Five ways to make your signage hit the mark

July 9, 2017

From conveying information to aiding navigation. From supporting accessibility to creating visual awareness. And don’t forget promoting brand identity and driving sales.

Yes, those might seem disparate goals but one well-designed sign can accomplish them all. From wayfinding to point-of-sale incentives, signage has a fundamental role to play within the visual communications landscape in every industry.

Signage is everywhere, from the brand name on your bathroom tap to the exit sign at the airport. If the average city dweller is reckoned to see 5,000 marketing messages per day (as research suggests), I would estimate that they see almost as many or perhaps more signs – many of which, of course, are marketing messages. On the roads, in shopping malls, airports, bus stations, hospitals, car parks, offices and schools, in every location where people have to find their way around, buy things, follow instructions etc, signage plays a crucial role and is extremely powerful.

It’s crucial but often inconspicuous.

Of those 5,000 marketing messages, less than 1% are thought to penetrate into our conscious awareness, due to the brain’s ability to protect itself against information overload by blocking out anything extraneous or indecipherable.

How then can you make sure that your signage is not blocked out?

Viewer first – five ways to make your signage work

Here are five tips for making your signage do the job it is intended to do.

1. Keep it simple: This principle should govern all signage, whether it’s for wayfinding, brand awareness or sales. Imagine if you had to sift through 5,000 messages to find the 50 or so that can benefit you; anything hard to read would go straight in the bin. Your brain applies the same filtering process. Make its task too difficult and it will quickly move on.

Think about the amount of time the reader will have to take in your sign and simplify it accordingly. If they’re flying down the freeway at 120km/h, three words will be about the limit of their comprehension. If they’re captive in a waiting room, you might be able to get away with a bit more detail.

Think about the amount of time the reader will have to take in your sign and simplify it accordingly.

Similarly, at point-of-sale you will have the opportunity to put across slightly more informative content but don’t overdo it. According to research by Microsoft, you have about eight seconds in which to get your message across, so hold off on the complex narratives. Simplicity compels action; confusion does not.

For branding, choose one clear message and keep it as simple as possible. Don’t ask your audience to add you on Facebook, upload a product photo to Instagram and travel to your store or you risk them doing nothing. Instead, compress all your persuasive power into one simple call to action.

Choose your words carefully too. Use language that is easy to understand and consider possibilities for mishearing or misreading. Think too about cultural nuance. If you’re crossing borders, be aware of local perception or you might end up offending your audience.

2. Take care with typefaces: There are hundreds of fancy typefaces out there. Resist the temptation to use them. Remember the first principle: keep it simple. A flamboyant script font might look lovely on your laptop but when it comes to signage you might as well replace it with meaningless scribble. The human brain will not make the effort to untangle a flowery font picked up in its peripheral vision.

It’s not just script fonts that cause confusion. Serif fonts like Times and Baskerville, while appropriate for conveying the values of an old-school brand, can be hard to read at a distance. For wayfaring signs especially, choose regular sans-serif fonts like Franklin Gothic and Helvetica. They may be ubiquitous but there’s a good reason for that. Best practices suggest that sans-serif fonts with large, thick stems are easiest to read. To that end, you should also avoid extra bold, italic, condensed or lightweight versions.

Best practices suggest that sans-serif fonts with large, thick stems are easiest to read.

Another common mistake is mixing multiple fonts. The intention is to distinguish between different messages; the result is an ugly mish-mash and an instant turn-off. And don’t be misled into thinking that using all upper case lettering will increase the impact of your signage. Block capitals actually reduce the ease with which the brain recognises letter shapes, thus slowing down the interpretation of the message and reducing its impact. Capitalise the first letter only.

The size of the text is crucial too. Even with a plain sans-serif font, if your message is so long that it only has room to fit in letters one inch high, it’s not going to get read. So think about the positioning of your signage and from that work out how big the lettering needs to be in order to be easily read from your audience standpoint. This will dictate how short your message needs to be – or how big your sign.

3. Use colour wisely: Colour plays three crucial roles in the effectiveness of signage: it can be used to grab attention (think yellow and black traffic signs as opposed to a pastel blue shop sign); it affects the instant legibility of the sign (compare the two-colour road signs to a multi-coloured event poster); and it reinforces the message (red spells danger, purple says luxury).

The first hurdle is getting your signage noticed. White or yellow backgrounds contrast well with many outdoor elements, like the blue of the sky or green of the grass. This can help your signage grab attention. Do note, though, that if you’re using multiple signs in close proximity, it’s important to keep colours and design consistent or you’ll create a busy, chaotic field of vision. As urban designer Mark Sheppard states in his book Essentials of Urban Design, ‘There is a fine line between visual richness and visual clutter. Successful signage walks this line.’

Extensive research has been carried out into the impact of colour on our senses and emotions. In her book Colour Psychology Today, colour specialist June McLeod points out that ‘purchasing choices are made within seconds, driven by colour alone’.

Colour contrast is especially important. If your text colour merges with your background, your signs will be difficult to read. Black contrasts well with any light background and white with any dark, but white text on a dark background is harder to read than the other way round. Avoid any colour pairings where the human eye can struggle to differentiate them.

4. Position it thoughtfully: When it comes to placement, best practice depends on the purpose of your signage, but the important principle is the same: align placement to your intended audience. Who do you need to see it? Where are they coming from? What angle will they be looking from? Poor sightlines are a very common issue with signage: if people can’t see it, it won’t drive action.

For example, wayfinding signage outside a train station should be placed so pedestrians walking from the exit can easily see it. If you don’t make that instantly clear, you’re creating a stressful, ineffective situation. The consequences of poorly placed signage can even be dangerous, drawing motorists’ attention away from the road, for example.

The consequences of poorly placed signage can even be dangerous, drawing motorists’ attention away from the road, for example.

Placement is also important from a branding perspective. Don’t get caught up in vanity metrics like footfall but instead look at factors such as audience demographic. You don’t want just anyone to engage with your signage, you want the right people.

5. Use images carefully: A picture is worth a thousand words and well-designed imagery can certainly be a very effective way of getting your message across, whether it’s a symbol, a map, an illustration or a photograph. Think about the signs on public toilets: no words required there. But imagery can also clutter your signage and obscure the message, so it’s important to get expert help.

An experienced graphic design team can help you create the most effective sign design for your users, placement and objectives. They’ll consider layout, colouring, impact and brand positioning, as well as more technical details such as image resolution when it comes to printing.

If you’re not sure what will work or look good, designers are always happy to explain how and why effective design works, and should have their own clear recommendations for you to follow. On the whole, you’ll find that good graphic designers love creating signage that encompasses great design, not just because their name is on it, but because they take satisfaction from design that works.

Audience first: the formula for signage success

The golden rule for any signage is ‘think about the audience’. Effective signage is all about the user experience. Whether they are looking at wayfinding signs that aim to inform, or promotional signs that aim to persuade, your signage will only do the job if it creates a positive user experience. That means signage that is visible, legible, understandable and actionable at the very least.

Follow these five tips and your signage will meet the requirements every time.