“Reading in word units is the most important characteristic of the mature reader,” says David Jury in his book, About Face: Reviving the Rules of Typography.
A beginning reader reads in a linear way, word by word. A mature reader reads in word groups in a series of quick back and forth movements across a line of text. Between these jumps, called saccades, our eyes stop for a fraction of a second. These stops, or fixations, may occur many times a second. The more proficient a reader is, the longer are the jumps and the fewer the stops.
In eye-movement tests, upper case letters require far more fixation points than do lower case letters, adding to the time required to read. Experiments by Tinker and Patterson in 1928 found that reading all caps was 11.8% slower than reading lower case. A later study, which measured longer reading periods, found all upper case to be 19% slower for reading periods of five and ten minutes, and 13.9% slower for reading periods of twenty minutes. Presumably, as the reading period lengthened, the readers grew more accustomed to reading all caps, which may suggest one reason that reading upper and lower case mixed is easier and quicker to read—we are used to it.
On the other hand, some studies indicate that the distinctive word shapes produced by the ascenders and descenders in lower case lettering also play a part in quick word recognition.
It’s interesting that if we cover the top half of a line of lower case lettering, it is almost impossible to read. But if we cover the bottom half, it is still possible to read the text, suggesting that the upper parts of the letters and the ascenders are especially important in word recognition.
Regardless of the reason for it, reading text in all caps can increase the time necessary to read a message, whether it’s on a book page or on a sign.
Upper case takes up 40-50% more area. This reduces the number of words perceived within each eye fixation, which may explain the increased number of fixations required for all caps. Line spacing needs to be increased slightly with all upper case for it to be legible. The result is that signs in all upper case tend to look more filled, busier, more crowded, than the same amount of copy in mixed case.
In sign work, it is important for a viewer to read messages easily and quickly. Anything we as designers can do to speed up and facilitate the process is going to be of benefit.
Polymethyl methacrylate is a plastic containing one or more derivatives of acrylic acid.
We know it simply as acrylic.
It is sold under many trade names: Plexiglas, Lucite, Acrylite, Perspex, Acrilex and Crystallite.
There are two types of acrylic sheet commonly used by the sign industry—cast and extruded.
Cast acrylic is made by injecting the ingredients into molds as a molten liquid, about the consistency of syrup, in one of two ways. The “cell cast” or “batch cell” method is made in sheets in a mold made of two plates of polished glass with gaskets at the edges. The liquid plastic fills the cavity between the two plates of glass and may be heated. Several plates may be stacked to produce multiple sheets of acrylic. After curing, the molds are disassembled and cleaned for reuse.
“Continuous cast,” is a higher production method. The molten mixture is cast between two continuous sheets of polished metal in much longer runs as it goes through a series of heaters for curing. Again, gaskets seal the edges.
Cast acrylic is polished and is known for optical clarity. It is harder than extruded acrylic and less prone to scratch. It is also more heat resistant, which is why cast acrylic cuts so much cleaner when machined, whereas extruded acrylic tends to melt behind a saw blade.
Extruded acrylic is a less costly process and provides the larger share of acrylics used in the sign industry. It is manufactured by forcing the semi-molten acrylic mixture through forms and rollers.
Acrylite FF is an example of an extruded acrylic sheet. Acrylite GP is cast.
Airplane and helicopter canopies are made from cast acrylic because of its optical clarity.
Plastic sign faces are mostly extruded acrylics.
If you are involved in the manufacture of interior signs in the United States, you are aware that many of them are required to be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. But if you have not kept yourself informed of the latest ADA Guidelines (ADAAG), your sign work may not be in compliance. This can put your customers at risk.
The latest changes were written in 2010 and were voted into law March 15, 2011. All public-accessible facilities were required to observe these new guidelines by March 15, 2012. The guidelines include some significant changes in the specifications for fonts. Noteworthy is the requirement for tactile signs to use sans serif letter styles in all upper case only. However, even many sans serif styles are not compliant—like Helvetica Medium and Helvetica Bold. Why? The strokes are too heavy. The new guidelines require the thickness of strokes to be no greater than 15 percent of the letter height, based on the height of the capital “I”. That rules out most bold-stroked letters. Helvetica Regular and Helvetica Light are compliant. Helvetica Ultra Compressed qualifies, too.
The width to height ratio is also being spec’d by the new rules. The width, based on a capital “O”, must be between 55 percent and 110 percent of the height, again based on the capital “I”. That means Helvetica Extended is non-compliant, as is Helvetica Compressed. That means, too, that squishing the width of a letter to make it fit a particular size wall sign may render the sign non-compliant (not to mention ugly).
