Avoiding Bad Signs

14 janvier 2014

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A few months ago my colleague Al posted the stick drawing above to our Facebook page. Not only did it make me chuckle, it made me think. At Albion we print so many signs that over the years we've seen some sign designs that while well intentioned were ultimately ineffective. While I hate to criticize anyone, I do want to remind anyone thinking of designing a sign to remember a few simple rules.

#1. In the case of signs, less is definitely more

A sign alone won't convince someone that they need to buy or do something. A sign is a sales tool, not a marketing tool. The sole purpose of a sign is to let your customer or potential customer know that something exists, and to give them a really easy to remember way to act to respond. If you want to test the effectiveness of your message, here's an easy way. Just put your sign at the far end of a room where there's a light switch by the door. Pick an unsuspecting test subject and tell them you want them to head into the room and tell them what the sign says. The moment they enter the room count 3 seconds and turn the lights off. Whatever they can relate about the sign after seeing it for 3 seconds is all anyone will ever see. Typically this is 6-10 words and maybe some contact information.

#2. Use all the colours you would probably never decorate your home with

In Canada we have 3 major political parties. Their core colours are red, blue and orange. Trust me these parties don't have any affinity to their respective colours, they chose them because they STAND OUT on a sign. But every year we are asked to print signs that use a nice soft pastel pallette of colours that look may look great on a computer screen. Of course we rarely re-print these signs because the people who ordered them discovered the hard way that muted colours are simply not as effective on signs.

#3. I shot the Serif

Okay, so I'm writing this in January, in Canada and I might be thinking about Jamaica a little too much. There's a web site (www.brandsoftheworld.com) where you can find logos of all the most famous brand names and hundreds of the not so famous. A few year back they had a section devoted to the most popular logos and wordmarks and the almost complete absence of serif fonts for lettering was astounding. It's so rare to see someone use a stylized font for a commercial brand logo because although they can make a paragraph of text look beautiful, they always increase the risk of making the message unclear.

Our brain naturally re-reads words and letters on a page when we may have misinterpreted them. It will even trick us into thinking a mispelled word isnt' actually mispelled, but on a sign that we aren't specifically focused on reading, a misunderstood character or word often erases the entire message and our eyes simply scan for something else to absorb. I have an alarm on my car and it doesn't make my car any harder to steal, it just makes the next car over an easier target. When designing a sign you don't want someone else's message to be the "easier" target. In a nutshell, embrace sans serif fonts for your signs!

#4. A picture isn't always worth a thousand words

We live in the era of abundant full colour graphics. It seems everywhere you look there are cars wrapped in full colour images and photorealistic reproductions adorning every surface imaginable. But, in the case of signs, a picture is seldom as effective as a few well chosen words. For instance when you're looking for a mortgage, pictures of houses or piles of money won't grab your attention nearly as quickly as the words "guaranteed lowest rate". Qualified buyers of anything usually have those words in the back of their minds anyway. When they see them, they can quickly grasp the message and that can often lead to an inquiry and, eventually, a sale. I'm not advocating plain text on a white background for every occasion, but make sure the graphics you choose don't get in the way of your core message.

Next time you're designing a sign, please consider these simple rules before you decide to (ahem) sign off.