Effective sign design requires careful listening

At first glance, the sign design looked great. The sign company sales person had told the sign designer that the client, the owner of a shoe store, wanted something avant-garde, kind of sexy, with a shoe graphic. The sales person suggested to the designer that maybe a high heel would look nice. The designer produced a very appealing design that was immediately rejected by the customer. Why?

The above sales person truly enjoyed selling signs and he was quite a talker. But he was less effective as a listener. He rarely asked pertinent questions, and he was not inclined to learn much about a client’s business, an unfortunate circumstance in this case. Because one well-placed question would have quickly revealed that the shoe store sold only men’s shoes.

A designer’s job is to communicate messages effectively. This is impossible if the client’s message is not clearly understood to begin with. Pointed questions, along with careful listening, provide the raw material for good design work. Good design principles cannot be properly implemented without this initial customer feedback.

The sign sales person should ask questions such as, what, exactly, does the client’s business do? What is the client trying to accomplish? What are his or her goals?

New York designer Michael Bierut once said in an interview that it is important to spend time asking questions and being sincerely interested in the client and his or her business. About his own method, he said “I keep asking questions and questions and questions…” He said further, “…when I see a bad design, it’s not because the client hasn’t been educated. It’s because the designer hasn’t been educated by the client. I don’t meant taking orders from a hack client. I mean genuinely becoming sympathetic and interested with what the client is trying to communicate…”

Without a clear understanding of what the sign buyer is trying to communicate, a designer cannot be effective.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Organize your layouts using Proximity

The design principle of proximity organizes layouts so that they can be read easier and quicker. What is proximity? It is the moving of design elements closer together or further apart. The goal is to create groupings.

Grouping design elements by proximity makes the message easier to comprehend, because it helps the viewer connect related elements without effort. It makes thought groups clear, where one piece of information ends and another begins.

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This photo from the site boredpanda.com illustrates how poor use of proximity can muddy the intended meaning of a sign. Perhaps the designer thought the message would be clear by using colors to connect the related words in the two lines of copy. The humorous result shows that proximity trumps color.

 

A mistake that many novice designers make is to fill up a sign with the largest possible lettering and graphics. The result is that there is no clear separation between crowded thought groups and the composition becomes a chore to decipher.

Part of the problem is that an inexperienced designer fears white space, believing that by reducing it the letters can be made larger and “easier to read.” This is self-defeating because the resulting layout has a busy, crowded look that appears disorganized and is actually more difficult to read. Such a layout can look like too much work to a viewer. It is easily ignored.  —for a comprehensive discussion of the importance of not making a viewer work to comprehend a message, see Don’t Make Me Think Revisited by Steve Krug (2014). While his discussion centers on web page usability, it applies with equal force to sign layout.

The importance of proximity, creating groupings, is especially important when copy is heavy.

When a client insists on a sign with heavy copy it puts a great burden on readability. Heavy copy, in itself, is a strike against a layout. It should be taken for granted that a significant number of viewers will ignore the sign because of heavy copy alone. But we can still make it readable, inviting, by using proximity, aggressively corralling copy into copy blocks surrounded by generous margins. We can create the visual impression that the layout is less busy than it really is.

Aggressively corral copy into copy blocks surrounded by generous margins. The proximity principle means grouping related elements to enhance readability.
Aggressively corral copy into copy blocks surrounded by generous margins. The proximity principle means grouping related elements to enhance readability, as shown on the right.

A menu sign is an excellent example of a sign that usually has heavy copy, but that can be tamed by using margins and clear separations of menu items. Clarity on a menu is absolutely critical. The proximity principle can make it happen.

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A menu is typically heavy copy, yet clarity and organization are essential. The above menu, designed by Kevin Dyke, Kevin Dyke Designz, illustrates excellent use of the proximity principle. Generous margins and ‘gutters’ divide all the design elements. Secondary copy is corralled into tight copy blocks under each menu item. Food groupings are further collected together into gray boxes with generous margins between them. The grouping of all the elements has been aggressive enough to even have space “left over” for inviting photos, yet the overall effect is inviting, comfortable, without being crowded.