Other changes in the new guidelines include a rule on line spacing. And letter spacing is now mandated (it’s wide). The dimensions of Braille cells are now specified, as is the structure of a Braille dot. And Braille must always be placed directly below the lettering. It cannot be to the side anymore, with one exception: Braille for an elevator button can go to the side.
There are other changes as well, including changes to the penalties for violations. The penalty for a first violation is now 75,000 dollars.
If a sign maker is not producing ADA-compliant signage where it’s called for, and it results in a non-compliance action against a client, it’s easy to see how the sign company’s survival could be threatened. Think: who would knowingly continue to buy from a sign producer that was responsible for one of its customers being hit with a costly non-compliance proceeding?
Here is a pdf file comparing the 1991 and 2010 standards, and pointing out the changes. Signs are in section 703 of the pdf.
Here is a link to the official published standards:
Most sign companies in the US do not have real, live electricians on the payroll. The typical sign shop doesn’t want to pay what a licensed electrician would demand for wages, so lesser paid employees are trained to assemble and wire internally-illuminated signs, and service them after installation. The learning curve is not steep, as electric signs are very simply built. These employees will have varying degrees of electrical knowledge and ability, ranging from people who are very experienced to complete novices. Pre-cut knock-down kits are available that allow practically anyone to put together lighted signs with a minimum of fabrication equipment. They can be assembled with screws, high-bond adhesives or by welding. Translucent vinyl lettering can be used for the plastic faces, eliminating the need for painting. This type of work can be done by the most unskilled labor. It can be done in someone’s garage.
In fact, if the general public in this country knew how inexperienced some people are who work on electric signs, they would be surprised.
In the US, using unskilled workers for this type of electrical work is usually not a problem for licensing authorities. Sign companies in most municipalities are legally allowed to do limited electrical work without a license, without any credentials at all, in fact. Further, after paying the fees and receiving an inspection of a sample completed sign, most any shop may receive UL certification.
So just as practically anyone in this country can start a sign company and be a “sign designer,” practically anyone can make electric signs, too. I’m not saying this is bad, necessarily. But just as I would like to see sign makers strive for better design work and a better understanding of design principles, I would also like to see sign makers improve their knowledge of electricity and their understanding of basic electrical troubleshooting.
Though this site will be primarily devoted to design, there will also be posts related to lighted signs.
I used to tell people, “Sure, I did high work.”
Okay, I painted a few second story walls and once I lettered a water tower. Big deal.
But this film celebrates sign artists that work at a much higher level, and I don’t mean just in altitude. They represent an extraordinary craft that has almost disappeared.
If I could have my youth back, would I trade places with them? Yes, in a New York minute!
The hauntingly beautiful soundtrack is by The Album Leaf.
The guidelines of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) require that identification for permanent rooms and spaces display the name of the room in raised tactile letters along with Contracted Braille (Grade 2). The raised letters must be sans serif and in all capitals. Why all capitals since it is acknowledged that mixed upper and lower case is easier to read?
The reason is simple. Tactile letters are read by touch rather than sight. The variation in word shapes that makes mixed case lettering easier to read by sight makes letters more difficult to read by touch. It has been shown that simple, unadorned letters in all caps are easier to comprehend when reading by touch.
It has also been determined that sans serif lettering is easier to read by touch than serifed letters. This explains the change in the ADA standards in the latest guidelines (2010). Formerly, “simple” serif was allowed, but no longer. No particular letterstyle is required, but the guidelines require that the letters do not deviate much from a norm regarding character width and stroke weight.
The making of metal type by hand for printing was very involved and labor intensive. Most people understand that metal type was cast: Molten metal was poured into molds.The bottom of a mold, the matrix, held the impression of a letter, in reverse, perfectly formed. How were these molds and impressions made? They were made by punches, produced by amazingly talented and patient craftsmen called punch cutters. Punch cutters, with tiny gouges and files, sculpted raised letters in real size, in reverse, on the ends of square metal rods. Not surprisingly, the first punch cutters came from the ranks of goldsmiths.
The true artisans of the early hot metal printing industry were not the printers, but the punch cutters.
Making letter punches by hand was made virtually obsolete in the late 1800s by the invention of the Linotype and the Monotype machines. Later, photographic processes supplanted the making of hot metal type. Then computers arrived and changed everything again.Today, a “font” is no longer a collection of metal type kept in cases or drawers, but a piece of digital software loaded onto a computer hard drive.
