Keep outlines and shadows under control

By Randy Howe

Posted on Monday, March 6th, 2023

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Graphics software makes it easy to add an outline or shadow to your lettering. While some say these effects always make the lettering “pop,” they add an element that can seriously hurt legibility.

On a sign that will be seen by walking traffic, double outlines and a blended shadow may add appeal without hurting legibility because the viewer has plenty of time to read it. But it’s a different story on a busy highway.

The same can happen as you look at a layout on the computer’s display. You’re viewing the layout from up close while sitting right in front of it. But most of the signs we make are seen from considerable distance and at an angle—and the viewer is often in a moving vehicle.

Shadows and outlines that are too strong can also result in the reader getting the message in the wrong order. Have you ever seen a sign where the primary copy has an outline and a shadow and the secondary copy has none—and the secondary copy is much easier to read? You naturally just read the clean, uncluttered copy first.

Let the shadow be just that

One way to keep a shadow from overpowering the primary copy is to avoid bold, dark shades. If I use a shade on the copy, I often make it subtle. I don’t want it to compete with the lettering. I want it just to be something cool that adds interest to the layout but the reader doesn’t really notice it.

This comes from the days of hand-lettered signs. Sign painters almost always just darkened the background color a bit to use it for the shade or shadow. I often ask myself, “If a sign painter was doing this, what color would the shade be?”

Outline with care

There are times when a heavy outline will enhance the lettering, but often the text will take longer to read from the street. Toning down the outline can also let the lettering be readable at a distance yet still interesting when viewed at closer distances.

Ask yourself if an outline is really necessary as you review your layout. Outlining secondary copy, for example, is likely to make it harder to read. It’s already smaller than the primary copy, and the outline may just complicate things.

Likewise with shadows and other effects. They’re easy to add, but when you do, it’s important to ask if they really contribute to the effectiveness of the sign or are they adding clutter that hurts readability.

It all comes down to looking at your designs honestly and critically. My approach is “If you have to work to read it, it ain’t workin’.” This may have been said before, but I’ll take credit for it if it hasn’t.

This layout was done about 15 years ago after I went to Stratford to work side-by-side with my pal Doug Downey. Digital printers had become pretty much standard in small sign shops, and I was now able to add elements to my layouts that could be easily produced on these amazing machines.

When you have the ability to add photos, clipart and special effects without adversely affecting production time, though, it’s very easy to get carried away. And when you get carried away, more often than not, the layout suffers. Adding the outline/shade to “BREAKFAST SERVED ALL DAY EVERYDAY!” makes it harder to read. All you have to do is zoom out on the side-by-side layout to see what I’m talking about.

Here’s another layout done around the same time. The layout works just fine as one color.

But if we are careful, we can add a bit of color and some effects without hurting the legibility. Each of these works except the one with the black shade on the yellow background.

This is an interesting one. The original was designed by my sister Dixie who is a Master Diver. She spends a lot of time at her condo on Bonaire now that she is retired from her real job! Dixie is a renowned underwater photographer and has a good eye for design. She likes to dabble in CorelDRAW, so she came up with a T-shirt design for Sand Dollar Resort, which is her home on the island.

Her layout is very good, but as you can see, she got carried away with the special effects. Thankfully she wasn’t too proud to let me tweak her design down to a more pleasing and readable look.

Another plus is that production cost for screenprinting the three-color design is much less as well. “Always Design with Production in Mind”—that’s my mantra. It gets back to thinking like a pre-computer sign painter. My layout skills improved enormously when I had the good fortune to work with Pierre Tardif when I joined Doug Downey at Creativeink. Pierre and his crew were big into window splashes at the time, and Creativeink took on the task of marketing them across Canada and the USA.

I became the primary designer for the window splash project. These splashes were hand painted at an amazing speed, and the key to being profitable was to put myself in the role of the painters: “Design with Production in Mind.”

This is my neighbor here in Port Dover. When I moved into this shop nearly seven years ago, I started getting my hair cut next door, and they started getting their signs and graphics from me—a Win-Win. I’ve never looked better and the same is true for them.

This is a before-and-after of their logo. When I use an outline on my layouts, it’s often very heavy. So is it really an outline or a high-contrast background shaped around the letters? Both, I suppose. The white letters on the heavy dark blue outline worked better.

Chris contacted me late last year with the idea of refreshing his logo. We had done the original about 10 years ago. I hired Jeff Marshall to do the script, and this is what we came up with.

One of my favorites! Lots of visual appeal—and not an outline in sight.

We finished this sign at least three years ago, and the customer still hasn’t installed it due to some issues with the county. The background and colors mimic the cabins at the top of the hill. It ranks way up there as one of my favorites.

Here we have a heavy “outline” again, which creates a high-contrast background for the primary copy with its subtle inline. This is a great example of the shape of the sign being determined by the design, instead of trying to fit the design into a predetermined space. I remember reading one of Gary Anderson’s articles about that in SignCraft several years ago. When he explained it, it was like “Of course! Why didn’t I think of that?”




Randy Howe’s shop, Getzum Exposure, is in Port Dover, Ontario, Canada.