Troubleshooting common layout problems

By Doug Downey

Posted on Friday, February 11th, 2022

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The first Letterheads event that I attended in Elkhart, Indiana, was a real eye-opener for me. I was in awe of the beautiful designs and sign work. With all the talent on display, I hardly had the courage to share my portfolio. Rather than be embarrassed, though, I recall the inspiration it gave me. There was so much to learn.

Here it is thirty years later, and I am still learning. The desire to share this learning process is what this series of articles is all about. And I’ve found one of the best ways to learn about design is by critiquing designs to see what works and what doesn’t.

When it comes to critiquing our work, there is no need to be intimidated or embarrassed. We all have creativity and design skills that we are developing. Each of us has favorite techniques that work for us. We all have much to learn.

There is a subjectivity to design, because, as the saying goes, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Yet, there is also an objective way to evaluate and critique designs. This is what I would like to share. It is through this type of evaluation that we learn how to make our own work more effective.

Over the years I have been blessed to be able to work closely with friend and fellow designer, Randy Howe. We have similar styles and use similar techniques in our design work, yet are quite comfortable critiquing one another’s work. We’ve both learned a lot from this process.

Let’s get started

After seeing my article, “Let’s troubleshoot common layout problems,” in the March/April 2005 issue of SignCraft with my request for designs, Anne McCann of Letterperfect Signs, Grafton, North Dakota, sent a design for critique. The design is for a 3-by-8-ft. sign for the Walsh County Administrative Building. I thank her for being willing to share her work. Here’s her layout:

There are three ideas this sign must convey. The first is Walsh County. The second is Administrative Building. Third is its address. In the original design, Administrative Building is the main copy and focal point.

One of the changes that I have noticed in our industry over the past couple of years is the availability of new, creative fonts. There is no one more excited about this than me, as I have been called “the Font Cowboy” in the past. The problem we’re seeing, though, is designers who want to put all the new fonts in their designs at the same time.

I see some of that happening in Anne’s design. The message should not fight for the reader’s eye. Stylized fonts are considered display fonts and are meant to add interest and appeal to part of the message. Highly readable (and usually more conservative) fonts are text fonts intended for use as secondary copy that can be read quickly.

Usually we rely on a combination of both display fonts and text fonts to create an effective design. When we use three display fonts in a design, the reader’s eye will likely have difficulty deciding what to look at first. That’s why one of the most effective approaches is to use a display font to get your most important information across and a text font for your secondary copy. While display fonts read a little slower, the main copy is usually emphasized with size and color to boost readability. The reverse of this also works—using a text font for main copy and a display font for secondary copy.

When choosing colors, make sure that you can keep the same ideas in your head as we did with the fonts: think opposites. If your main copy is going on a dark background, choose a lighter color for the lettering. If it is going on a lighter color, choose a darker color for the lettering.

Anne did a great job with the contrast of her main copy by using dark blue on the lighter teal. One thing that we need to watch is getting the drop shadows too close to the color value of the type. If the drop shadow is going on a light background, it’s more effective to make the shadow color a darker shade of the background color.

Let’s look at a few versions of this same sign layout that I came up with:

Here I’ve used a display font for the most important information and a text font for the secondary copy. I’ve also changed the panel shape to add a little extra interest.

Another option is using a text font for the important copy and a display font for the secondary copy.

Now we can try the same layout in different colors to accentuate the panel shape and border for more impact.

Creating an interesting panel can add a lot to your sign for very little extra cost. In my versions, I used a single panel that holds all the text, and in effect changed the shape of the sign—without using a saw. When using a panel, make sure you allow enough margin space around the text. Don’t stretch the copy from one edge of the panel to the other. That margin of negative space is needed to frame the copy. It makes it more appealing and readable—which is what we want our signs to be, right?

Put it to work

I’ve done a few trailer designs that show how effective panels can be. The copy is the same size and in the same location in all three layouts. The only difference is the use of panels. It shows how adding two simple elements helps the customer’s name to pop off the side of the trailer, instead of losing it as it floats on that big white background.

The first version shows a fairly typical layout. Sometimes the message can seem to get lost when you have a large area to hold it. A panel is a great way to get around that problem.

In the second version, I’ve added one simple panel and put the lettering on it in a light color. Besides strengthening the main copy, a panel can add a little life to the layout if you use an interesting shape. The panel holds the main copy, increases its impact and guides the reader’s eye there first.

Now let’s take it one step further. I added a stripe—a panel behind the panel—to hold the secondary copy. This also works with the new panel we added for the main copy. If you add the stripe, you must again think of it as a secondary stripe. That means it is a color that is opposite of the black panel. The black secondary copy works well on the light background, too.

You can take this design change to the bank, too. The customer is now so excited about the design that you can charge him double what you would have charged for the first job. What a great value it is for him now—anyone could see that the upgraded design is more than twice as effective as the first version. That’s the power of effective design.

Doug Downey’s business, The Image Factory, is located in Stratford, Ontario, Canada.

This appeared in the May/June 2005 issue of SignCraft.


Doug Downey has been in the sign business since 1979. He provides sign and logo design services to sign companies in the US and Canada. His company, The Image Factory is in Stratford, Ontario, Canada.

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