Some ways to improve sign design
During numerous road trips, I notice symptoms that highway sign designers don't follow some basic design components: clear communication, rapid comprehension, proximity, and orientation.
Signs serve to inform, guide, and direct the reader. Primary sign readers are navigators (often drivers) who are lost, confused, or new to an area and are seeking guidance and information. Secondary target audiences are people giving directions to others and educating them for later reference.
Road signs first appeared in ancient Rome as stone markers with chiseled numbers that showed the distances to various cities in the empire. A few years after Henry Ford sold the first Model T, signs were nailed up on fences, posts, and walls to denote a location or show direction. There was no effort towards uniformity, consistency, efficient readability, or user-convenience. In the 1920s, signs became a bit more uniform, with cities and states dictating basic standards of layout and typography. As the popularity and accessibility of long-distance travel increased, so did the need for coherent nationwide standards.
Rapid and easy comprehension
This is probly the most important objective of effective sign design. The viewer is often in a car, in a situation where he/she must be able to focus on the act of driving - checking the road, other cars, weather, etc. To gain information from a sign, that sign must be absolutely clear. With info that is easily noticed (highly visible, legible, and easily recognized) and clearly communicated (easy and quick to comprehend).
Ways to improve sign design
• Layout improvements
Alignment of information
Rest Area directional signs
Placement of arrows
• Text improvements
Case: All caps or U&lc
Kerning: Tighter letterspacing
Amount of sign text copy
• Arrow improvements
• Sign mounting
Orientation: face the viewer
Alignment of information
Notice the large gap between the bits of information that relate to each other. The exit name and the distance should form a single bit of info for the driver. But the gap prevents the brain from immediately associating the two.
There is no advantage to setting text on the signs with justified margins (with the exit names aligned on the left and the mileage aligned on the right). We are not reading a block of copy like prose, we are reading only one line of info. We have become accustomed to scanning a sign to focus on just the info we need. The typography, layout, and composition on the existing signs discourage efficient comprehension. The letter spacing, word spacing, and alignment require more time to scan, read, and comprehend the info. And - very important - this is while one is driving, when one's attention should be on the road and other cars.
Lesson: The design component of Proximity encourages like-minded bits of info to be near each other.
Better layout: margins of proximity
In the example below on the right, the exit ramp distances are aligned to the immediate left of the exit names. One sees the number right next to the name - no having to move along a horizontal line.
In some of the examples, the sign designer added a horizontal line between bands of info, presumably to improve comprehension.
Lesson: When you have to add an element to improve communication, there is something weak about the original design. Solve what caused the problem, don't add crap to compensate.
The value of proximity
We don't read letter by letter or even word by word, we read groups of words as a single unit. The retina receptors take a photo, send that info to the brain for processing, then jump to the next group of words.
The existing signs require at least 2 photos per line since the gap between words is so large. (Some of the layouts look like cruel jokes played on innocent drivers.)
With the mileage to the left and next to the exit name, the viewer's brain can snap one picture of all the needed info. The proposed format allows more clarity, easier reading, and, often, a smaller sign. Most importantly, this format allows the driver to spend less time comprehending the info and more time on the cars and highway. This will create a safer driving environment.
Rest area directional signs
As I drive across country (or just on the local turnpike), I sometimes stop at a rest area. As the exit ramp approaches the rest area, there is a split - trucks one way - for longer parking slots - and cars another way. At this Y split, there is a sign guiding the driver who must make a decision in a second or two. There are several factors influencing the driver's attention: he/she is navigating the exit ramp, wondering which way to go, there is often music playing, and there are sometimes anxious passengers in the mix. The sign must be so clear that a driver can comprehend it and make a decision almost immediately. Most existing rest area signs are poorly designed.
1. Car drivers unfamiliar with rest area.
2. Car drivers familiar with rest area.
3. Truck drivers unfamiliar with area.
4. Truck drivers familiar with rest area.
Examples of existing signs
• Proximity of the arrows to their accompanying icons. In the sign above on the right, the truck icon is closer to the left arrow than to the right arrow (and the truck is even facing left)
• Horizontal layouts that provide little visual clue on which side of the sign to drive. The driver wants to know left or right and the sign is divided top and bottom or above and below.
