Design with visual competition in mind

By Bob Behounek

Posted on Friday, June 23rd, 2023

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The miles on my trusty old pickup truck have piled up over the years, faster than foreclosures in today’s economy. My daily travels find me constantly looking at the local advertisements on store fascias, billboards and an endless number of vehicles that crisscross the city.

Yes, I’m a lifelong sign guy, looking for any positive attempt to grab my attention and make me read what was printed or painted on signage. In so many cases, today’s signs fall short of what is really needed—not only to grab my attention, but also the attention of everyone else. I often find it difficult to locate a business, or understand what they do, from their signs.

I was having a conversation with a graphic arts student recently about how billboards are designed at a certain firm. The amount of text, the layout and choice of images all seem to be done in the design studio at very close range—without surveying where the billboard is located.

Do a site survey

A site survey is important. It tells you how far the sign is from the viewer, what the speed limit is, and what other signs in the immediate area are competing for a viewer’s attention.

I’m afraid many of us have forgotten to research all these important aspects before we start to design a workable solution to our clients’ sign needs. Common sense is critical for this. We can solve most of these problems just by placing ourselves in the shoes of our clients’ customers.

By visiting the site of the sign, we begin to understand how much information we can convey in the amount of time that a casual onlooker has. Remember, we’re likely to have just a few seconds of his or her viewing time to get them interested enough to read the message.

Maximizing the value of signage

A seasoned veteran sign maker mentioned to me once that television somewhat snuffed out the need for billboards during the 1960s. It may be happening to signs and other advertising now with the increased use of the internet and how people shop.

With that said, signage has to compete harder as a marketing tool each passing day. Our responsibility and basic purpose is to create signage that is not only functional but also commands attention.

So many times, clients want to make the design and color choices themselves. While they certainly have that right, there are many factors that must be addressed before making those decisions.

Start with a site survey

If the project’s budget allows for a site survey, this is the most important step to creating signage that will be the best value for your client. You can assess the visibility of the sign and determine how much reading time the viewer will have from the average viewing distance. You will also be able to design a sign that will harmonize with its surroundings and yet have contrast enough to have its own identity.

Here are a few pointers to consider when you arrive at the client’s business or site of the proposed signage:

■ Consider the type of street setting where the proposed sign will be placed.

■ Observe the colors and shapes of neighboring signs that it will compete with, and the nearby and building facades.

■ Check the speed limit and congestion of the street or road to determine the amount of time readers will have to comprehend the message on the signage.

■ Observe the type of existing signs most of the nearby businesses have in place. Are they non-illuminated or illuminated? Does the business have day and evening hours? Don’t forget about the difference between summer and winter daylight.

■ Drive down the road in normal traffic and make a determination as to how many seconds you have to read one of the existing signs nearby. This will give you visual proof of what the customer needs, compared to what the customer wants, as you discuss and design this sign project.

■ Take photos of the building and observe architectural features and design cues. Certain subtle design features can be incorporated into new signage to complement the architecture of the building, whether the sign is attached or freestanding. This can help connect the sign to both the building and the business.

Okay. Now we have plenty of information compiled to start the design process. On the way back to the shop, I would recommend stopping at city hall or the village office to check the local sign criteria for any size and color restrictions, unless you’re already sure of them. Sign codes change, and the size and type of signs you observed on the site survey may no longer be allowed. This precautionary step could save you tons of time and money.

Effective design takes skill and knowledge

The time required to properly survey a site for new signage shouldn’t be free. Like anything else, it must be included in the total cost to produce a sign with integrity and visual impact.

Permanent signage requires special skills and attention. It’s not a business card or meat market window banner—or even a website—which can be easily revised or replaced. Signage should be taken seriously and should consider each of your client’s needs. A site survey can help you produce a sign with lasting value that complements and supports the client’s image.

Bob Behounek has spent over 40 years as a sign artist and pinstriper in the Chicago, Illinois, area. More of his articles can be found at by clicking on the Article Index tab.

This appeared in the March/April 2011 issue of SignCraft.

Often, customers overlook how their sign must compete on the streetscape.

The yellow baseball sign was done when I was much younger. Sometime down the road another business opened up next door and used similar colors. Can you see how it would be difficult to read both while passing by very quickly because of the similar colors? These signs are about 60 feet off the road that has a 35mph limit. I thought this would help show how readability suffers when two adjacent signs use the same basic color scheme.

Tore’s freestanding structure used some architectural cues and brickwork to link the sign to the building. This sign is another that is on a busy road with 40mph-plus traffic. It utilizes the same logo as is on the building in bold type with more difficult copy in the surrounding circle design.

Kole Digital’s fascia was a neutral color, and their “standard” logo colors would have a tough time delivering enough contrast to be read from this busy state highway where vehicles are zipping past at over 40mph.Without some stronger contrasting color outlines and a color bar to separate from the neutral background, it would be too weak.

Chesdan’s is almost 75 yards off a road with a 40mph speed limit. There is plenty of visual competition. We can allow ourselves about 2 to 3 seconds to turn our heads and see this sign. Other surrounding signage is primarily red. Being a pizza establishment I had to use red, but the green left and right color bars separate this design from the rest. It gives the red Chesdan’s a contrasting base.

The Homer Glen sign found us in front of a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired building. Taking a few of Frank’s design cues and his simplified type helped to announce the establishment in a way that harmonized with the building.

The Complete Collision sign was going on a dark wall with very little visual competition anywhere in sight. Illumination was paramount here! Bright yellow was chosen for the massive script to contrast with the panel below it. I used white sans serif type there for easy readability.


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