Better sign design: Simple, cohesive, effective

By Randy Howe

Posted on Friday, March 31st, 2023

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If you’re going to really design a sign—to create an appealing way to effectively deliver the message the client wants to convey to prospective customers—rather than just apply letters to a substrate, I think most of us start with a concept, or the “look and feel” we think the sign will need. It may be only vaguely conscious, but we’re thinking about the image of the business, the type of business, the purpose of the sign and who we want to reach with the sign.

So as I start a design, I’m thinking, “Okay, this is a cool little café, or it’s a childcare center, or it’s an industrial equipment company….” I’m trying to tell passersby that this is a great place to relax with a cup of coffee, or a fun place for your kids, or that these are the guys who have the heavy-duty equipment you need. I’m thinking about what I need to communicate and the audience I’m trying to reach.

I’ve already collected a lot of information from the client, so I usually have a good idea of what they’re looking for. I don’t let them design the sign—that’s my job—but I don’t just go off and design what I want without any regard to their input.

How I get started

I know that some designers get an idea in their head first and then turn that into the design. As for me, I tend to get the copy on the sign then start playing with it. I start looking through the fonts and look for something that has the feel I’m looking for. That starts to lead me to the design. For a vehicle, I’ll take a photo of the truck, get it on the screen and start putting the copy on it.

Sometimes I flip through my SignCraft magazines, look at websites of sign designers whose work I like, or I flip through one of my favorite logo books. If something isn’t coming to me right away, I’ll check out some of these just to get me thinking. I’m not looking for something to copy, but something to spark some ideas.

If a client has an idea or a layout that I don’t think gives them the best value for their money, without a doubt I try to show them something that will work better. Not something a little more legible, but a lot more. Often, they get the picture. Seeing is believing, and it’s pretty hard to look at something that obviously reads better and not realize that it’s going to be much more effective.

At this stage of the project, there are three key things that help me get off on the right foot as I begin a design. For me, design is not a step-by-step process, so these aren’t really steps—they’re just ideas that I feel can help lead you to an effective, attractive layout—while staying within the customer’s budget.

One: Keep it simple

Keeping designs simple yet interesting isn’t easy. It’s easier to throw a lot of effects at the layout, which may wow the client but hurt legibility. That’s why I don’t use a lot of outlines, shades or special effects on the lettering. Effects often take away from legibility.

Simple is not the same as boring. Simplicity means that everything in the layout serves a purpose—it’s got a job to do. It’s not just stuck there to look cool or fill up space. Simplicity means you don’t let anything create clutter that would get in the way of the sign’s message. It means the design is clean and easy to read—and that there is something interesting and appealing about it that makes you want to read it.

With digital prints and wraps, too many designs are so overdone—and I think we all realize that. I try to get that through to the customer. When they see something bright, busy and colorful for the first time, they say, “Hey, wow—that’s neat….” I ask them how it’s going to work for them, though. How readable is it—especially at the speed it will typically be seen at? Are they going to get their money’s worth? Will someone have to be standing right beside it to read it?

Two: Create a cohesive layout

I believe that a sign design should have a cohesive look. It should be stuck together—it’s made up of several parts, but it works as a single unit. Cohesiveness is hard to define, but it is the result of the basic principles of layout working together. This quality is missing in many sign layouts.

Customers like it. They can’t describe it, but they like it. They sense that cohesiveness and how it makes the design interesting to look at.

Look through SignCraft—you’ll see lots of cohesive designs. That’s why I love Dan Antonelli’s stuff—he’s really good at that cohesive look. Study those designs to see what makes them look cohesive. Don’t be afraid to move copy around to make it part of the message unit.

Three: No need to be spectacular, just effective

If you think every design has to be a masterpiece, you’re wrong. You don’t have to be a spectacular designer—you just have to deliver better than average design. Most of the signs that will be competing with your signs are mediocre to poor layouts.

The reader’s eye will be drawn to the sign that is appealing and easy to read. He or she may look at a complex job with giant photos, but if the message isn’t legible, forget it—it’s too much work and the reader’s eye moves on.

Your job is simply to make the reader’s job easy. The reader will return the favor by getting the message. Your sign doesn’t have to be a work of art to be successful. It needs only to effective. Don’t feel bad if it’s not fancy or complex or intricate.

Randy Howe’s shop, Getzum Exposure, is in Port Dover, Ontario, Canada.

This appeared in the September/October 2010 issue of SignCraft.

This is a knockout banner for a local preschool. This is how the text looks after typing it in…

…and this is how it looks after playing around with the layout a bit.

This banner layout looks simple, but it was a challenge to make it look that simple. I wanted it to be an easy read, and I knew I couldn’t risk slowing the reader down with any unnecessary stuff.

These were 3-by-5-ft. window prints. For the design at right, all I had for the longest time—as it was coming together—was a solid red background. Then I decided to make it a red oval panel on a black background. That did the job.

This one is just black vinyl, and it’s one of my favorites. They get a lot of reaction from customers who notice it, too. I used the body shapes to provide the panels. I knew this truck was going to be on the road a lot, and I wanted everyone who saw it to get the primary message quickly and easily.

Here I put THE inside the T. It’s a basic vinyl job, but it’s got that look of a hand-lettered sign. It’s got the proper font and an interesting arrangement of the text. It’s just white and blue vinyl. I didn’t have to use a lot of color fades or outlines.

Here’s a good example: A t-shirt design for a local car show. It’s a simple yet attractive design that doesn’t take very long to create. It does the trick while working within the customer’s relatively small budget.

Here are a couple more designs done for myself. I think they fit the bill when it comes to simplicity.

Here’s another example of a simple two-color sign that, in my opinion, really gets the job done. It shows the approach that I use to pull the design together so I can get the message to those driving by quickly and effectively.

This customer wanted an A-frame sign out front and had that lion graphic that they wanted to use. I looked around for a café-looking font and then arranged the letters to get the look I wanted.

The A slid right inside the C really well. Then I tucked the “Fully Licensed” under the E. That’s something I do a lot: tuck some secondary copy into an interesting negative space. It helps create a cohesive layout.

Randy Howe’s shop, Getzum Exposure, is in Port Dover, Ontario, Canada.