Punctuation pointers for sign goobers

Historically, sign makers have used great creative license. So much so that I have even known a few who seemed to view correct spelling and punctuation as suggestions rather than rules. Perhaps this is why some designers in the print field have tended to look down on sign designers. But as the distinction between the print industry and the sign world continues to blur, I believe that we sign goobers should at least know some basics of proper punctuation. How can we hope to break the rules if we don’t even know them, right?


The typical keyboard layout, a holdover from typewriter days, does not have a key for an apostrophe. It does have a key for a single vertical hash mark, often called a prime, though a true prime is slanted. The hash is often used as a replacement for the prime, meaning “feet.” On the same key as the hash is the double hash mark, used for “inches” in place of the double prime, as in the phrase, 6′-2″ (six feet, two inches). The single hash mark is not an apostrophe and the double hash is not a quotation mark. And while it’s one thing for a sign designer to make a stylized apostrophe in the main line of copy to add some flair to a sign, to use hash marks as apostrophes or quotes in body text is amateurish. These hash marks are often called “dumb quotes,” and with good reason. To use them in text as substitutes for quotation marks or apostrophes, especially on high class signage, such as, say, cast bronze plaques, can make the sign maker look inexperienced.

On a PC, the apostrophe is accessed by the keystroke combination, ALT 0146. Yes, it’s five keystrokes instead of one, and, for some of us, the extra typing time required may eat away at an already thin profit margin. But that may mean it’s a good time to raise prices.

Another mistake to avoid is to use the apostrophe when forming plurals. An apostrophe almost always means possession, not a plural.

“CAR’S FOR SALE” is wrong. Even “ALL 2015’s FOR SALE” is wrong. No apostrophe should be in either. And when you form the plural of an acronym or an abbreviation, there should be no apostrophe. Accountants are CPAs, not CPA’s.  Only in rare cases should an apostrophe be used to form a plural. —see the Chicago Manual of Style.

I know that customers will rarely object to hash marks used as apostrophes. But there are customers who would not object to misspelled words, either—because they might know correct spellings themselves. That is not a good argument for misspelling a word intentionally.
And once in a while you will actually come across an architect who makes an issue of punctuation on sign woerk. I remember an architect who rejected page after page of submitted drawings for interior signs for a hospital because we used hyphens instead of dashes on room number signs.


Phone numbers in the US are typically typeset with hyphens, not dashes. Hyphens are short dashes (or long periods) and are used for words that are split on two lines, and for phone numbers, or more correctly, numbers that are not in a series. Numbers in a series, as in the phrase “Rooms 210–215” require a true dash rather than a hyphen, specifically, an ‘en dash.’ An en dash is considerably longer than a hyphen. Even longer is an ‘em dash,’ which has several other uses.


Hyphens in phone numbers do have their down side. They are sometimes difficult to space with certain numbers, like sevens. A bullet or a dot is a little easier, and allows for tighter phone numbers, too.

A common problem with hyphens is that its correct placement is not understood. Most design software, by default, places it just below vertical center in a phone number. This is very unsightly. Worse, it looks correct to many people because it has become so common. In reality, this placement is the default lower case position. The appropriate location for a hyphen used with capitals or numbers is the vertical midpoint of the letter or number. —see Finer Points in the Spacing and Arrangement of Type, by Geoffrey Dowding, an instructional for typesetters.


I ungroup my phone numbers and force the hyphens to vertical center, aligning them with a zero or some other vertically centered number. It’s true that it takes a couple of extra steps to tweak a phone number this way. It’s certainly not for a knock-out artist. But it is, I believe, a mark of good craftsmanship.


The use of dots in phone numbers has been in use in Europe for a long time. It has been in use more and more in the US. Some think it’s way cool, some think it’s pretentious. I don’t mind it, though I don’t volunteer it much. It still looks like a phone number and that’s what counts.