• Arrows that convey turn left or turn right rather than just angle to one side of the sign or the other.
• Poor contrast of text and background and sign background to environment.
• Image icons, arrows, and text are aligned in proximity to reinforce the message.
• The vehicles are facing the direction of their arrow.
• Layout places the info side by side - left/right - to suggest going left or right.
• Different size backgrounds provide a visual clue, larger vehicles (trucks) get larger background.
• Arrows point in a truer direction, rather than turn left or right, softer turn to parking area.
• Icons, arrows, and text are set flush to the directional margin, the left sign info is set flush left.
• The background color is the standard highway information color.
Development: July 2007
Placement of arrows on signs
Another area where the design component of proximity is important is on wayfinding signs that contain a name and an arrow showing direction.
The sign above is northeast of Dallas. The TXDoT apparently follows a guideline that destinations and their arrows be placed within a band and are set flush to the outer margins of the signboard. But, when the city names are short, as in Lucas and Wylie, it lays out in a confusing format. Wylie is actually to the right and Lucas is straight ahead. Didn't you assume that Wylie was straight ahead? And wouldn't almost all viewers of the sign think the same? Not only is this sign weak, it is detrimental in that it sends drivers down the wrong road.
The photo below on the left shows that someone had placed strips of duct tape on the sign to connect the arrows to their towns.
Observation: When a citizen alters a sign to make it better, it was a poor design to begin with.
In the middle example above, I moved the town names closer to their arrows, keeping to the guideline of horizontal bands. On the right is a format in which both town names are in one band with their arrows above.
The Union Square 14th Street subway station is a busy one with 7 lines converging and crossing. In the station, I noticed this sign in the tiled wall (above left and enlargement below).
Lesson: As in most arrows, the primary element for communicating direction is the arrowhead, not the stem or the tail. It is the angles of the arrowhead that convey movement.
Below, I deleted the tail. The tail does not aid the comprehension of the meaning of the sign. Therefore, it must go. Seeya.
One sees arrow pulling the eye visually from the street name to the direction of movement. Also shown in the example at the top right - notice which version is easier to understand.
An example in an academic building. The user approaches this recess in the hallway and needs to make a decision on which way to turn. The layout below is easier and quicker to comprehend.
Side-by-side comparisons. Even better: the Men and Women Restroom symbols.
A better way to show wayfinding direction
Most signs have multiple bits of info: object name, direction, eligibility, rules, etc. From a distance (as in a car), some signs can be overwhelming and too busy. Different methods are used to help organize information - bands, symbols, consistent fonts and point sizes, and arrows. An arrow denotes direction. Almost all of the directional information comes from the arrowhead, rather than the stem. The stem can help with orientation, but, in many cases, is not even necessary.
Color coding for left, right, and straight on directional signs
Idea: To improve the long-distance recognition of an arrow, the arrow can be color coded to enhance meaning, improve comprehension, and shorten the processing time.
These colors make sense. Red states/blue states: conservative red leans to the right and blue to the left. Green means go, closely connected to straight ahead. Their meanings are already familiar. Transferring the symbolism to directional arrows would require little, if any, education and learning period. Repeated and consistent usage would increase the exposure and subliminal education.
• The viewer can see direction at a glance.
• Colors have some familiar meaning, making them easier to learn and understand.
• They are easy to remember.
• Quicker to comprehend.
• Primary colors are universal.
Colored background. Colored arrow. Colored arrow and colored text
Of course, the layout should be arranged to place the arrows on the left with the place names following, as in the middle example above.
In this example, the color coding of the attractions is not necessary - the user doesn't have enough repeated exposure or time to learn and remember the color coding (and white on yellow is tough to see). The user is more likely to recognize the words and word shapes 'Convention Center' than the color blue. In the revised example on the right, the background color should be changed to enhance the contrast of the arrows.
