Posted on Monday, January 13th, 2020
Neuropsychology has recently “discovered” something that top sign designers have known for a long time: Clean, simple letter styles are read much faster than other letter styles. In a recent test, researchers had people read a few lines of text in clean sans serif type, then the same text in a script typeface at the same size. It took twice as long to read the decorative text.
The late Mike Stevens discussed this years ago in his book, Mastering Layout. Mike’s simple formula was that decorative typefaces were to be used sparingly for the primary copy. Secondary text should be done in highly legible type to ensure that more of the message could be read in the minimal time that most viewers have to read a sign.
It’s true that the reader can decipher almost any typeface if he or she has enough time. But the question is this: Will they want to? Even if they do, will they have enough time to read it all? Many, if not most, signs are read primarily by people who are passing by in a vehicle, which further limits reading time.
Decorative typefaces can create an emotional feel or mood for the sign—such as serious, fun, powerful, formal or casual, hip or conservative. They have a “voice.” Successful designers take advantage of that, but they do it carefully.
Excessive use of decorative type on a sign hurts readability. And it is almost always the mark of an amateur designer as well. A skilled designer organizes the sign’s copy in order of importance, then uses size, contrast and color to deliver it to the reader in the proper order.
The less important copy doesn’t need to contribute much to the emotional aspect of the message, so a non-decorative letter style can be used for that. If you use a highly legible typeface for the secondary copy, it can also be made smaller, leaving more room for the primary copy to get the emphasis it deserves.
The primary copy can be used much larger than the secondary copy, and decorative typefaces are easier to read at large sizes (as long as they aren’t too funky!). The primary copy is also usually just a few words, which makes it easier for the reader to decipher. The secondary copy is often many words, and using decorative type for it bogs the reader down.
We know that decorative typefaces are hard to read and therefore take more time to read. But at the same time, we need the visual appeal they can create to help draw readers’ eyes to the sign. How do we strike a compromise?
Use size. Everything is easier to read when it’s larger. Let the primary copy, in a decorative typeface, be obviously primary. Make it big.
Use contrast. Likewise, all type is easier to read when its color is in strong contrast to the background color. Using strong contrast for the primary copy will help with readability.
Make secondary copy obviously secondary. Don’t be afraid to use size, color, copy blocks and panels to make sure that the secondary copy doesn’t steal any thunder from the main message.
Save the decorative type for the main copy. The secondary copy doesn’t need to make much of a statement. It’s usually just informational. So a simpler, highly readable typeface makes good sense for that.
Avoid highly illegible decorative faces. Some of the type that is available is simply so funky that it is almost impossible to read. While it may work for cool menu headings, it will fail at the large sizes typically used for signs—and at the speed which most signs must be read. Reading a sign from your car is a completely different experience than sitting at a table and looking at a menu.
Yes, decorative type—and lots of it—appeals to many customers. But most will understand the importance of using decorative type carefully once you explain how important the legibility of their sign is. They may start to realize that your goal is to help them get the most value for the money they are spending, and that can make the sale for you.
Flipping through any issue of SignCraft will give you plenty examples of how others choose letter styles successfully. A ride down any street in a business district will give you plenty examples of how the over use of decorative type damages legibility (or how the over use of generic type makes for boring signs!). Study the sign layouts that work well and see how the designer chose the type carefully. It will make you a more skillful and more successful designer.