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.

 

Sign design hierarchy is like a chain of thought

It’s helpful to compare the hierarchy necessary in good sign design to a chain of thought.

A chain of thought is the logical sequence of the parts of an argument. It is a succession of “points” on a path of reasoning. That’s why we call it a line of reasoning—because there should be a logical order to the parts.

Good sign design is also a sequence of information. It should be presented to viewers like the beads on a string. They should be able to easily view the information in a logical order. They should be able, without thinking, to read first what we want them to read first, to read second what we want them to read second, and so on. We must create a visual hierarchy, in descending importance.

A good sign design’s plan always includes the order in which the parts are to be viewed. If we do not control this sequencing of visual information, the composition will likely be easily ignored, just like an illogical, incoherent argument is ignored.Beads

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.