In UK sometimes phone numbers are written without any punctuation at all, like this: 020 7123 1234. And I’ve also seen the first three digits, their area code, with parentheses, like this: (020) 7123 1234. The first example, with only spaces, looks like some secret agent cipher to me, but I guess I’m just used to punctuation of some sort in a phone number.

If you don’t like hyphens, periods or parentheses, there is a ‘middle dot’ you can get to by typing ALT 0183 on a PC keyboard.

Slashes are used by some in place of hyphens. A solidus is similar to a slash, but leans to the right more. It’s mostly used in fractions. By the way, a backslash leans to the left, like a reverse solidus. You could get wild with asterisks instead of hyphens. Or stars, or even flowers. A romantic phone number could have hearts.


I apprenticed as a sign painter in the ’70s at a shop called Super Signs. Their logo looked similar to the Superman emblem. The owner of the shop regularly used gem shapes instead of hyphens in phone numbers.

I thought this was so clever that I did it habitually for years after I left the shop to go out on my own. It was my hat tip to my mentor.


If you don’t like any of the above in phone numbers, you can always use everybody’s favorite—bullets.


The Intellectual Property Jungle

Artists, writers and inventors transform ideas into tangible property—intellectual property. Any product of the human mind that can be protected under law is intellectual property. The field of intellectual property is a jungle of rights, protections and rules. It is complex, evolving and often not clearly understood among sign makers. The basic premise underlying this field of law is that by granting a kind of monopoly for a time to people who create intellectual property, creative endeavors are encouraged. There are detractors who claim that intellectual property law does not really work the way it was originally intended. There may be some truth to this, but intellectual property law remains an important component in the body of law in countries the world over.

Ownership of intellectual property can be compared to ownership of other forms of property. The owner of a home, for example, may exclude others from using the home, or from even trespassing on the property. A homeowner can sell or lease a home to someone else, or even leave it to someone in a will. Likewise, an intellectual property owner can sell, lease or will a copyright, trademark or patent.


Do trademarks, copyright and patents protect the same things? No. These are three different animals in IP jungle because they protect different types of intellectual property.

A copyright protects an original literary or artistic work. It protects what the US Copyright Office calls “works of authorship.” A trademark typically protects brand names and logos on products or services. A patent protects an invention.

To illustrate the differences, here is an example found in one of the government’s fact sheets: If you invent a new type of vacuum cleaner, a patent can protect the invention itself. Registering a trademark protects the brand name of the vacuum. A copyright would protect a TV commercial advertising the vacuum or a printed owner’s manual that comes with the purchase.

Of course, these examples are very simple. Intellectual property law is actually very complex and is its own specialty in the practice of law. Attorneys who specialize in it have degrees in both law and engineering.

I took some classes in intellectual property law at a local community college in order to learn some basic concepts and clear up some of my own misconceptions. The classes were fascinating and well worth the money. I learned enough to know that some of the information passed around in the sign industry is either inaccurate or outdated. And I learned enough to know that I should never attempt to give legal advice—ever. Still, the basic concepts underlying copyright and trademark in the US are not super complicated, even if their practical application can be.

I’ve learned, for example, that copyright is actually a bundle of five rights, not all of which apply to the sign and graphics industry. I’ve learned that protection for a logo or brand derives mainly from trademark law, not so much from copyright law. These two protections are sometimes confused by sign makers. It doesn’t help the confusion that sometimes copyright and trademark protections overlap.

Some common beliefs I have learned that are untrue: That everything found on the internet is in the public domain and free to use. The truth is almost the opposite. It should be assumed that everything found on the internet is copyright protected unless specifically stated otherwise. Another misconception is the so-called “poor man’s copyright.” Supposedly, you can mail a copy of your artwork to yourself and leave it unopened on arrival as proof that you are the original artist. This procedure actually proves nothing, except that you mailed an envelope on a certain day. The “poor man’s copyright” has no standing in court.

Further questions: Can you get trademark protection for a color? Which lasts longer, copyright or trademark? Does a domain name qualify as a trademark? I plan future posts to share information on these and other questions.

