Legibility and readability are not the same.
A sign is legible when it is not impossible to read. That is, letters are recognizable, words are spelled correctly, the message makes sense. But is legibility enough for sign work to be effective? No. To say that a sign is legible is like saying that shoe leather is edible. But are you going to eat it?
Effective sign design is more than legible. It must be readable. It must do more than inform. It should entice and please. It must invite, welcome, convince. While legibility asks, “Am I able to read this?” readability asks, “Do I want to read this?”
So, what makes for readability in sign work? In reality there are many things that can contribute to readability. There are proven design principles, best practices, even a few rules, that work most of the time, though nothing works perfectly all the time. For example, good letter style choices, good prioritization of copy, good contrast, generous amounts of white space and appealing graphics are among many factors that can transform a sign design from merely legible to highly readable. Much of what makes sign work readable is simplicity and clarity balanced with eye appeal. A mix of beauty and utility. And just as a song may be performed differently by different musicians, there may be many approaches to how we deliver a visual message as well.
In my opinion, anyone can learn effective sign design. It’s like learning a language, though perhaps not as effortlessly. It takes focus and doesn’t happen overnight. In the introduction to his book, “Graphics for Business,” John McWade observes that “The hard work it takes to make good design is almost universally underestimated. Even to designers, design looks easier than it is. To many people, design looks easy enough for a child to do. Reality, however, is very different.”
Yet it’s not as difficult as learning a second language, which may take years of intense persistence. It’s easier than that. Still, historically, good sign layout has been an elusive skill for sign makers. And now that practically anyone can be in the sign business by purchasing computer equipment and software, mediocre and ineffective sign work is flooding the market.
One of the most important steps in producing effective sign design is the realization that it is not the result of spontaneous wizardry. It is learned. Sign design is a form of communication, like speaking a language or learning to read—and anyone can do it. It is problem-solving visually, using principles that work, principles that can be learned. Good sign design is not to be confused with fancy or elaborate sign design. It’s not about outlines and shades and highlights. But it’s more than legibility.
Effective sign work is readable.