Confusing wayfinding sign
In the 2014-remodeled Cooper Hewitt Design Museum, this is the hallway approach from the museum to the Cafe, Garden, Restrooms, and elevator. Currently, the symbol for Up (an up arrow) is the same as the symbol for Straight Ahead (an up arrow). So, here, while the garden and restrooms are down the stairs to the right, the Up arrow for Straight Ahead suggests that one should go to the left and use the elevator to go up. Unfortunately, this faux pas (among several others in the new museum) is in America's national museum dedicated to design - this museum should be at the forefront of clear wayfinding communication.
The solution is simple: In this case, since straight ahead requires the user to go down, use a down arrow:
Aligning the text to the side it refers to also provides cues for wayfinding. Henry Dreyfuss, the great Industrial Designer, stated, in this very museum, that good design should be obvious and intuitive.
Above & below: Nice exterior sign at the Cooper Hewitt garden entrance.
Thoughtful placement of a door sign
Kudos to whoever mounted these restroom signs. He/she considered the user's line of sight, especially as they walked down this hall seeking the restroom. Instead of placing the 'Men' placard in the middle of the door (as is normally done), here they moved it to the left which allows it to be seen while one approaches the door, rather than waiting until one is upon the door.
A better way to respect the desperate customer
I was on my way to the restroom at some C-store on I-70 between Illinois and West Virginia. There was this great Restrooms sign over the hallway - it was easily visible from the front door. Nice job! I headed down the hall, but didn't know where the Men's room was until almost in front of the doors. So much clearer and easier to navigate if there had been signs posted on that back wall. So simple and so effective. More on Sign Design.
Case: All caps or Upper & lower
The outline shape of the letters helps the viewer comprehend the word. Time is important when a driver should be attentive to traffic and road conditions. Setting text in upper & lower case provides unique shapes that words set in all upper case do not:
More info about bouma.
Kerning: Tighter letterspacing
Text set with tighter than normal kerning can help improve readability and shorten the comprehension time.
Amount of sign text copy
It is crucial that the reader get the message in as short amount of time as possible. If one is looking for Mockingbird Lane and they see 'Mockingbird' on the sign, that is enough to confirm that that is the desired exit. All the viewer needs is confirmation.
Guideline: Time required for comprehension can influence safety while driving.
The official name of the highway may be "President George Bush Turnpike", but the driver is just looking for the exit to the turnpike or to the Bush turnpike. The official title is irrelevant (and potentially dangerous) at that time. And, notice how big the above sign has to be - wasting materials, money, and electricity.
No need for the NE, those looking for NW 122nd won't likely be on this highway. People are just looking for 122nd Street. The less info on the sign to digest, the quicker the comprehension.
To be consistent, the N should not have a period after it since the St and Rd do not have periods.
A parking sign simplified so more people can understand it
Of all the communication tools our cities use, parking signs are often among the most confusing. There are arrows pointing every which way, ambiguous meter and permit instructions. It's easy to imagine that beyond basic tests for legibility, most of these signs have never been vetted by actual drivers. Nikki Sylianteng was sick of getting tickets when she lived, drove, and parked in LA. The Brooklyn-based designer realized that with just a little more focus on communication design, parking signs could be useful and more easily understood.
The downfall of most parking signs is that they have limited area to communicate multiple conditions and restrictions. Instead of using a text-based design, Sylianteng translated all of the information into a visual explanation that answered two main questions:
1. Can I park here?
2. And for how long?
"I just visualized what I construct in my head when I'm reading the sign," she says. Her latest design features a parking schedule that shows a whole 24 hours for every day of the week. The times you can park are marked by blocks of green, the times you can't are blocked in a candy-striped red and white. But Sylianteng says there's really no need for the extraneous detailed information we've become accustomed to. "I've never looked at a sign and felt like there was any value in knowing why I couldn't park. These designs don't say why, but the 'what' is very clear."