US Supreme Court makes unanimous decision on yard signs

On June 18 the US Supreme Court handed down a unanimous decision regarding temporary signs.

In Reed vs The town of Gilbert, it ruled that Gilbert, Arizona, had violated the First Amendment by placing strict limits on the size of signs advertising church services. The town ordinance was found to be discriminatory because it allowed other types of temporary signs, such as political signs, to be much larger and remain in place far longer.

In other words, the town’s sign code discriminated against certain signs because of the message on the sign.

Specifically, Gilbert’s sign code restricted the size of the religious signs to 6 square feet, and they could be in place for only a few hours. By contrast, political signs could be 32 square feet in size, without the time restrictions placed on the church signs. And some other types of temporary signs could be up to 80 square feet in size.

This sweeping decision may affect many, many sign ordinances across the country. It remains to be seen.

New York Times article

Alliance Defending Freedom news release

OYEZ article (Chicago-Kent College of Law

Becket Fund article (religious law firm)


Signs of the Times article

Trademark—protect it or lose it

Two years ago when a small pub in the St. Louis area began selling a drink with the same name as a drink sold by Starbucks, a cease & desist letter was sent to the pub by Starbucks’ attorneys. Letters like this are sent all the time and it’s pretty much standard procedure as a first step in the world of trademark protection. That would have ended the matter except the pub guy decided to write a sarcastic response to Starbucks which then got media attention and went viral. The little firestorm that erupted over Starbucks’ “heavy-handedness” made it sound like Hitler invading Poland: Starbucks juggernaut attempts to crush poor defenseless pub owner!

Of course, public opinion sided with the pub owner because, (A) he was the underdog and, (B) big corporations are always evil, just like in the movies. (Moral: if you are in business stay a mom-and-pop operation and don’t incorporate).

As a designer, I work with intellectual property all the time. I know why trademarks are vigorously protected by their owners. It’s because trademark protection doesn’t always last if it’s not defended. It’s not like copyright protection, which is automatic and you don’t have to do anything for it to stay in force. And for many companies, their trademarks are the most valuable assets they own. Think about Coca Cola, or Harley-Davidson. The Coke logos are surely worth billions. And Harley? Are their motorcycles really any better than anybody else’s? Their value is in the name more so than the product.

There is a long list of trademarks that have lost protection and have become generic: Hula Hoop, Escalator, Cellophane, Dry Ice, Heroin, Kerosene, Laundromat, Linoleum, Thermos, Trampoline, Videotape, Touch-tone, Yo-yo, Zipper.

Aspirin is generic in the US but still a protected trademark in Canada and Germany.

Many trademarks are being used more and more as generic terms and could be in danger of losing protection: Xerox, Band-Aid, Ping Pong, Astro Turf, Bubble Wrap, Chap Stick, Crock-Pot, Sheet Rock, Skil Saw, Dumpster, Fiberglass, Frisbee, Freon, Jet Ski, Kleenex, Memory Stick, Popsicle, Play-Doh, Plexiglas, Post-It, Q-Tips, Rollerblade, Scotch Tape, Sea-Doo, Shop Vac, Super Glue, Styrofoam, Tarmac, Teflon, Tupperware, Tylenol, Vaseline, Velcro.

It takes effort and constant vigilance to protect a trademark, especially as it becomes more and more well known. The Starbucks lawyers did not use a big stick. They used a little stick. The first stick, really.

And what about the pub owner, poor thing? I think he knew exactly what he was doing. He got the public reaction he was hoping for. He knew what fools people can be (remember: he owns a bar), and that they can always be counted on to be suckers for the little guy. And he manipulated the media perfectly, including NPR. The publicity he received for his tavern was far more than he could have paid for. This guy’s talents are being wasted behind the bar. He needs to be in marketing, or politics. And, of course, Starbucks got what it wanted, too. The pub owner stopped using the drink name in question. This was a win-win for everybody.

