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Jeff Russ Discusses Creating “Noise-Free” Design

Stay focused on your client’s vision




It’s been said that, “The secret to a successful design solution is authenticity. Once you learn to fake that, you’ve got it made.”
These days, every client strives for brand authenticity, but most small business owners haven’t quite gotten it right or are counting on their sign system to do it for them. Anyone who has designed a sign for a new business understands this, and also knows that the above quote was only sort of a joke.
So, how do you go about projecting (sometimes literally) an aura of authenticity? Here are a few tips to help you begin the process:Do your homework. Find out everything you can about the client and who they are. Do a site visit. If it’s a restaurant, eat there. If the client sells widgets, research who they sell them to. A 15-minute meeting with the client, in your shop, won’t get you there. Even so, ask questions. The more you know about what a client wants, the better the odds of you giving them what they need.
Keep it simple. Even an elaborately detailed sign can be simple. The key is simplicity of purpose. All of the design elements should reinforce the intended message, not distract from it. Anyone can design complexity, it takes a certain talent level to make things simple and focused.
Remember, “design” reflects how a solution functions. “Style” refers to how it looks. The success of a design can be measured. The choice of one “style” over another is, by definition, subjective. Style without purpose is noise. That is, it distracts and confuses – the opposite of what a sign should do.
Follow through. After the sign is hung, offer the digital files (for a small fee, of course) for use on menus, receipts, letterheads or anything else the client might need. If possible, provide PMS numbers or color codes for use on their website, printed materials or curtains. Design consistency is key here, and details do matter.
Tod Swormstedt, founder of the American Sign Museum, once described sign design as “the best solution for a particular set of circumstances.” I realize that sounds overly pragmatic and disturbingly sterile, but it doesn’t mean signs need to be boring or ugly. Especially because the most talented and clever artists are often working in the sign industry.
Michelangelo comes to mind. Despite the demanding client on his Sistine Chapel ceiling mural project, he was able to produce good work. And, when a notoriously fickle French city commissioned its entry monument, Auguste Rodin stepped up and gave them a solution that endures to this day (his sculptural masterpiece, the Burghers of Calais).
Some of the various issues that Michelangelo and Rodin dealt with, and that Tod referred to, include legibility, scale, weatherability, timeframe, ease of manufacture, installation and (of course) budget.
A successful sign designer must learn how to juggle all these concerns at once. To do this, he or she must constantly prioritize. And remember to keep the noise down.



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