Better sign design: Prioritize, emphasize and tweak

By Randy Howe

Posted on Friday, May 5th, 2023

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When it comes to the lettering on a sign, it’s not a matter of typing it in and there you go. There’s more to it than that. You organize and adjust the copy to make the sign more effective and more interesting.

At least that’s what I do. To me, that’s a big part of what I have to offer: creating something that will turn someone who sees a sign into someone who reads the sign.

I’m not selling the customer on how cheaply I can do something. Knowing how to tweak the lettering is a key part of what I’m selling. I think some shops overlook the fact that many customers will pay for stronger designs if you just offer it to them.

Prioritize the copy

One of the most important jobs of a designer is to prioritize the copy—to organize it so that it reads in order of importance. Like it or not, there’s no way to read all the copy on a sign all at once. So, the designer has to serve the copy up in order of importance. That way, even if the reader doesn’t read every single word on the sign, at least they get the main message first.

I think the designer should break down even the secondary copy to organize it for the reader. Put related things together. Remember—your job is to make the reader’s job not only easier but inviting.

Prioritizing is your chance to minimize the unnecessary copy. Often the customer is just unwilling to leave unimportant copy off the sign. No problem—we can push it to the bottom of the list in order of importance. By reducing its size, minimizing contrast and placing it away from the visual center of the layout, we can keep it from sucking the life out of the key message.

Emphasize the primary message

Keep primary copy strong. Repeat that one again for me. If the reader only gives your sign a passing glance, make sure they at least get that primary message. That’s what the customer is paying you for—to make that impression in every reader’s mind.

You’ve got several tools to use for this task: placement, size, weight, color, contrast. Usually two or three will do, but, when in doubt, use them all. Just make sure that it’s very obvious that these few key words are the main reason for the sign.

Most of the signs you see every day don’t do much to make the primary message strong. This is a great way to set your designs apart. Decide what is the essential message of sign, the part you want to make sure they get, then make it strong. Really strong!

Design words as units

I spend a little extra time designing the words, especially the primary copy. I carefully choose the typeface and I visually space the letters to make the words a unit. If I just type the copy in and accept the spacing the computer applies, my sign will look like every other sign out there. Instead, I usually tighten up the spacing. The computer plays it safe and tends to space the letters a little further apart because it doesn’t expect them to be used at the large sizes we typically use for signs.

I like to pull the letters together, so the eye reads the word as a unit, which is faster than identifying each letter then putting the word together mentally. Often there is something in the word that you can use—letters that tuck nicely together, letters you can overlap, an initial letter you can enlarge. Again, study other good layouts to see what designers do to make the words read as words, rather than strings of mechanically-spaced letters.

Push, squeeze and stretch

I push, squeeze and stretch lettering—all the while being careful not to hurt the legibility. Some letterstyles can take it better than others, so make sure you don’t damage the letters by overdoing this sort of thing.

Randy Howe’s shop, Getzum Exposure, in Port Dover, Ontario, Canada. This appeared in the January/February 2011 issue of SignCraft.

This is one of my favorites. The customer wanted the logo redone, and those Os got me thinking about eggs right away. The eggs took care of the negative space inside the letters. I tucked Van Loon down on top and Limited under the S.

Here’s a simple makeover that I completed recently. The female/dress graphic was the only thing from the old design that had to be incorporated into the new one. I started messing around with fonts and found the one you see for Quick Needle. The two words fit together perfectly. After that, the rest of the layout fell easily into place.

I did this for a loyal and very budget conscious customer. She said she wanted some balloons and left the rest up to me. I quickly found an appropriate typestyle and a nice piece of clipart, then started putting it together. With the obvious emphasis belonging on Party, then the words The and Shop fit nicely into place to form a tight, readable unit. The job took less than two hours from start to finish, including sales and print time.

These are each a nice little unit. The design holds the message together and makes you want to read it as a unit. Sometimes the lettering on a sign can seem to be flying apart in all directions. What a shame—the poor reader has to work too hard to put the pieces all together. Most readers won’t take the time to do that.

This is a textbook Mike Stevens “Natural Layout” at work. If you don’t already have Mastering Layout: The Art of Eye Appeal—get it!

Another quickie here—loose, bouncy fonts like this are easy to work with.

This design was one of the first ones I created for production on the digital printer. “With great power comes great responsibility…” Don’t overdo it with the special effects!

Here’s the text as entered…

… and after a little tweaking

There you go—toybox graphics for my nephew Mason. It’s 13 letters, interlocked almost like a jigsaw puzzle, stretched a bit and spaced by the eye. It’s fun to look at and easy to read.

Here’s another small job that demonstrates how I try to pull all of the elements of the design together while prioritizing copy and leading the reader easily through the message. The original sign (left) didn’t prioritize what they were selling.

This was a logo update for a prospective client. I had an idea right away: I wanted it to look really current and professional. Two initials are a common logo challenge. It’s hard to make that work, but a lot of folks want that as their logo. In the end, nothing came of this design, which happens a lot in the design business. It’s too bad, because I felt it would have really brought their image up to date.

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