Is the sign client always right?

There are sign makers whose philosophy is to do whatever the customer asks without questioning anything. When given a design, they reproduce it faithfully without a second thought. They consider themselves tools rather than creatives. Some will even knowingly reproduce spelling and punctuation errors if the client wrote it down that way (I have witnessed this). They are uncomfortable if they can’t charge for sign work by the square inch or square foot. They sell graphics by the pound, as it were.

These sign makers are not really interested in solving design problems. They have little concern about what a client needs. They prefer the client figure those things out before they come in. They just want to output product and move on to the next job. Sign whores, to put it crudely.

Then there are sign makers who are the extreme opposite. They will turn down sign work designed by customers. They are offended if a customer brings in a drawing and says, “My nephew made this design. Can you use it on my sign?” They often claim that their reputation as sign makers will be destroyed if they start reproducing lame design brought in by customers. These prima donnas are not so much concerned for the interests of the client. Rather, they hate having their design ability ignored or bypassed. Their sizable “artist ego” requires that clients humbly submit or go elsewhere. They believe the client is always (or usually) wrong.

I am not making this up. I have personally known both of the above types of sign makers. I do not wish to be either one.

I believe that part of my job as a sign maker is to solve problems. I have an extensive knowledge of what sign work can do for a client. I know how to make signs that are effective. I am an expert. I want to do the best I can do to help sign buyers benefit from my expertise. And I want to charge accordingly.

But what if clients have special needs? For example, what if they haven’t budgeted for signs? In such a case, I may not be able to help them. Making signs affordable to everyone that wants one is not one of my goals. If they have no money why are they buying signs? If they did not allow for all their basic needs in their business plan, then they may have little business sense and likely will fail.

But what if a client comes to me with some atrocious nephew-art and asks me to reproduce it? I could tell them I’m not interested in doing “unprofessional-looking” work and send them to a competitor. This is what the prima donnas do. But I don’t.

Why? Is it because my artist-ego is smaller? Am I lowering myself? No, I don’t think so. Because I view myself as a very good problem solver. If anything, my ego is greater. Because I believe I can usually do high quality work even with one creative hand tied behind my back. Those who always refuse to accept the challenge presented by nephew-art may be inadvertently admitting to limited design ability.

Nephew-art presents a special challenge in more than one way. It’s usually poor quality design, rarely usable as is. It’s easier to scrap it and start from scratch. But often bad artwork represents an idea that can be viable if reworked. It can be challenging, to be sure. But when you are able to pull it off, it is very satisfying. It can be a real testament to your ability as a designer. At the same time it can be very pleasing to a client that may have an emotional investment in the original art.

Nephew-art also represents a challenge to a designer in another way. It can be an opportunity to improve your salesmanship, your power to persuade. I enjoy taking a questionable design and tweaking it, bettering it. And now that we do most design work on computer, we can actually do this in the presence of a client. And this gives us opportunity to explain what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. It may seem like hard work at first. The prima donnas rarely submit to this. It’s too hard. But the more we do it the easier it becomes. It means knowing your software well, being able to work rapidly in front of a small audience, and explaining as you go. Designing this way can be a real challenge. And it’s not always possible. Sometimes you need more time than just a few minutes in front of a customer. In which case you can work on the design for presentation later. Actually, you can work on two versions—one with the customer’s art unchanged, and one with a tweaked and improved version. Sometimes, if the job is paying for it, you can show a good-better-best series.

In the end, you can produce an acceptably good design and educate a client at the same time. A win-win, unquestionably.

So, is the customer always right? No. But neither is the customer always wrong. If we shoo them away, along with their ugly art, we really haven’t solved the problem. They eventually find someone to do what they want and the ugly lives on.

