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)

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.


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.

This photo from the site 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.

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