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.

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.”

Legibility versus Readability

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.

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.

Good sign design requires Prioritization

 

What is layout? Simply put, it is organizing and arranging copy and other parts of a sign design.

And one of the most important principles in organizing a layout, perhaps the most important, is assigning an order of importance to all design elements.

Determine what the most important element is, and give it absolute priority. It must dominate the layout and no other part of the message can be allowed to compete with it graphically.

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In his book Layout & Design for Calligraphers, Alan Furber states, “When two, three or more elements in your composition are equally prominent … the design is weakened as a consequence.”

Why is this so? The reason is so simple that it is not always obvious—we can’t read everything at once. So it is necessary to lead the viewer’s eye through a composition. We do this by emphasizing one element, giving it dominance, creating a focal point. Or to put it another way, we create an entry point into the composition. It’s where you want the viewer’s eye to land first. Then we can decide what is second most important. What is left becomes least important, graphically.

What happens if you do not create a dominant element in your layout? Then your viewers will be required to find their own entry point into the design. You will be forcing them to think, to work. Many will find it far easier to simply ignore the sign.

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The necessity of creating dominance and a visual hierarchy in your sign compositions cannot be emphasized too much. Prioritization is often the least understood principle by novice designers, but without it a sign can be rendered virtually useless. On the other hand, with good prioritization, and a dominant focal point, a message gains eye appeal, and in today’s ocean of mediocre sign work, it effectively communicates.

Design literacy is learned

It can be helpful to compare good sign designing to literacy. At one time, and it wasn’t that long ago, few were literate. Reading and writing were mysterious skills, the domain of royals and clergymen. Many today view good sign layout and design in a similar way —as the obscure talent of a  small minority. Some say, “You’re either born with it, or you’re not.” Like an extra chromosome. Often even talented designers can’t explain it. “I don’t know how I do it. I just do it.”

Yet effective design is really not so mysterious. When you strip away complicated definitions and overworked cliches, along with the goofiest of the art jargon, sign design is very much like reading and writing—it is a form of communication. Learning design can be likened to becoming literate.  And anybody can do it.

Through exposure to proven design principles, coupled with a willingness to learn, good sign design can lose its mystery. Design literacy may not be instantaneous, but it can happen quicker than you realize. Much of the obscurity evaporates by simply learning a meaningful vocabulary for design concepts. As author and sign painter Mike Stevens once said,

“The key to design success is an understanding of the theoretical terms of layout. …what we see, imagine and conceptualize as artists is controlled to a great extent by our vocabulary. If you don’t have a name for a particular thing—chances are you will never see it.” —The Mike Stevens Journal, May, 1983.

Further, good layout and design is not a luxury. It’s not something we do on special occasions. Rather, it’s the mark of a professional.