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.

 

 

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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.”

White space is not wasted space

“Wasted space” —this is a term often used by those who don’t understand the value of white space. Inexperienced designers fear white space on sign work and attempt to fill it up with copy or graphics. Or, commonly, they open up line spacing so that copy covers the sign from top to bottom. I have even heard some say they are trying to give their client their money’s worth by not allowing any empty areas.

But white space, also known as negative space, is not synonymous with wasted space. The true meaning of wasted space is space that is poorly used. As Alex White said in his enlightening book, The Elements of Graphic Design, “The ultimate wasted space is overfilled space. It is space that has been crammed with content, artlessly and uninvitingly presented.”

A designer’s job is not to fill in all available space with information. It is to make information accessible, and more than that, to make it appealing. Think of negative space as something that illuminates positive space. It makes the positive elements, the lettering and graphics, readable, or to use a common web design term, white space makes these things “scannable.” Because of this, negative space is just as important as positive space in sign layout.

Think about this: What makes a single letter recognizable? It is not merely the positive strokes that make up the letter, but also the negative space within and around the letter. Both positive and negative space are necessary elements of design.The problem is that most of us learn from an early age to see only one part of design—the letter—the positive. Sign-buying clients have the same problem. And it is a problem that inexperienced designers need to consciously work on to overcome.

“Make the letters as big as possible,” sign buyers are often heard to say, “so the message will stand out.” The result is a busy, crowded-looking sign. Instead of “standing out,” the message is often lost in the edge-to-edge busy-ness. The design becomes visually noisy, a chore to read, easily ignored.

Adequate white space, on the other hand, enhances the readability of a sign. It makes the layout look accessible, manageable. It becomes comfortable to scan, easier to read, with thought groups easier to recognize. White space can even be used to add emphasis or drama, to make a design element stand out, punctuating it, making it clearer, more recognizable. This is why branding guidelines developed by large corporations carefully stipulate the minimum white space required to surround their company’s logo. A logo surrounded by space stands out better than a logo that fills up space.

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Open a typical Yellow Pages book and look at the ads. Are the pages easy to read? Hardly. Is there any empty space? No, none. Are the advertisers getting their money’s worth? The overall look of the ads is a cluttered, mind-numbing visual mush, like the layouts were created with a shotgun. Ads in the Yellow Pages are the ultimate “wasted space.” Yellow Pages advertising succeeds, not because of compelling design work, but because buyers are actively seeking sellers. These ads succeed in spite of their ugliness.

One of the first objectives of a beginning sign artist should be a study and working knowledge of negative space. White space is not wasted space. It is not to be feared. Learn to see it and how it is used in good design work. White space used well can help us transform our own work from mediocre to polished. More importantly, our sign work can be made truly effective rather than something to be ignored.