Jul 2, 2019

The retail marketplace is where the economy’s rubber meets the road. It’s always been so, since the dawn of human life on earth. Trading is what people do. Exchanging one thing for another, and so improving their conditions. Commercial signage is as old as markets themselves. The ancients in Egypt, Greece, and Rome were all very familiar with it. How else could a merchant attract the attention of customers? Retail signage tells the world who a merchant is and what he’s got for sale.


Those ancient societies were literate, but only at the top. The vast majorities of ancient societies could not read. Commercial signage, therefore, relied heavily on what today we’d call logos. Graphic images that announced the identity of the merchant and what he had for sale.  Today, retailers rely heavily on signage to send the same basic messages.  And now that everyone can read, signs can also communicate more subtle and complex information. With language, graphics, and imagination, effective retail signage meets the three basic criteria of Specificity, Simplicity, and Brevity.  The message, in turn, culminates in a Call To Action.


Specificity in retail signage reflects the basic nature of the retail business. It takes place at specific locations, at certain times. A merchant has a specific identity. A merchant’s aim is to concentrate buyers interested in his wares at his place during business hours. Hence, a merchant’s signage, whether on-premises or far from it, must communicate these things.

The “five-second rule” may or may not be a good policy for edibles dropped on floors.  It is, however, a very good rule to apply to commercial signage. Keep It Simple. A sign that looks like it’ll take longer than five seconds to read is likely to be partly or totally ignored. A businesslike business sign says all it needs to in less time than that.

Brevity is, of course, a close cousin of Simplicity. The writers of newspaper headlines ( and of telegrams in the old days) know that certain words can be left out of the text. The message becomes even more clear. For example, “dog bites man” is a shorter, harder-hitting version of “ a dog bit a man”. Speaking of headlines, the newspaper format works well for retail signage. Headlines with text details.


All leading up to the moneymaker. The Call To Action.  In a competitive marketplace, a successful retailer never relies on prospective customers to draw their own conclusions. Rather, his or her signage tells prospects and customers what to do with the information imparted by the signs. Where to go, who to see, how to transact a purchase. Signage, we remind ourselves, is a system of signs. It’s the system in total that gets the job done.

Experienced retailers and marketers know all this, of course. But so do the designers and craftsmen who supply the retail trades with their essential signage. The retailer and the signmaker go way back. All signs point to this partnership extending far into the future, too.

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