Sylianteng is considering some improvements:
• Colorblindness - the red and green are part of the legacy design from current signs, but she might change the colors to a more universal blue.
• Incorporate more parking rules without reverting back to the information overload she was trying to avoid in the first place.
Jim Watson added the version on the far right above, removing unused space - less visually obtrusive and requiring less metal and, therefore, cheaper to produce.
Sylianteng has been going around Manhattan and Brooklyn hanging up the revamped parking signs. "A friend of mine called it functional graffiti," she says. She'll stick a laminated version right below the city-approved version and ask drivers to leave comments. So far, she's gotten pretty good feedback. "The is awesome. The mayor should hire you."
A blogger from Singapore was inspired by Nikki's work and proposed another version:
Pesky shapes that don't belong
Notice how those triangles of black along the bottoms of the letters are a bit annoying? Or they should be. Designers can now easily improve the clarity of the typography - there is no longer a reason to ever say, "That's the way it came back from the typesetter." (That was a common excuse in the old days).
Setting type in outline fonts requires a bit of extra finesse - it is up to the designer to check for those pesky captured blobs and take care of them. Fill in the captured spaces or explore different point sizes for the fill and the stroke.
An example of a better sign that has an outline font
This is at an entrance to a hospital, often where frantic worried people are looking for help. Notice that the most important word on the sign below is the hardest to read. At least it's in red.
A better sign below right and some of the issues that have been addressed:
• Set the copy flush left for items that direct to the left and flush right for directing to the right.
• Moved arrows to the flush margin of each side. Now they visually help communicate direction.
• Removed the stems on the arrows (info is conveyed by the arrowhead, not the stem).
• Enlarged the arrows.
• Tightened the leading for locations that take up 2 lines to improve proximity and clarity.
• Enlarged point size and increased the kerning of the outline font.
More examples and suggestions at Sign Design.
Busy and clumsy signage at the Houston airport
Most airports are improving the design of their signs. Not in Houston - the new signs are worse, a step backward in thoughtful wayfinding. A few observations:
1. Too many useless symbols: escalator? Who wanders an airport wondering where an escalator is? The user is seeking a destination, baggage, taxi, etc. An escalator is a conveyance to get one to a destination. The train symbol? Again, that is a conveyance. The train gets one to another terminal (A-E).
2. Plane symbol (?) and Gates on separate lines.
3. Inconsistent format - either use all text, all symbols, or symbols with text. Here it is all symbols with only one translated in text: Baggage Claim/Ground Transportation, which is also represented by recognizable and familiar symbols.
4. Condensed font. Inconsistently applied.
5. Caps/Small Caps.
6. Too many redundant arrows.
7. Blank panels have no value and add to the clutter.
Above: Existing. Below: Improvements
Confusing location for an informational sign
This 'More Parking' sign is located in block-long retail/restaurant strip in an urban neighborhood. The purpose of the sign is to inform visitors to the restaurants and bars that there is more parking behind the building and then to guide them to that lot. But the sign is mounted in the middle of the block. It is impossible to get to the parking lot from this location.
Blue arrow - the only entrance to More Parking.
Red dot - where the sign is located.
Blue dot - where the sign should be located.
Seems so obvious and simple, doesn't it. Makes ya wonder what some people think about. "Tell people there's more parking behind the buildings." If the decision makers had just seen it through the driver's eyes, the slightly frustrated one looking for a parking place, they would, hopefully, have been more considerate.
Empathy is so crucial for effective design.
More thoughtful sign orientation
A 'blade' sign - one that is perpendicular to its background - is more appropriate as it faces the customer approaching from the side. Those above are in a Target store.
Many signs are placed on storefronts facing out. However, many stores are first seen from a severe angle as the viewer approaches the store along the street, sidewalk, concourse, or mall corridor. Signs are typically rendered and designed on paper (or screen) in an architect's office, not on site. When presented to the client, the storefront and the sign look great. But, that doesn't mean it is good design. To be good, it must work for the reader, viewer, user.
