The fine art of sensible sign design

By Bob Behounek

Posted on Sunday, November 5th, 2023

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Wherever life takes me, I find limitations, rules and just about every regulation under the sun. I’ve always hated living in the box and never being able to explore outside its borders.

When I started painting signs, there were all sorts of sign makers using all sorts of variations in their work. As an aspiring sign artist, I knew I needed to try to emulate these pieces. Never did I think there was a need to actually think through how these designs needed to be read, that they had to be completed within certain time limitations, or that some even needed to be plain, if you will. Not ever.

Remember the complexity of the album covers of the 1960s? These inspirations found their way into the sign industry. The music posters from the Fillmore East in San Francisco set a design trend. I remember someone asking me to paint a racecar with a look similar to the latest Santana album cover. There were many outlines, muted colors and adjoining letters. All this was colorful and fun to try to read.

Into the real world of signs

The first job I landed in a sign shop dropped me squarely into the real world of sign design. I will never forget driving to work for the first time and observing the many storefronts and billboards on Chicago’s south side. As I tried to take in as much as I could without slamming into the car in front of me, I realized these signs were so easy to understand, and the colors used on them were completely the opposite of the album covers that intrigued me.

Weeks went by and each to and from work in the congested traffic became a joyride. The thousands of high-quality commercial signs were produced in very similar circumstances. In a real sign shop, sign people were forced to simplify their layouts due to the realities of sign production. It amazed me how every sign could be read so easily and understood without clutter and glitz. Can you believe signs that actually worked like they were intended to?

As I continued to work at my new job, there were many similarities between the signs I saw and the signs we were producing. This was heaven on earth! The next few years took me down many sign-related roads. The interesting and complicated album designs disappeared from the sign world.

After paying close attention to the pricing structure of the time, I realized there was a definite money-to-time element at hand. The fellow I worked for was always asking us how long we thought it would take to do a job so it could be priced accordingly.

Keep in mind there was a major sign contest going on at all times—sign guys (and gals) trying to outdo one another. Yes, the competition was fierce. Not only were design, color and creativity knocking heads, but cost became a major factor, too. Many sign painters found ways to create a killer sign with the most efficient use of color and design, and complete it in a relatively short time. No step was wasted or second-guessed. I’m sure that design and color selection were the foundation to this effective approach.

The art of sensible sign painting

Chicago’s ever-inspiring Bob Seelander was a master of this type of work. In the very first issue of SignCraft he described crisp layouts and clean lettering as “sensible sign painting.” Mr. Seelander, along with many others of his time, was the master of a simplicity that produced more effective signs. Machinery was not a factor, and the craftsmen all worked very hard to master this art form.

As we look at the options that we work with today, there are a multitude of bells and whistles available to insert with just a few clicks on every sign we create. These embellishments can be dropped into any situation, creating an over-engineered fiasco. Just like the sign people before us, we need to know when to stop, pull back and only do what’s ultimately necessary!

Here’s a good option that could be a part of every sign design program: a “design governor” or tachometer that would redline when the design is going overboard. I know it was easier when it was all done by hand. But time is money; money is time.

I had the opportunity of working in another part of the country for six years. It opened my eyes to a sign clientele that was not used to getting quality, bold sign design. Most signage there was done quickly and was extremely functional. Bringing “Chicago’s sensible sign painting” theory with me, I found out that I would have to push the meter way past its limits. Wages and the cost of signs there were a lot less than where I came from. I faced a challenge to create signs with even more simplicity and function than ever before.

Folks, let me tell you that this was the best task I have ever had to tackle. I was forced to think out every move I made. There was no wasted time. The colors had to have high contrasts. Outlines were seldom used. The design had to look good and work.

Mr. Seelander and his buddies would have loved this atmosphere. Sign people working in these situations can only benefit from the opportunity to create effective, bold signs in the limited time available—keeping management, clients and sign designers happy, while everyone made a profit.

The commercial design business has always had many challenges. This is one that’s been continuing throughout the last 60 years or more. Many sign people before us laid down high expectations and gave great examples to follow.

Sometimes I envy those who work in the sign business and have unlimited time to create whatever they are led to do. A lot of us work better in those conditions and that’s great. My experience tells me, though, that this is the exception rather than the rule.

Simplicity in action

As you scan over the following projects, there are a few common goals to keep in mind:

■ Maximize the color contrast for the information that is paramount, using subtle contrasts for secondary messages.

■ Utilize panels—geometric shapes to encompass individual thoughts.

■ Keep the design simple and relatively easy to produce, while looking good and conveying the message appropriately.

At the shop the other day, a few of us were talking about how we perform best under pressure. I would have to say that most of the time we make the best decisions with the amount of knowledge we possess when we need to get things done quickly. Think about your own work and see if that holds true. It’s a thought to consider.

Joe’s Auto uses bold color contrasts and tells us who is doing what. The warm colors denote the service that comes to the forefront, and the cool blue panel with the sharp contrast to the white copy retreats to the background, equalizing the two elements. The white secondary copy is subtle, but the high-contrast outline allows it to be read last.

The Simpson Well & Pump design was created to work first in black and white. However, with no outlines or shades, the two colors are a high contrast on the red. A blended light blue to white gives the impression of water rising.

Terry’s Peotone needed to deliver a strong advertisement for three items. The two logos and crisp readable copy on white and the reverse, warm color band tells what the two logos are doing.

Neon Materials Co. uses the crisp, clear existing logo within the perforated vinyl material and is painted in a less contrasting color so as not to compete with the other information.

Apple Chevrolet is a crisp mixture of shapes and color contrasts, isolating the messages through color and type usage.

Herman’s Auto was done in a high-contrast color scheme with contrasting typefaces. The neutral black outline encompasses the yellow and helps readability while linking the script to the cigar-shaped panel below.

And just for fun, I thought you’d like to see this newspaper ad from the 1940s for the legendary Chicago sign company of Seelander & Swanson!

This appeared in the January/February 2005 issue of SignCraft.

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