May 13, 2019

Typography, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “The style and appearance of printed matter.” In particular, states Wikipedia, “… the art and technique of arranging type to make written language legiblereadable, and appealing when displayed.” It follows, of course, that typography is a prime concern in signage design. We’re in the business of making signs that are legible, readable, and appealing when displayed. Hence, we’ve developed a set of principles that guide our signage design. We always pick the right type for every project.


The first typography decision a sign designer makes is typeface. This decision, and thus all the rest, is based on several factors. Demographics – who is the sign directed to? Kids? Adults? Foreign tourists? What’s the goal of the sign? What distance will people read the sign from? How much time will they have to read it? Finally, what will the lighting be like?   A basic principle, therefore, guides the typeface decision. Einstein said that “everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Signage typeface, then,  should be the simplest style that provides the intended aesthetic values. Thus, it serves the readability goals without “cheapening” the message.  In our experience, this points to what we call text typefaces, rather than display typefaces.  Text faces have more assertive, less delicate features. They’re easier to read at longer distances, or when the reader’s in motion.   We’ve learned from long experience, too, that signage should not use more than two fonts. One for the primary message, the other for secondary information. One to make the sign’s offer, the other to deliver the goods.  


Having chosen the right typefaces, the sign designer’s next task is to address presentation. Many people don’t realize it, but the spacing between letters matters. We call this tracking. As a given typeface gets bigger, it can take on the appearance of being too “open”. The spaces between letters get proportionally larger and start to look like the spaces between words. Bad for readability. We fix this by kerning, that is, manually tweaking the spaces between letters.   Finally, our designer makes certain that the colors of text and background provide adequate contrast for readability. The expected lighting conditions, of course, factor in. We keep lettering off of background images. The Einstein simplicity principle works for special effects, too. We use outlines, glows, and shadows just enough for aesthetic values, and no more than that.   It’s tempting to close by saying there’s more to signage typography than meets the eye.        
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