Effective layouts begin in black and white

By SignCraft.com

Posted on Friday, January 28th, 2022

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When starting a design, I forget about color—at least temporarily. There are too many other variables to keep track of. Your personality, the project at hand and where you live and work will affect your color decisions. For a successful design, start off thinking in black, white and gray.

For example, if you have a white background with black letters (or vice versa), use a gray border with a small black or white pinstripe. This may seem like an oversimplification, but it works every time. Unlike other areas of design (such as pictorial selection, type choice and the shape of the panel) that reflect and interact with one another, the impact of color choice is limited to areas within that black, white and gray version of the design. After these basic tones have been determined, any color can be assigned to each element as long as it has the same degree of light or dark.

Using positive and negative space

Working in black and white, it’s easy to see that as lettering gets bolder the negative space around the letters diminishes. (Positive space is the letters themselves; negative space is the area around the letters.) As you make the lettering more bold, that negative space can even diminish to the point where the letters become an abstract black shape and the word becomes illegible because it loses its distinctive shape. Conversely, as the strokes get thinner, the negative space increases. At some point, negative space will overwhelm the word and cause it to disappear into the white background—especially when viewed from a distance.

As the designer, you must make a conscious effort to balance and control these effects. For example, outlines should not compromise negative space; instead, they should be used to increase contrast. The same thing applies when adding shades to lettering. Take great care that they do not compromise contrast or negative space:

Outlines shouldn’t compromise the negative space around the letter. Instead, they should be used to increase the contrast of the letter to the background. In the example, the wide outline has become the background for the letter, and there’s less contrast between the dark letter and the black background.

When adding shades to lettering, take great care that they don’t compromise contrast or negative space. As a shade gets closer in value to the lettering, as in the example, the lettering gets harder to read—especially at a distance.

Contrast is what counts

Above and beyond the importance of actual color selection is the contrast between colors. Readability is largely the result of contrast. It’s not surprising, then, that many signs fail—in terms of readability—due to poor contrast.

The best sign design in the world can be lost to poor contrast. Obviously, signs are made to be read. It may not be the first job that a successful sign must do—because a sign must be noticed first—but after it is noticed, the viewer must be able to read it. A sign gets noticed when all of the four principles of sign design—pictorial, lettering, shape and color—are working in harmony.

Depth and balance

A sign should have depth, just like a fine art painting. To an artist, depth is defined as foreground, mid-ground and background. In terms of sign design, that would translate like this: The majority of the sign is the background; the main copy and the border are the foreground; the scrolls, outlines, shades, stripes, faux finishes and secondary copy are the mid-ground.

Pictorials are almost always a supporting part of the foreground, since the viewer easily interprets pictures. They become the visual hook for the design and lead the viewer into the main copy, but they should not dominate the design.

Balance is a critical component of a design because it imparts stability and makes it possible for the viewer to read and understand the sign in the shortest amount of time. This should always be the goal of a good sign. Balance means that there is no one element on the sign that will demand the viewer’s attention for too long.

An abstract shape, pictorials that are too large, or a unique color that is only on one part of the sign may cause the viewer to focus on that one element and not get the rest of the message. For example, if you paint a flower that is too bright or out-of-scale with the rest of the design, the design will not be successful because all the focus will be on that one element. The reader may notice the sign, but miss the message.

Once you’re sure your layout is balanced in black and white, make sure it has color balance as you designate the colors. Put very simply, color balance means that if you have blue on one part of the sign, then it should appear elsewhere on the sign. Color balance can be achieved with a blue border stripe, underline, scroll or other graphic element. It doesn’t have to be exactly the same color, but should be in the same color family.

Gary Anderson’s shop, Bloomington Design, is in Bloomington, Indiana.

This appeared in the Sept/Oct 2007 issue of SignCraft.