unforeseen factors, a job took longer than anticipated. Sometimes a supplier was late with a delivery, or a mistake was made in production requiring a re-do of part of the job. Or an employee became sick. So a deadline that at first seemed within reach was missed. In an attempt to placate an irritated customer, an unplanned free delivery was made, adding yet more time to the job. But the problems did not end there. The late job bumped other jobs that were in line waiting to be done, annoying more customers. If one of them was angry enough, that job was moved to the front of the queue and marked “hot.” And what about the customers that just said to call them when the job was ready? Their jobs were repeatedly delayed. Deadlines were missed frequently, and because jobs were often rushed in an effort to catch up, more mistakes were made. Jobs came back almost weekly for correcting or remaking. Occasionally, jobs were even sent out with known mistakes just to avoid missing the promised deadline. (The business owner reasoned that he was gaining breathing room to get other things done before the customer noticed the mistake and returned). In his mind, the owner felt he was doing his best, even bending over backward for his customers. Still, he developed a reputation for not respecting deadlines. A reputation that he could never quite overcome.
How was this person able to survive in business? He had two things going for him. First, he was one of the cheapest in town. He regularly asked customers how much his competitors were quoting and he tried to undercut them much of the time. He developed a reputation for low prices that kept customers coming back who otherwise would have gone elsewhere out of frustration. Some customers, wise to his overpromising, called frequently after ordering to check on the progress of their jobs. They learned from their past experience with him that he serviced the ‘squeakiest wheels’ ahead of others. So, they squeaked.
The second factor in his favor was the tremendous size of the market in his area, providing a constant influx of new customers attracted by his prices. He lost many customers due to missed deadlines, but they were constantly replaced by new ones.
The overpromising by this business owner created additional problems beyond missed deadlines. Employee moral ran low. When some workers discovered that the owner often blamed his missed deadlines on his workforce, they became frustrated and resentful. Employee turnover was significant. In an effort to reduce mistakes and expedite jobs, the owner habitually micromanaged workers, constantly looking over their shoulders, making decisions for them on even minor matters of production. He constantly asked for progress reports, looking for ways to hurry jobs along. In an effort to save time, and because he “didn’t want to spend all day writing,” the owner frequently produced job orders lacking crucial information, preferring instead to give extended verbal instructions that were not always perfectly remembered. This resulted in more mistakes and more missed deadlines. The owner was not a bad person but, under the pressure, he often became rude and critical and was rarely patient with employees. Moral sank even lower.
The Hardnose was not a bad person, either. Actually, she was a smart businessperson. She tried to accommodate clients’ deadlines just as the Promiser, but with one major difference in procedure. She always—always—generously padded her time estimates. If she thought the job required five days, she never told the customer five days. She told them seven or eight, or more, and she didn’t budge. If she knew she could do a job in two weeks without a problem, she told the customer three weeks, even if they said they needed it completed as soon as possible. She was hard-nosed about giving herself wiggle room. She assumed, correctly, that something would go wrong on a job as often as not. If on the other hand, the job was completed ahead of schedule, as it often was, she sometimes, but not always, called a client to report that the job was finished early. She developed a reputation for never being late. The result was that she was in demand and she was able to charge a higher rate than the Promiser. Yet she worked no harder than he did.
It seems that the Promiser was in constant fear that a competitor would give his customers a better turnaround time. So he rarely said no to a request. His efforts were all focused on landing the job, after which he concentrated on getting it done in time. The Hardnose was motivated by fear, too, but not fear of losing a job. She feared for her reputation, and she was willing to turn down work to protect it. In the end, customers trusted her. Her word was golden. The cushion of time that she gave herself when scheduling produced an additional cushion, one of goodwill with her customers. In a recent blog, marketing expert and author Seth Godin made the observation that this cushion of goodwill is like a form of “overdraft protection” for your business. The cushion can save your reputation when you occasionally fall short on a promise, which inevitably happens.
The Hardnose invested in overdraft protection, both in scheduling and in customer trust. The Promiser did not. He took too many chances. And his “insufficient trust fees” hurt him.