This is a new entry to the Fulton Street subway station. This facade looked great in renderings and in presentations. But, look at it as the viewer will see it - while approaching from either direction. The ends of the marquee that face the viewer are blank. The face with the signage faces a blank wall across the narrow street.
Design principle: Signs should be designed and mounted to face their viewers
Lesson: Appropriate design decisions are made through the eyes of the user, the target audience, not the designer nor the client
Tip: Empathize with the user - pretend you are a customer and view the entity as if you have never been there.
Above is a storefront that may have looked fine in the architectural rendering, but is poorly designed for actual use.
At many airports, the traveler looks down long corridors on their way to their gate. Along the way, there are food and gift shops, but their signs face across the corridor - to the opposite wall, not to the potential customers walking and riding down the corridor who see the storefronts from an extreme angle.
I stopped at this store and asked the clerk, "What is this place?" She told me. I said, where's the sign? She walked me out into the corridor far enough so I could look up and see the letters mounted on top of the projecting white eave (top). I pointed out that no one walking along the concourse could see the sign. She said exasperatedly, "I know - there should be something on the back wall." (which is completely blank.) And she pointed where. I pointed to the projecting wall that faces the oncoming travelers and said, "How about right there where people can see it?" "Great idea! I'll tell my boss."
Lesson: Store clerks will sometimes tell you shit just to get you to go away.
Look how nice these storefronts are and how dramatic their signs are. But, notice below, the view the potential customer has as they approach the store - you can't see the sign at all. And there are those great crossbeams that could easily support store signage.
It is impossible to see the Tony Roma's sign from either direction. Not until one is directly across from it and backed up against the far wall.
The airport signs and the hanging banners are all faced correctly - towards the reader. But, not the store signs. I suspect the architect and the airport approver saw some nice renderings from straight on, and, of course, they would look impressive. But as in most thoughtless design, they did not put themselves in the point-of-view of the user, the target audience. If they had, they more likely would have realized that the signs were not as effective as they could be.
Update: The remodeled shops at the OKC airport got the signage right - these blade signs are perpendicular to the facades that face the viewer while walking down the concourse.
There are signs for 3 food services here. You can recognize Starbucks more easily because all of their signs are facing us we approach. The other two we aren't able to read until we get right in front of them. Often in an airport, we look down a corridor to find or plan our food and gift needs. Some people may just wander with time to kill and these forward facing signs may then be adequate, but for the more hurried traveler, the signs facing down the corridor are more appreciated.
Lesson: Take a moment to see the world through the user's eyes. It can often be quite a different view. Much more important and appropriate.
Trivia: Most airport codes make sense - DFW for Dallas/Ft Worth, JFK: JFK in NYC, OKC for Oklahoma City. But Chicago O'Hare has a code of ORD.
Here's why: The airport was built on a site that local residents were very familiar with - an orchard. It was even known as The Orchard, so the code designators may have been inspired by that and thus, ORD, Orchard.
At the Conrad Hotel in Manhattan, the sign is at the front of the canopy, facing a wall and a bench. Everyone who needs to read the sign will approach it from an angle; and clearly see the side of the canopy first, not the front face. On the plan of the building, it may have looked okay to specify a sign on the canopy facing out. But, the designer didn't consider the building in its context - there is another building in the way of viewing the sign. The Regal blade sign ( left fotos above and below) is for the movie theater. That sign faces the oncoming traffic. The Conrad sign faces only the guys sitting on the bench.
Below are examples in a standard shopping mall.
The store past Foot Locker on the right - can you read the sign? Even when straight across from it (below on the right), it's still tough to read.
This is the sign at Sara Sara Cupcakes (please ignore the low contrast in the logo and the poor legibility and readability.) The sign looks okay in this foto and probly looked good in an architectural rendering.
Primary target market/audiences: those who have decided to go to SaraSara Cupcakes
1. Regular repeat customers: they know where the store is, they don't need a sign.
2. Infrequent customers: those who know where it is but may need a reminder or confirmation that they are at the right place.
