Color contrast helps cure ailing layouts

By Bob Behounek

Posted on Friday, October 22nd, 2021

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I can’t believe how fast this year is going. It seems like weeks go by, then before you know it, the seasons have changed. Speaking of changes, don’t you enjoy watching the ever-changing sign climate? Like the seasons, it’s so subtle one can almost miss the trends moving from one level to the next.

Looking back, I can recall eras when certain designs caught everyone’s attention. As years passed, some of these trends resurfaced while some just fizzled out on the side of the road. Remembering why some of those eras made me take notice is a challenge and dissecting those good designs and color choices is very interesting indeed.

Sometime during the 1960s, I passed by one storefront I couldn’t take my eyes off of. I must have circled the block four to five times looking at that sign. It was like a magnet. The person who had designed it had most likely hand painted it, too. The choice of contrasting elements was spine tingling. It created a powerful image for that small business.

Most of the mom-and-pop businesses today seem to lack that type of look. So many of the signs layouts I see are “under the weather”. They’re failing their storeowners miserably.

When we are ill it’s not important how we got what we got, but how we’re going to get better. Our physicians focus on a cure for whatever ails us. I don’t profess to be a doctor, but there are things that could be done to revive layouts that lack appeal and impact.

There is no single quick fix or magical cure-all to improve our layouts, I’m afraid. I’m thinking about taking one cure at a time. You know: “Try this, call me in the morning, and we’ll see how the sign is doing.”

A tradition of effective layout  

I know how important the effectiveness of their finished signs was to the craftsman before us. They used every trick in the book and then some. Many up-and-coming sign painters would mimic the styles of other sign painters—so well sometimes that it confused others as to who actually did the sign. Most everyone wanted their signs to look the best, so they copied other successful styles. How many times do we hear of sign people doing this today? Not very often, I’m afraid.

Many sign folks today do not seem as concerned with the traditional elements that we know are part of effective design. I’m really not sure why. After a seminar I gave a while back, I spoke to a couple of sign people who attended. They seemed interested only in volume and the bottom line.

Treatment begins with contrast  

Sifting back through the mysteries of good sign design, there are six elements I have covered in my past columns: proportion, flow, contrast, dominant feature, unity and balance. These are the tools that lead to effective, attractive layouts.

The “sign doctor” in me wants to write a prescription to help heal some of these problems I have been witnessing lately. One major fix comes under the category of contrast—in color, that is. Some simple color study can eliminate readability problems without us having to over-engineer our signs.

The task is to use colors with higher contrast to make the dominant features of the sign come to the forefront and the secondary features retreat somewhat with lesser contrast in color. Considering how color affects the legibility of our design is a key element in the success of our finished product. I don’t care if it’s the most plain or the most custom sign, if you can’t read it, it’s worthless.

How light reflects on colors gives us a way to rank colors and determine how they contrast with each other. Check out the Reflectivity of Colors chart here. Color is a powerful tool you can use to increase or decrease the visual impact of part of a sign’s message. Choosing extreme contrasts in color will allow maximum readability.

This chart, from the material we used in our Local 830 apprentice training program, may help you better understand the contrast relationships between colors.

Remember, though, that the goal is not to achieve maximum readability for every part of the message. As a designer, you know that readers can only comprehend one part of the message at a time—and you control the order in which they read those parts. If every part of the message had maximum readability, there would be no dominant feature. The result is boredom.

Remember that warm colors (reds, oranges, yellows and yellow greens) will advance to the forefront while the cool colors (blues, violets, blue-greens and blue-grays) will retreat to the background.

Without taking advantage of these contrasts in color, our signage all but fizzles out. It’s dull and ineffective.

Readability at any speed  

Those of us who follow auto racing know that as cars race past at very high speeds you have very little time to read the names of sponsors and understand what you see. If the designers did not take advantage of contrasts we would never know who is sponsoring what.

Fortunately, most of the signage we produce is read at slower speeds and used for many years in one location. Look over these examples and note my breakdown of colors and the relationship of their intensity levels to one another.

Put simply, we must decide what should come to the forefront and what needs to be placed in the middle-ground and background. Then we use contrasting colors to help make that happen. I assure you this will make sign making more fun and help your customer’s signage function with more readability and pop.

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2006 issue of SignCraft.



Note the percent of reflectivity on these examples:

Medium blue 20%, white 90%, red 3%, buff 56%, black 1%

Medium blue 20%, white 90%, red 3%, yellow 70%, black 1%

Dark blue 10%, white 90%, red 3%, yellow 70%

Orange 30%, white 90%, teal 30%, black 1%

Terra cotta and medium blue 20%, white 90%, yellow 70%, black 1%

White 90%, red 3%, black 1%

Medium gray 15%, white 90%, red 3%, black 1%

Bob Behounek has spent over 40 years as a sign artist and pinstriper in the Chicago, Illinois, area.

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