The termirradiation illusion was coined by German scientist Hermann von Helmholtz in the 1860s to describe the visual perception in which a light area appears larger than an identically-sized dark area. The effect was observed as early as the time of Galileo, who refers to it in his observations of the sizes of planets when viewed through a telescope at different times of day. The illusion is illustrated below. The white square in the black field on the right seems larger than the black square in the white field on the left. It’s as if the white area on the right spills outward beyond its edges into the surrounding black. At the same time, the white field on the left appears to encroach upon the black square making it shrink.
The drawing below shows how the irradiation illusion can affect lettering. The top halves of the letters shown are clearly bolder looking than the bottom halves. This means that, on a dark background, a white letter with a heavy stroke will look even heavier, sometimes to the point that legibility is compromised. Counter spaces that are already small become even smaller. Interletter spacing shrinks. Heavy white lettering on a dark background can take on an unpleasant bloated look, and the effect is more pronounced as the viewing distance increases. The solution, simply, is to use lighter stroked letters and increase the letter spacing when the background is dark.
This phenomenon of white letters appearing heavier is not always a bad thing. The effect can be put to use at times. It can even save an otherwise weak layout. How so?
Put the Irradiation Illusion to good use
Computer font collections tend to have a disproportionately high number of light faced letter styles. These typestyles are designed mostly for print, not for signs. Times Roman, as an example, is an inherently weak letter style on sign work. It looks fine in print, up close. After all, it was designed for newspapers held at arm’s length, paper whose porous qualities actually help thin-faced letters. Paper, especially newsprint, allows inked letters to bleed a little through capillary action (the printer’s term for this is dot gain). This effect allows the hairline strokes characteristic of many romans to achieve a little more thickness when printed. But in large sizes on signs, the thin strokes of painted or vinyl lettering remain thin lines. Add to this thinness the effect of the irradiation illusion, and the strokes become even thinner. The result is that a large sign lettered in all Times Roman has a distinctly anemic look. In printspeak, the lettering is not ‘black’ enough. It appears insubstantial, weak. The thinnest strokes eventually disappear as viewing distance increases, leaving visible only a series of meaningless vertical strokes. But if you create a reversed color scheme—putting white roman letters on a black background—the letters instantly become a little stronger.
Similarly, the legibility of some scripts can be improved by a dark background. Computer scripts are often so light faced as to be useless for sign work without some kind of ‘stroking’ to beef them up. Using a dark background can sometimes solve the problem with minimal effort.
Before computer fonts
In the days of painted signs, the expanding/shrinking illusion of irradiation was a problem easily addressed. For one thing, sign painters did not use fonts [related post: Sign painters didn’t use fonts], so they were not burdened with picking through hundreds of unusable typestyles to find the few that worked well. Their letter styles, “alphabets,” as they called them, were all hand drawn specifically for sign work. Generally, these styles were not duplicates of typestyles that were created for print. And letterers tended to rely on medium and medium-heavy stroke weights for the bulk of their work. When a light typestyle was required, say, by an insistent client, or when an architect specified a certain typeface, it was easy to thicken the strokes slightly if needed for legibility. This could even be done on the fly during the brush lettering process. When a sign painter used script, it was most often a medium weight, sometimes heavy, infrequently light. Experienced sign painters knew that light faced lettering often produced weak-looking signs that lacked impact.
Good design is rarely accidental
In sign design, legibility is dependent on the interplay of light and dark images. Letter recognition relies not only on the positive image of the letterform but also on the negative space surrounding and within it. When one or the other is overpowering, there is always a compromise of legibility. This is why medium weight letters tend to be the most legible on sign work. It doesn’t mean heavy or light faced letters should not be used at all. Rather, it means using them prudently.
Being aware of, and carefully manipulating, effects like the irradiation illusion can help a sign artist produce good layout. Effective design is not an accident.
My inspiration for this article is an archived blog by UK designer and typographer Jon Tangerine from 2010: jontangerine.com
Hermann von Helmholtz bio from Encyclopedia Britannica. His pursuits as a scientist were broad. Perhaps best known for his invention of the ophthalmoscope in 1861, still an essential diagnostic tool used in medicine today.
Hermann von Helmholtz from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Details of his interests, philosophies, teachings and accomplishments.