Handling linear layouts

By Bob Behounek

Posted on Friday, December 31st, 2021

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Back in the mid-1960s, my travels in and around the greater Chicago area were a source of inspiration and amazement. Right in the heart of the city were all these car dealers, gas stations and single-story businesses. This wasn’t unusual, except most of them had large, very linear (longer than taller) signage.

Many times sign structures were erected on the lot lines surrounding the car dealers and gas stations. I guess this was used for both advertising and separation between commercial property and residential areas. You don’t see too many setups like this anymore. These advertisements could have been anywhere from forty feet long to what seemed long enough to span from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean—very, very linear!

I wish I had the foresight to take pictures of these masterpieces then. Chicago’s very own Beverly Sign Company, Seelander & Swanson, Jack Williams and Carl Rupp were turning out some of the best sign work ever. I know now how fortunate I was to have witnessed these fine works. I’m sure those memories still linger in my mind, waiting to be recycled somewhere along the way.

With the lack of those linear situations these days, the closest I come to linear layouts are banners and storefront signage that are much wider than higher. They’re not as extreme as these fence-like signs of yesteryear, but they present some of the same layout challenges.

Looking back at how these signs delivered their messages, you can see it was simpler than one could imagine. Every well thought-out advertisement has one main message and attention getter to focus on. (Of course every client has a zillion secondary items, lists of services, other useless information and clutter they feel must be on the sign, too.)

Realistically, some secondary information explaining the main message is all that’s needed. This could be what the client is selling, services or brands they are selling. By the time a passerby reads this, it’s probably already too much to comprehend.

There is room on this sign—somewhere between Mississippi’s shoreline and the Pacific—that needs to be filled with verbiage, too—a smaller space that can contain the how much, where or when portion of the message.

In case you haven’t noticed, the English-speaking world reads from left to right. We can take advantage of this in our linear layouts by dividing up that linear area into information blocks. The largest is for the main focal point, and second and third largest can carry the secondary information. Sometimes the secondary copy is too large to place in one spot, so you can split it in half, on either side of the main focal area.

Many layouts I’ve seen lately have been all one type style—line on top of line with very little color variation. Because people read from left to right, I guess that’s a natural way to place the message in a given area. But I find it more interesting to look at and to understand when these messages are divided up into separate message blocks with colored areas that contain information. Some need to be larger than others in order of importance, and sometimes information needs to be cut into thirds or halves, depending on the amount.

Our goal is readability and delivering a clear understanding of the information quickly. (Remember our fundamental design elements: dominance, flow, contrast, proportion, balance and unity.) The critical areas need to be determined up front: How much linear space is going to be needed for each piece of information? This approach is as simple as breaking down each portion of the message into its own “sign within a sign.” Some of these messages can overlap one another to link them together, creating smoother linear readability. We’re getting closer to the Pacific Ocean faster, aren’t we?

When I change hats and become the consumer (imagine that!), sometimes I realize that I need to read part of the sign by itself to get critical information. When you see this type of sign done without concern for this, finding this related information can become nearly impossible.

I’m going to break down some simple examples to help you see what I mean. These examples are similar in many ways, yet with various proportions of information.

Every time a project similar to these comes along, I find I can utilize these principles and re-create some of those design icons from the past in today’s world. Linear layouts need not be a problem to either the designer or the reader—there’s plenty we can borrow from past solutions to this design challenge.

This appeared in the May/June 2004 issue of SignCraft.

You see a lot of signs like the one above that are done in just one font and a layout that’s just line after line of copy.

By using panels—signs within the sign—you can guide the reader through the layout. It makes the sign easier and more interesting to read. The layout is split about 50/50, with one overlapping onto the other, unifying them both. If you look real hard, you’ll see the script is directing your eye to the secondary message.

On The Pantry banner, the secondary message has been divided in half, cranking up the main dominant word Pantry between them. The reader’s eye is going to the middle of this ad first.

The United Energy banner is split approximately 70 percent and 30 percent, isolating the secondary information into its own overlapping color block. It’s basically two signs next to one another.

The Wooded Path banner is again split 50/50—two separate signs. The two separate messages are divided by the tree logo, yet unified. Both messages can be seen separately in the linear format.

The Adventure Zone banner is much longer than the others, though similar when the sign is divided into a proportional format. Camp Manitoqua is using half of the area while the secondary messages are split in half.

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