This fascinating series of videos shows how punch cutting was done:
One of the better books on this subject, written by a modern day punchcutter:
Counterpunch: Making Type in the Sixteenth Century; Designing Typefaces Now, by Fred Smeijers (London: Hyphen Press, 1996)
Historically, sign painters, also known as sign writers, lived in a completely different world from printers. They worked in small shops, frequently alone. Some were uneducated itinerants. They were the most blue collar of the “creatives,” with a unique trade vocabulary. They drew and painted letters by hand, ignoring typography for the most part. Skilled at brush manipulation, they used letter styles they called “alphabets,” developed for speed and legibility, except in the occasional instance where they were required to duplicate a printer’s typestyle on a sign. Sign painters never called themselves typesetters or printers. Few even called themselves artists. Tradesman, or craftsman, were terms that seemed more appropriate. Yet most were quite talented, many achieving high levels of artistic ability and speed.
Sign painters were never asked to use a font because such a request would not have made sense. In fact, “font” was not a word they used because it had little to do with hand lettering. The word font was not found in instructional materials on hand lettering, and it was never used as a synonym for “letter style.” Sign makers who were familiar with printer’s terms may have known what a font was. It was a collection of type—pieces of metal. These were kept in drawers, cabinets and cases in print shops. Loaded onto a press by typesetters, the metal type from a font collection was used to print letters on paper in a particular typestyle.
How fonts were made
In earlier times, the design of a typeface started with a highly skilled metalsmith called a punch cutter (the first punch cutters were actually goldsmiths). The punch cutter’s job was to produce a complete set of letter punches in a particular style and size. A letter punch was a rectangular metal rod with a small raised letter carved in reverse on the end of the rod. The punch was carefully struck with a hammer to make an impression of the letter on a slab of softer metal that became the bottom, or matrix, of a small mold. In the type foundry, these molds were filled with molten metal to produce pieces of type, enough to create a complete font, or set, of type. This process of producing type fits with what is thought to be the origin of the word font. It derives from an early French verb meaning to found or caste in metal. Early printers did their own typecasting after purchasing a set of punches from a punch cutter. Producing a complete font of metal type was a laborious process from start to finish and punch cutters were highly skilled. Producing a set of punches to make a single font (one size, in one typestyle) could take many months of careful, tedious work using tiny files and gouges. Each additional font size would have required the cutting of another complete set of punches. Understandably, acquiring a set of punches represented a significant financial investment on the part of a printer.
Setting type was time-consuming, too, though many typesetters became amazingly fast. The process of casting and setting type became automated with the introduction of typecasting machines, such as the Monotype and Linotype. As metal type gave way to other forms of typesetting and printing, a font eventually became the name for a piece of digital software to be loaded onto a computer. Technically, font is not a synonym for typestyle. A font is what is used to produce a typestyle in print. In other words, a font is not the letter style, but the underlying software code.
In contrast to the sign industry, the print world evolved into an industry employing many specialty occupations: typesetters, artists, pressmen, proof readers and editors, all of whom served to increase the level of professionalism in the industry and the quality of the end product.
Today, the distinction between the worlds of printing and sign making is beginning to blur. As a result of inexpensive technology and equipment, a crude form of typesetting is being practiced in today’s sign shops, often by inexperienced and untrained workers, resulting in an enormous amount of sign work that is being produced cheaply, but that is often unattractive and ineffective as advertising. Poor design work lacking in eye appeal is common as standards have declined. Designers are often hired, not so much because they have good design skills, but because they know the software and can type rapidly. Artwork has been replaced by copy/pasted clipart, sometimes pirated.
In the novel A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens wrote of a time of upheaval and great change. He repeated a theme of dark against light, good against bad. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…”
For the sign industry, this is the best and worst of times. Some of the most amazing design work is being produced today with the assistance of powerful design software. Alongside this work is a growing flood of mediocre and poor design, also produced with the help of computers, that threatens to be overwhelming.
Is it possible to reverse this trend?
It’s helpful to compare the hierarchy necessary in good sign design to a chain of thought.
A chain of thought is the logical sequence of the parts of an argument. It is a succession of “points” on a path of reasoning. That’s why we call it a line of reasoning—because there should be a logical order to the parts.
Good sign design is also a sequence of information. It should be presented to viewers like the beads on a string. They should be able to easily view the information in a logical order. They should be able, without thinking, to read first what we want them to read first, to read second what we want them to read second, and so on. We must create a visual hierarchy, in descending importance.
A good sign design’s plan always includes the order in which the parts are to be viewed. If we do not control this sequencing of visual information, the composition will likely be easily ignored, just like an illogical, incoherent argument is ignored.