Billboards, panel trucks, bus stops, subways and storefronts are a few examples of the kinds of signs you typically see advertising a business, event, or product. Eye-catching images and vibrant colors catch your eye as you whiz by in a bus or your car. Signs run the gamut from highly informative to helpful to entertaining, but each one gives a particular message to the viewer and the owner is hoping for a specific outcome. How do you decide what to put on a sign for your business or organization? Below are some tips for signage design that may help your next campaign be successful.
Find the Basic Elements
Gather the basics before beginning. You will need the name of the company or organization and at least one piece of contact information, whether it is a phone number, address or a website URL. You may possibly need a company logo. Decide what message, service or product you want to advertise. Then you can start the design process.
Use Color and Contrast
Use colors appropriate to your trade. For instance, a funeral home would be expected to use subdued tones of black, grey, navy or other more sedate colors. On the other hand, if you are advertising a circus, bring on the red and orange!
There is a psychology to using color that helps ensure you are not confusing your message. Hospitals and healthcare professionals as well as cleaning and restoration services would do well to incorporate a fair amount of white with blue shades and some greens, giving the feeling of cleanliness. Red, gold and orange promote hunger, energy, or excitement. When a man wants to be authoritative he puts on his red “power tie,” and it is not so different with commanding attention on a billboard.
Designing your sign to be easily read is not just about font size, but also the colors used to provide contrast, which is needed for clarity. Yellow and black is proven to have the most high-contrast for easy reading, but any similar combination of light and dark can work.
Choose a Focal Point
Every sign requires a focal point. Text, an image or an action that captures attention on first glance causes the viewer to look more closely for pertinent information. Your potential customers may have only a second or two to safely take it in as they drive by. The same stands for a banner or pylon sign on your company property. If people are coming to your office or place of business, they will have more time to read the sign, but for those passing by in traffic, you need to snag them with a single glance so they will want to come back, or curiously watch for it the next time they drive by.
A focal point can be a single, meaningful word or group of words or it can be a meaningful image for which reading the text is secondary. For instance, a well-known soft drink company created a building-sized photographic banner that, when hung, looks like it is actually the side of the building itself: bricks, windows, vents and all, to the point where it virtually blends in and you don’t realize it is a sign. Within that enormous pennant, it appears there is a large red banner hanging between some of the windows, featuring a 20-foot image of the company’s iconic bottle. The lid is off and seven giant straws are coming out — each going into a different window and being enjoyed by the residents inside. It is all an illusion, and an effective one. The focal point is the soda bottle with the straws coming out — you know what is being sold without even reading the text that accompanies it. And you want one.
The choice of fonts used has a huge impact when it comes to reading on the fly. Use clean, bold fonts with enough space between letters to keep them from being confused. There is no hard and fast rule as to whether a serif or non-serif font reads better, as long as the one you chose is the right style for your campaign and is adequately sized and bold enough without getting clunky. Simplicity is critical. It is advisable to avoid some of the more artistic fonts, which can just create confusion.
The standard scale for font readability from a moving car or for a pedestrian is 10/100. That translates to 10 inches of font height for every 100 feet of distance from the sign to the viewer. That is a rule you will be sorry to have ignored if your sign cannot be read from the road.
Send a Clear Message
Does a sign featuring the words “Free Animals” mean someone is giving away animals or that someone wants animals to be let out of captivity? When you finally notice the small letters noting that the SPCA sponsors the message, you realize they want you to adopt a pet. How about a sign featuring a photo of Eric Estrada holding a baby? The caption states, “Estrada delivers baby wearing seat belt!” Was it Estrada or the baby wearing the device? Or consider the sign above a Chinese restaurant that in large type reads, “More than toilet,” and below in small type says “Delicious and happy.” What is your take-away from that one? We are guessing it’s not dim sum. On the other hand, could you mistake a sign that reads, “Got Bugs?” in large letters and a caption below reading “Car wash next exit, then left” for anything but a car wash?
Make sure your wording actually means what you want to say. “Illegally parked cars will be fine” is probably not the intended message. See that your spelling and grammar are properly executed, unless of course you are intentionally making a pun. Punctuation is of utmost importance as well. There is a considerable difference between “Eat Grandma,” and “Eat, Grandma.”
Let There Be Light
Neon signs, consisting of gas-filled colored tubing, were once a staple for sign makers. Now it is more common to see electronic marquees, spotlights on road signs and billboards, or backlit acrylic signs built into aluminum casings. Cut-out lettering and images lit from within grace storefronts. Lighting adds interest and increases visibility. In many cases, it is critical that a sign be lit at night. It may not be appropriate for all applications, but consider lighting if it adds to your message.
Images play a vital role in advertising and signage design. Whether it is a photograph, a 3D object, a clever logo, or another element, it needs to be important to the message you want to impart. Passers-by may or may not read the sign, so images are of vital importance. Choose an image with good contrast and clarity and enlarge it enough to be seen clearly from a distance. An image should tell the story — words should only further inform, not be required to explain what the image means.
A simple, solid-color banner hanging behind a New York subway bench minimalistically informs that a celebration of black music is taking place. How did the advertisers make that obvious and memorable? They placed a photographic image of an iconic hairstyle and placing against a solid background at a level that allows every person who sits on the bench in front of it to appear as if wearing that hairstyle. Simple image? Yes. Clear message? Yes. Memorable? Very. This one checks all the boxes.
A restaurant chain that features only chicken on its menu uses three-dimensional elements. On its billboard are some three-dimensional cows painting graffiti on a wall. Their message is “Eat mor chikin.” If the same message were printed on a flat surface, it would not hold as much appeal as this campaign, which has many fans watching for the signs even if they are not loyal customers, just because they are amusing.
A signboard advertising an exhibition at an aquarium features a headline and caption against a photograph of deep blue water. There is an unexpected 3-D model of a shark that looks as if it could jump out of the water and right off of the billboard.
A certain ad for a financial magazine is an excellent example. This large sign, hung at street level, has an 8-foot 3D model of a light bulb protruding from a solid red background. Whenever someone passes, a motion sensor lights the bulb for a few seconds. It is both attention-getting and memorable. This simple image illustrates why less is more in advertising. The only text is the name of the magazine, reminding people that they are full of ideas. Genius.
Using a real car, one auto body shop created what looked like a car crashing through a billboard with parts flying — the front and back of the car were each visible depending on which side of the sign you viewed. While some of these three-dimensional props can be pricey, it may be worth the money. The shock value is memorable, and viewers will enjoy watching for it each time they drive by.
Now you are off and running. Remember that not every idea is appropriate for every purpose, but using these tips for signage design will help you reach successful results and achieve a display you can be proud of.