3. New customers: those ignorant of its location - they need guidance.
Secondary target: those who see the sign and/or building and may make an impulse decision to get a cupcake.
This is the sign (just left of center) as viewed by the sign reader. Well, at least, the edge of the sign.
Problem: The sign faces a small parking lot across the street. Most of their customers and potential customers, probly all of them, will see the sign, at a sharp angle, from farther down the street.
1. Rotate the sign 90 degrees so that the sign faces the oncoming traffic.
2. Duplicate the sign on the other side to face traffic coming from the other direction.
Above is a photo that I altered in Photoshop to show the sign oriented correctly.
Below are photos, shot a year later, of the sign after they rotated the sign to orient it correctly.
Lesson: Design only from the POV of the user (the target audience, the reader). Not the client, client's spouse, friends, nor the designer.
Tip: For maximum recognition, design and install signs to face the reader, not face sideways to the reader.
Bonus design tips for the SaraSara logo
1. Increase the weight of the letter strokes (the thin strokes are too thin for easy readability.)
2. Darken the text for improved legibility, readability, and comprehension.
This sign at another location is better. The sign faces oncoming traffic and has darker text.
A better size and location for a pathway sign
This is the brand new Peter Minuit Plaza in front of the Staten Island Ferry building at the very tip of Manhattan. The bike lane and pedestrian sidewalk split here - bikes to the left, walkers to the right. But, it is so easy to not notice the sign - it is too small and too high up on the sign pole. Often, I see pedestrians walk along the bike lane and the cyclists either go around them or call out that they're about to pass them ("On your left.")
Below is how it could be - easier to notice and understand.
Lessons: Place signs at eye level. Make them large enough to be easily noticed.
Inconsistent store name and signage
The Sumo Japanese Steakhouse & Sushi Bar or Sumo-Restaurant Steak & Sushi Bar or Sumo Japanese House
• A consistent business name helps build strong store recognition.
• Consistency of logo images builds brand awareness.
The renewal Spa & Salon or renewal salon & spa or RENEWAL SALON
• Avoid mounting signs where they will be hidden by parked cars.
• Replace signs once they no longer present a good image for your business or client.
Sign layout of poor quality
I was out walking the dogs and came up on this sign. I just stood there wondering what I was looking at.
This sign conveys thoughtless decoration, not design. Even though the sign text says 'Quality'.
Elements that don't make much sense
• The octagon with an X in it - Does it mean Stop? No good? Railroad crossing?
• Stencil typeface, familiar to wooden shipping crates and the military.
• Row of red dots above the phone number.
• 3 black triangles in the corners, drawing our eye and pointing out away from the center.
• 3 angled red lines in the 4th corner, reminding me of this:
The purpose of the sign is to solicit new business by impressing someone that this would be a good company to call for home renovation.
Lesson: Before just arranging elements in a somewhat random format, good designers explore the attitude the client wants the reader to walk away with. Here, the attitude would be improving one's living space, with construction performed by a professional competent crew. The decisions concerning the font, colors, layout, text placement, and images should all work towards the goal of conveying quality and renovation in a way that is well thought out.
A good example of poor contrast
The sign above is mounted on the brick wall just above the Handicap parking sign in the picture below. If you were driving by looking for the sign on that building, I suspect you would miss it completely. What a waste of money. Fortunately, they paid for some other signs that, although in a different font, are much easier to see.
A store sign above the awning
This scene in Queens, New York, shows some new storefronts with their shiny signs mounted above the awning - out of sight of the pedestrians. Did I mention this was NYC, where most people get around by walking? This is yet one more example of the designer looking at a rendering of the store and admiring the sign above the door. But, if more designers would see their work through the eyes of the target audience (in this case, walkers on the sidewalk), they might spot these poor design decisions. There can still be signs above awnings for drivers or people across the street, but these need to be supplemented by signs that project from the facade, perpendicular to the building - facing the pedestrian as he/she looks down the block. One of the stores in the foto does have a colorless logomark projecting, but its not quite enough to capture the attention of those unfamiliar with this area.