8 secrets to highly readable signs

By SignCraft Magazine

Posted on Thursday, July 13th, 2017

What’s it take to produce signs that are highly legible? Sign designers like Braun Bleamer of Jet Signs know. They also know that readability is what really matters on most signage.

“I tend to rely on highly legible fonts that work well at the large sizes we use on signs,” says Braun. “If you’re getting a tattoo of your girlfriend’s name on your bicep, it’s fine to use something ornate. Readability isn’t the first priority—it’s decoration. On a truck door going down the road at 70 miles an hour, though, it’s a different story. Legibility is the most important thing.”

Knowing how to create highly readable signs gives you something unique to sell. Customers may not be able to explain why, but they will know your signs are more effective. It sets your work apart and creates a loyal customer base.

We asked Braun for his secret for making that happen—the proven tools that he uses to set his work apart and give his customers extra value from their signs. These eight tips should help you do the same:

Organize the copy by importance. The reader can’t read everything on a sign at once, so Braun decides what order they will read the messages in—especially on signs with multiple messages. Then he uses contrasts in size, color and weight to do that.

Use dramatic size contrasts between primary and secondary copy. Braun uses much lighter weight letter styles for secondary copy, and much larger, heavier letter styles for primary copy—like three to eight times larger. This radical difference not only makes sure that even a casual viewer will get the main message, but it also makes the layout more interesting to look at.

Limit effects to one or two. Braun often uses a special effect like a fade, shadow or beveled outline. When he does, though, he limits it to just one or two effects to avoid clutter.

“I like to do one thing,” he says, “maybe just a quick little shadow, so that it doesn’t look like cookie-cutter lettering. It just takes a few clicks with the mouse, but it makes a world of difference.”

Give the message plenty of air. Healthy margins of negative space typically frame the copy on Braun’s layouts.

“Crowding the lettering usually kills it,” Braun says. “You need that airspace. If you have a new car and you want me to come and see it, you don’t put it in a single garage with all the junk around it. I can’t see it. You pull it out in the driveway or put it in the center of a two-car garage. Then I can back up and appreciate what I’m seeing. It’s the same with lettering.”

Tighten up the letter spacing. Although air space (or negative space) is a necessity around all text, you’ll often see letters spaced tight and even touching in Braun’s work. It makes the words into an easy-to-read unit, and avoids the generic kerning that you get when you just type the letters in. “I like either a tight kern,” he says, “or I space them far apart. I don’t use in between or so-called normal kerning. I often space the main copy tight and the secondary text far apart. A tight kern makes lettering flow better.”

Use legible typefaces. Most typefaces are designed for use on the printed page or computer display—not for the giant sizes we use on signs. Braun typically uses only two fonts on most signs.

“I may use different weights of one or both of them, though,” he says, “to give some variety without creating confusion. I never use more than one script or one serif font on a sign. On a truck door I’m likely to use the same font for the name and the phone number.”

Use strong contrasts in color. Most of the time, a sign needs to speak up in a strong voice. Color contrasts help you do this. Low color contrast between the letter and volume usually lowers the volume the sign speaks with.

“If the background is dark,” Braun says, “I like the lettering to be obviously light. I’m a big fan of white, too. Now that we can print any color background, did we forget about white? I like to use a white or cream background with some crazy pop colors for the lettering.”

Eliminate or control clutter. You may be able to do this by explaining to the client how excessive copy hurts the effectiveness of their sign. Or you can do it with your design, by minimizing the less important copy. If someone misses Ace Electric, then Commercial – Industrial – Residential will be meaningless anyway.

“I will push unimportant copy back in my layout to where it’s almost not there,” Braun says. “It’s in there, but not doing any damage. The customer is glad it’s there, but I know it’s not getting in the way of the big message.”

You’ll find more about Braun’s approach to successful sign design in the Designer at work: Braun Bleamer article in the July/August issue of SignCraft. Don’t miss it!