Avoid these 10 common sign layout pitfalls

By Mike Jackson

Posted on Saturday, September 11th, 2021

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Designers and sign makers who have been in the business long enough can easily recognize work done by newcomers. Why? Either the newbies were never taught a few basic principles, or simply haven’t learned from their own mistakes. If they were learning sign layout at a vocational school, the instructor would probably give a failing grade on the layout and explain how to correct it next time. If they had been learning in one of the old union sign shops, a journeyman sign maker would have quickly pointed out all the flaws.

How do you know if a layout works? In most cases, all you have to do is back up from a sign to see if it reads well. If not, the designer failed and everyone loses. The two big culprits for beginners are overcrowding and lack of contrast, followed by poor choice of letter styles or fonts. With all the whiz-bang computers and software, it is possible to design all kinds of worthless signs in the blink of an eye.

In today’s market, it is possible to learn “tricks of the trade” long before learning “the trade.” It may have always been that way, but the phenomenon is probably more evident now than ever. I’ve included a group of examples of common layout errors that I see frequently. There are probably many more I could have, and should have, added. Of course, it is possible to stack problems on top of problems, too, and multiple errors on the same layout is not unusual.

One of the jokes that the old timers like to laugh about is a sign with old English text lettering in all caps, on an arc, in red paint with a big bold black shade (see Pitfall 3). If the spacing is off, add a few gray starbursts to fill in the voids. Before computer sign making equipment, it was also easy to tell a beginner by all the casual, scripts and speed stroke styles used on the same sign.

It is possible to break a few rules once in a while, but it takes quite a bit of experience to know when and why you can get away with it. Quite honestly, you can learn from both terrible and great work. All you need to do is figure out why the bad layouts don’t work and try to learn why some layouts work so well.

As you drive around town—or across the country—you’ll see real life examples of the problems highlighted here. Once you start to recognize them as problems, you are well on your way to improving your own designs. Enjoy the ride!

Pitfall 1: Not enough contrast

Even though some colors are different from each other, the light or dark values may be too close. Generally, use dark against light, light against dark, or a medium background with light text and a dark outline.

Pitfall 2: Too crowded

The customer may say they want the largest lettering possible to get the best legibility, but crowding the borders ends up doing just the opposite. Consider allowing at least half the letter height above and below and the equivalent of a full letter space to the left and right.

Pitfall 3: All caps Old English

This one is a big No-No, but you still see it much too often. Text letters like these were never designed to be used as all caps. Some versions will also be hard to read because of the extreme thin strokes. Pick a bolder version, use it sparingly, and be sure to use it in upper and lower case.

Pitfall 4: All cap script

This is similar to Pitfall 3: never use all caps for script. Be careful of overly delicate or flourished scripts. They may sometimes work for headline text, but will usually appear very weak. If you do use script, remember that it usually needs to be two to three times larger than a block letter style to be read at the same distance.

Pitfall 5: Monotone message

I’d say this is an example of a lazy designer. The letters are crowded to the borders, are all the same style and all the same weight or value. There are lots of ways of making this layout better, but a little time on the drawing board can help a lot! Remember to prioritize the copy and add a small graphic if possible.

Pitfall 6: Overly condensed text

Squeezing text into a space makes it hard to read and compromises the original design of the font. Most text can be stretched a little and hold up okay, but condensing text can thicken the horizontal strokes too much. Consider choosing a condensed letter style—they were designed to work in narrow places. Again, don’t crowd the text.

Pitfall 7: Poor contrast between lettering and shades

If the value (light/dark) of the text is close to the value of the color used for outlines and shades, the entire thing can turn into one large clump when viewed from a distance. This is even more of a problem if the shades and shadows bump into the next letter. Consider using light against dark, or dark against light. Blends can help, but must still be approached as one general value of either dark or light.

Pitfall 8: Blends affecting contrast

Whether used as a background or across the face of the lettering, spanning too much value can cause problems. If the blend starts light and ends dark, the lettering and/or graphics next to it suffer from poor contrast. Bolder lettering is usually needed and may also require an outline to hold the lettering together. Consider only a few steps of value change.

Pitfall 9: Confusing graphic

Full-color graphics usually consist of a range of values between very dark to very light. Putting text over that can be very risky because some areas of the text will always have low contrast. An outline or shade might help the contrast issue, but generally you’re better off to isolate the graphic from the rest of the lettering. If the lettering must go over the graphic, consider placing the lettering in the sky or some other solid tonal area.

Pitfall 10: Missing message

Most customers know what they are selling, and some assume others will know, too. Be prepared to convince the client they need to include enough information to make the sign work for them. Sears, JCPenney, and TCBY might get away with just one word on a sign, but they spend a fortune on advertising to get the rest of the message out to the public.

Mike and Darla Jackson operate Golden Era Studios in Jackson, Wyoming, and do a variety of sign-related projects. Mike’s website is www.goldenstudios.com. His email address is golden@goldenstudios.com. You can see more of Mike’s photos at www.tetonimages.com and www.goldenstudios.com.