Signage design tips that help you grab attention

Whether it’s a simple poster for your next in-store event or an eye-catching banner to announce your grand opening, your message needs to stop people in their tracks.

A better understanding of the following areas will help you confidently design signs that stand out, include a clear message and are easy for people to read on the go:

  1. Contrast
  2. Hierarchy
  3. Readability

1. Contrast helps your sign stand out

Understanding contrast helps you make sure the information on your sign is easy to read. And it’s best created when your text and background colours are opposites. This might be your company name in bright yellow on a black background or dark-coloured ‘Grand Opening - 5th August’ against a soft pastel background texture. The contrast between the background and text will determine what people see when they glance at your sign.

How colour creates contrast and improves legibility

It’s a popular belief that you only have three seconds to appeal to potential customers driving by your shop. The job of your signage is to capture their attention at a glance. Dark text on a white or yellow background creates plenty of contrast and commands more attention, especially at a distance.

Pairing similar colours for text and background makes it hard for the text on a sign to stand out. Instead, choose one light neutral and an intense dark colour – you can use either as the background or text.

Also, consider your sign’s surroundings. When hanging your sign against a brick wall, think opposites. If the bricks are dark, pick a light-coloured sign with dark text. And if your banner, poster or window decal is going to be in direct sunlight, make sure there’s plenty of contrast between the background colour and the text.

According to the Outdoor Advertising Association of America, these are the five most legible colour combinations for retail signs:

  • Black on Yellow
  • Black on White
  • Yellow on Black
  • White on Blue
  • Green on White

But it’s not just colour that creates contrast.

How shape creates contrast

You can create contrast using both geometric and organic shapes in your sign design. One form might have a smooth surface and the other a pointed edge. Since the smooth surface is clean and simple, it makes the geometric shape stand out because it’s more complex.

A classic example of this is the spiky, star-shaped pieces of card with 50% OFF written on them you used to see a lot in shop windows advertising discounts.

So, if you want a specific piece of information to pop out from the rest, consider putting it in a non-uniform shape that contrasts with the other forms in your design.

How font selections create contrast

A font is a collection of letter cases and numbers, accents and symbols all produced to a standard design. Any versions of the same letter designs, like bold, regular or italic are called the ‘type family.’

The fonts you use on your sign have two main jobs: attract attention and be easy to read.

  • Clean, bold fonts work best
  • Keep your business fonts consistent across your signs, marketing materials and website
  • Try to stick to 2 fonts

If you’re interested in reading more about types of fonts and their characteristics, we created a handy infographic that helps you choose fonts for your business card. While not specific to signage, it applies to any product you plan to design with text.

2. Hierarchy shows people what to read first on your sign

Text size creates an easy-to-follow visual hierarchy. The largest type grabs your attention first, so make this the primary message you want to get across. Then as you read on, you take in the second-most and third-most important messages according to their size and placement in the design.

How layout affects hierarchy

In western cultures, most people read left to right from top to bottom. So, making your top line largest and working the sizes down from there can be a simple way to communicate the importance of your information.

But don’t feel you have to stick to that order, it’s just an example.

Experiment for yourself in our studio with different sizes as you can see previews of how your signage will look. You’ll notice that if you add too many lines of text in this style, your sign starts to look like an eyechart.

So, keep it short.

How font weights affect hierarchy

Using multiple weights in a font family helps maintain consistency and communicate the order of the information in your design. Using a heavy typeface in a light colour against a dark background can make it more legible. Heavy typefaces also help add visual dominance to the most important information. When designing signs, avoid fonts with elegant, thin strokes. They’re hard to read at a distance or when walking, cycling or driving past.

3. Readability makes sure people understand your sign’s message

Making sure people can read and understand your sign at a glance is your primary design objective. This is known as readability.

The ability to distinguish one letter from another when reading your signage design determines your text’s legibility. For example, it’s much easier to read a sans serif font in all caps than a script font in all caps. These “handwritten” fonts work best in lowercase or title case (where you capitalise the first letter of important words in a sentence).

How space affects readability

When designing a banner, it can be tempting to try to add lots of information and fill space. But remember, the more space around each text field, the easier it is to read. It also pays to leave plenty of space between the main design elements and the edge of your banner. This space is often called the ‘margin.’

Leave plenty of space around the text and your logo. If your sign is too crowded with text, people won’t squint to read it. They’ll walk on.

By using fewer text fields, you make the information you do include more captivating. The goal is to make it easy for people to read your sign, whether it’s a banner, poster or flag – at a glance.

How font selection affects readability

As mentioned earlier, script or brush fonts are the hardest to read, especially when read from across the street. If you want to use script fonts to remain consistent with your brand, account for the fact that these fonts are harder to read but making your text bigger on signage.

How letter case affects readability

All caps or all UPPERCASE are fine for your company name or a message like SALE. But if you’re creating a poster and plan to include a bit more detail, avoid all caps for sections of text that run over a couple of lines as it’s hard to read.

How letter height affects readability

This table gives you a rough idea of the link between letter height and reading distance. Use this as a guide to work out how big your letters need to be to reach your target audience.

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