Why computer fonts can be a problem

Historically, sign painters leaned heavily on letter styles that were relatively bold. They didn’t use fonts, the name for collections of type. They didn’t even use the word “font.” “Font” was a printer’s term, not part of the sign painter’s vocabulary. Letter styles used by letterers were called alphabets. When a thick-and-thin letter style, commonly called a roman, was used on sign work, it was usually a version that was visually substantial. That is, thin strokes were thicker and serifs were not too delicate. Similarly, when lettering with script, thin strokes were not made too skinny.

Computer fonts, by contrast, can create legibility problems on signs, due to the fact that light faced letter styles predominate in sign software. Even the bold versions of many roman fonts have thin strokes that are not practical for general sign work.

Consider Times Roman, designed specifically for the London Times newspaper. It is very legible—in print. On a sign, however, more often than not, it looks weak and hinders readability. It has thin strokes that are simply too thin for distance viewing at larger sizes. Even in the bold version, the thin strokes are not substantial enough to be practical for general sign work. A sign lettered in all Times Roman has a distinct anemic look. There is too much space; it is too “white.” Times Roman, and it’s sibling Times New Roman, was made for newspaper reading. It was not designed to be used in large sizes and at the distances required for sign viewing. The main problem is that the thin strokes are so thin that they tend to disappear from view as the reading distance increases, leaving only the bold strokes visible.

The fact that so many computer fonts are designed for print, not for signs, is responsible, at least in part, for the flood of poor and ineffective sign work being created today. The majority of letter styles produced with computer software are simply unsuitable for sign work.

In the days of painted signs, a sign painter could ensure that roman letters were readable by thickening the thin strokes as needed on the fly. Widening a letter stroke was as simple as applying extra pressure to a lettering brush, mashing out the hairs so that a wider line was painted. Using a larger lettering brush was also an option. Sign painters were not tied to fonts that couldn’t be modified. Modifications were easy. Type styles were usually not reproduced exactly, but that wasn’t the goal. Rather, an alphabet was adjusted as needed for legibility and readability.

It is evident that part of the solution to making signs more effective today is to make more use of heavy and medium stroked letter styles, and using light faced letters sparingly. Times Roman is really not an excellent choice for sign work, even in its so-called bold version. It’s sometimes possible to artificially improve the legibility of Times Roman by “stroking” it, that is, adding a contour or outline to the letter, in the same color as the letter, to thicken the strokes. This distorts the outline of the letter, of course, but at least the thin strokes don’t disappear as readily. It’s best to do this stroking procedure on the light or medium versions of the letter rather than the bolder versions.

Sometimes a dark background can save a letter with skinny strokes. Strokes tend to appear a little heavier when light letters are put on a dark background. Landscape painters say that light colors “advance,” or grow in perceived size, while dark colors “recede,” or shrink. Especially is this true on internally-illuminated signs. The legibility of a thin-stroked letter is almost always improved by a lighted sign that has a dark background.

My preference is to simply avoid using Times Roman on most sign work, choosing instead a naturally bolder letter. I especially like fonts that have been created by sign painters. Knowing the limitations and weaknesses of letter styles designed for print, these font designers have produced letter styles that work well in large sizes and at greater distances.

So, choose fonts for signage carefully. Make choices that circumvent the problems created by letter styles that were designed for print thus avoiding the anemic look that is so common in computer-generated sign design today.

What makes type legible?

Some sign people see type as nothing more than letterforms. But this view is what produces poor typography. Effective design requires that we see more than the shapes of the letters.

Good typography results from understanding the importance of the spaces as well—between the letters and surrounding the letters. Also, between words, lines and blocks of copy. It is this negative space that makes type either more legible or less legible.

To a novice sign designer, typography is about choosing a letter style and nothing more. Choosing something “interesting” or something fashionable. But good typography, and hence good design, is more about clarity rather than cute or complex. It is more about simplicity rather than what is interesting. It has been said that good typography tends to be invisible. That lettering should usually be “transparent,” allowing the message to come through.

Alex White said, in The Elements of Graphic Design, that “If the reader becomes aware of the letterforms, the type face was a bad choice because it detracts from the smooth transmission of the message within.”