Secondary text on a sign should be well designed


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.

Designing secondary text


This link is just for fun:

What sign makers want to say sometimes

Think twice before stacking letters vertically

02h62732Vertically 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.





Ellen Lupton is a designer and educator, and the author of several books on design.    Thinking With Type by Ellen Lupton (second edition)

Why white looks bigger than black —the Irradiation Illusion

The term irradiation 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 the boundary of 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:


Hermann von Helmholtz


Hermann von Helmholtz bio in brief.    from

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.



Letter embellishment—a little goes a long way


A decorative or embellished letter treatment, what printers may call a “display typeface,” can add a splash of personality. It can help support a design theme or help create a mood. But it can easily be overused and become visually tiring, especially if it is less legible, as is often true of display type or embellished letters. The guiding principle should be: a little goes a long way. Use such treatments sparingly.

heavy outline shade

Here, a shade/outline has been artlessly applied to all the lettering on this layout for magnetic vehicle signs, rendering them virtually unreadable. The shade color competes with the lettering for attention because of its high contrast with the background. Additionally the heaviness of the shade and the tight letter spacing allow the interletter spaces to be filled by the shade. This obliterates the letter silhouettes and seriously hurts letter recognition from any but the closest viewing distance.

Heavy-handed embellishment like this is rarely successful. Perhaps it can be made to work on a single, simple word at a very large size with adequate letter spacing or a color adjustment. But it doesn’t work in this case. And combined with the use of all upper case, which further decreases legibility, and the clumsily oversized phone number, the overall effect is clearly a fail. From only twenty feet these signs appear to be a blurred indecipherable mass. If you are guessing that this design was heavily influenced by a micromanaging customer, you are right.

Sign customers—you can’t live with them and you can’t shoot them.

A designer must also be an editor

looking for gold

“The design process is one of sifting through the less important to find the essential.”—Alex W. White in The Elements of Graphic Design (2002).

What White describes is editing.

Editing a layout for a sign usually means simplifying. It is visual surgery. A removal process. It rarely means adding elements to a composition.

At the beginning of the design process, in consultation with the client, there should be an editing out of all unnecessary and needlessly repetitious elements. The goal is conciseness and clarity. Further editing helps establish a hierarchy of importance. One element must be chosen—a word, a phrase, a graphic—to dominate the layout. This becomes the viewer’s entry point into the composition. This dominant element should be emphasized decisively. Nothing should be allowed to compete with it. Nothing else should be allowed to have equal billing. In the short time that most people spend looking at a sign (in moving traffic, about a second and a half at most), it should be possible for a viewer to recognize and understand this one dominant element.

Unfortunately, the sign world today abounds with overfilled sign design that is simply too much work to read. What is the reaction of most viewers when confronted with busy, crowded sign work?

Well, picture this: If you were served a drink filled to the very coffee05top, what would be your reaction? Would your inclination be to thank your server for trying to give you your money’s worth? Or rather, would you view the overfilled cup as a problem created by someone thoughtless? If a sign appears to be bulging with copy, if the message looks like it will be a chore to read, most readers will not make the effort required to slog through it. They will simply ignore it.

Furthermore, editing a design is more than just eliminating unnecessary verbiage. It means making a layout look organized by injecting white space to create groupings of related elements and to separate elements that are unrelated. Visual dividers and margins make the parts of a layout look accessible and manageable.  Adequate space creates a kind of visual breathing room. It makes a layout look comfortable on a given substrate rather than giving the impression that the message needs the next size larger sign. And if you are not going to increase the size of a sign to gain necessary white space, where is the space to come from to create margins and dividers? Obviously, the elements in the composition must be downsized.  And this is one of the real challenges for a novice sign maker who wishes to improve in layout ability: to progress beyond the viewpoint that negative space is to be feared as ‘wasted space,’ and that everything must be as big as possible. Far from being a waste, white space is the glue that holds everything together. Negative space is every bit as important as the positive. What would an individual letter, say, the letter ‘S,’ look like without the negative space surrounding it and within it? The answer is that it would not look like anything, because it wouldn’t exist.

For the beginning designer, learning to see negative space as a design element, and learning to manipulate it to enhance the positive, is one of the most significant strides he or she can make.

If we are accustomed to ‘filling up all the space,’ it may take real effort to force ourselves to edit crowded-looking design. It can be painful, just like surgery. It means learning a new way to think and see. But it gets easier the more we do it. And the end result is not just sign work that has more eye appeal, but signs that are more readable and that can be scanned and assimilated more quickly.  Generous use of white space can transform mediocre, easily ignored designs into compelling and effective reader magnets.



Bad designers. Why we may not realize we’re not very good.

When asked, most sign designers describe themselves as better-than-average graphic artists. The tendency for a person to believe that he or she is better than average is known as the “above-average effect,” and is common in many fields of work, not just design. And it is illogical. Math tells us that it is highly improbable that the majority of us are above average. Almost certainly, a significant number of us who think we are above average are actually below average. We just don’t know it.

What accounts for this? A study from Cornell University a few years ago (Unskilled and Unaware of It, Justin Kruger and David Dunning, 1999) revealed that, in many areas, the skills that make a person competent are the same skills needed to evaluate competence, both in one’s self and in others. This study suggested further that the persons least competent may not only not know it, but are the ones most likely to overestimate their ability.

The essential first step in problem solving is acknowledging the problem. So what hope is there for incompetent designers who don’t believe there is a problem?


Why does poor sign design predominate?


When, out of curiosity, I took some graphic design courses at a small community college, I learned that graphic design was not being taught, at least not at this school. The course work did not include information on what constitutes good or effective layout. Even the most basic of design principles was not covered. Could poor schooling be a partial explanation for why poor design predominates in the sign industry today?

So, what were they teaching in the design courses at this college, if not design?

The graphic design courses in this school teach students to use design software, nothing more. Rather than teaching design, they are teaching the use of the tools to produce design—primarily Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop. The use of the tools is important, of course. But rather than labeling these courses Graphic Design I, II and III, would it not have been better to call them, Adobe I, II and III? At the time, I joked to someone that this was like being told you were going to receive electrician’s training and then being taught to use screw drivers. An unfair comparison?

Surely my experience with college graphic design courses is not representative of all graphics arts training, and is the exception rather than the rule. Perhaps size matters, since the school was a small college. But if my experience is a common scenario—that graphic design training is only about learning software manipulation—it helps explain why so many sign designers today lack skills needed for producing effective sign work. Poor training could be playing a big role in the dumbing down of sign design.