Letter embellishment—a little goes a long way

 

A decorative or embellished letter treatment, what printers may call a “display typeface,” can add a splash of personality. It can help support a design theme or help create a mood. But it can easily be overused and become visually tiring, especially if it is less legible, as is often true of display type or embellished letters. The guiding principle should be: a little goes a long way. Use such treatments sparingly.

heavy outline shade

Here, a shade/outline has been artlessly applied to all the lettering on this layout for magnetic vehicle signs, rendering them virtually unreadable. The shade color competes with the lettering for attention because of its high contrast with the background. Additionally the heaviness of the shade and the tight letter spacing allow the interletter spaces to be filled by the shade. This obliterates the letter silhouettes and seriously hurts letter recognition from any but the closest viewing distance.

Heavy-handed embellishment like this is rarely successful. Perhaps it can be made to work on a single, simple word at a very large size with adequate letter spacing or a color adjustment. But it doesn’t work in this case. And combined with the use of all upper case, which further decreases legibility, and the clumsily oversized phone number, the overall effect is clearly a fail. From only twenty feet these signs appear to be a blurred indecipherable mass. If you are guessing that this design was heavily influenced by a micromanaging customer, you are right.

Sign customers—you can’t live with them and you can’t shoot them.

Advertisements

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.

poor-design-decisions-481__605
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.

menu
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

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.

for negative space blog

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.