Jul 12, 2019

Does color matter to signage design? Most people have definite color preferences when it comes to clothing, cars, wall paint, and other everyday items. In some cases, however, color is surely not the prime or even an important consideration. Henry Ford knew this when he rolled out the pioneering Model T. He reckoned Americans would want to own a car so much they wouldn’t care what color it is. Thus, he kept the price down by tooling up for one color only. “You can have my Model T in any color you want”, he announced. “As long as it’s black”. But what about signs? Does signage color matter? That depends.


It depends, for one thing, on a sign’s purpose or purposes. Communication, of course, is the common purpose of all signage. That’s a very wide field, though. Wayfinding signage, for example, is by nature primarily functional. Utilitarian. It exists to guide human beings from Here to There. Thus, color choices for background, text, and graphics are guided by criteria like visibility, simplicity, and accuracy. The design and installation need to make a wayfaring sign work. For it to work, the people it serves have to see it and understand its message in a timely manner. The science behind color, visibility, and readability is fairly well understood. But even in cases like wayfinding and safety warning, is utility ever the only consideration?


Color communicates. A sign’s text and graphics may carry a sign’s intended message, but we know that our brains respond to color as well as to words and forms. Not as much as we could and should know, though. The science of color psychology  hasn’t achieved as much as you might think. There’s a core of practical knowledge about color and emotion, for example, but little deep understanding of it.

In any case, signage is a fairly practical matter. Thus, government agencies establish color specifications for various types of signage in the public domain. Traffic signs are perhaps the best example. There are charts and manuals governing the colors for background, text, and graphics, for each sign type. These specifications are very detailed. Yellow, for example, is for the background of warning signs, except temporary warning signs. But not just any shade of yellow. No, the precise shade of yellow is  #FFFF00  in the hexadecimal color chart. That’s why traffic signs look the same all over the United States. The reasoning behind our familiar traffic sign color standards must be sound, too. There are quite a few traffic sign color standards that are nearly world-wide. What works, works.


And there’s much more to the art and science of signage color than just grabbing attention and securing compliance. Those certainly are critical properties of traffic signage. But signage color can also express softer things. Elegance, warmth, welcoming, and value, for example. While federal and state regulation cover a lot of public signage, localities have some freedom to design signage that expresses their personalities. The City of Weston, FL, a GraphPlex client, styles its public signage to this end very effectively. Our team of designers knows the ins and outs of signage color, and can put it to work for you, too.


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