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.”

Clipart has no place in logo design

It’s one thing to use a piece of clipart to spice up a banner or sign, but quite another thing to incorporate clipart into a brand mark or logo. In fact, it’s a very bad idea.
There are almost always copyright issues associated with clipart. Many clipart collections have stringent usage restrictions and may even specifically forbid use in a logo design. For example, iStockphoto prohibits the use of any royalty-free images purchased from their site for logo designs. This is stated very clearly in the iStockphoto license: “You may not … use any of the Content as part of a trade-mark, design-mark, trade-name, business name, service mark, or logo.”
Most clipart collections, whether ‘royalty free’ or not, retain rights to their work. They may license an image to you, that is, let you borrow it, for a limited range of uses, but you cannot own it.

If a company uses a clipart image as part of a logo, not only does that mean that the company does not have complete ownership rights to their own logo, but they may be exposing themselves to a possible infringement claim. Besides, using artwork that everyone else can use—does this not defeat the purpose of branding?
Obviously, images we use in creating a logo or mark should be original artwork, or artwork to which we own all rights.

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.