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Sign Visibility

The importance of designing noticeable signs

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Editor’s Note: Drawing from his graphic-design experience, ST‘s senior art director, Jeff Russ, submitted this month’s text and visuals. To support his ideas regarding effective sign design, Jeff consulted the United States Sign Council’s (USSC) sign-legibility index and recent, sign-visibility study.

Communicating information is a sign’s fundamental purpose. However, to do so effectively, a sign’s message must be organized appropriately. Cluttered or vague messages are likely to be misunderstood or confusing to drivers with limited reading time. Contrarily, clear and simple messages are easier to read and understand, and consequently, more memorable.

Sounds simple right? If it were, there would be fewer ineffective, forgettable signs. Keeping a few simple factors in mind while designing and planning a sign can make all the difference.

To create an effective sign message, a designer must consider a sign’s function and location. By doing so, he or she can determine the proper size and what type of message will be most effective. If your sign will be read only by pedestrians leisurely walking past an establishment, you have the luxury of being clever or verbose, but if you need a quick read by a busy driver, there are other factors to consider.

According to the United States Sign Council’s (USSC) recent sign-visibility study, a person driving 45 miles per hour in moderately busy traffic on a four-lane road views a sign and reacts in 1.5-3 seconds. Although variables can either shorten or lengthen this timeframe, it’s clear that a sign in such a location must be precisely designed to achieve its communication goals.

In high-traffic locations, simple- and single-message applications are the most effective. Determine the sign’s primary function and stick with that. A good rule of thumb is that you only get one message” per sign. It’s better to say one thing clearly than to put out lots of information that never gets absorbed by the viewer.

Size matters

A huge sign will likely be seen by all. However, if its message is displayed in a clumsy or inappropriate manner, the sign won’t effectively reach its targeted audience. Similarly, a small, elaborately designed sign can be visually appealing, but if its text is too small to read, or becomes consumed by numerous intricate details, the sign fails to communicate as intended

To avoid committing such errors, sign designers should visit proposed installation sites, erect faux signs, and then drive and/or walk past the signs to determine what works and what doesn’t work.

Just a few years ago, a 7-ft.-tall freestanding sign was safe from being obstructed by all but the biggest van or truck. However, in these days of massive SUVs and busy streets, if your sign isn’t 8-10 ft. off the ground, it may never be noticed.

Further, when determining a freestanding or mounted sign’s placement and height, designers should consider other signage within the surrounding area, nearby trees or any other landscape aspects that could affect a sign’s readability.

Typography and color choices

Good sign placement is crucial, but it isn’t a substitute for poor typography. As discussed previously in this column (see ST, December 2002, page 58), suitable typography fosters readable and effective sign messages. Thus, letter sizes should be easily seen and leave lasting impressions.

The USSC’s Sign Legibility Index goes as far as to quantify the legibility of different fonts at different sizes from almost any distance. This index also states that a 15% increase in letter height is required when all uppercase letters are used, instead of more legible, upper- and lower-case letters.

Suitable color choices are also essential to a sign’s success. A color palette with appropriate contrast is the best solution. Sign-color selections should depend less on aesthetics and more on whether the considered colors enhance a sign message’s readability and legibility.

How effectively a sign communicates with an intended audience should always be a designer’s primary consideration. Black letters on a yellow background are the most easily read from a distance, more so than even black on white. However, if every sign was black and yellow, none of them would be noticed. The trick is to be aware of the surroundings so your sign can stand out from them.

When a savvy designer takes all these factors into account, the end result is often invisible to the sign viewer, who merely needs a service and wants to know where to find it. “Hungry? There’s a place….turn left here.”

The end result, however, isn’t invisible to the business owner. Increased business and customer awareness can be dramatically impacted by well-executed and properly placed signage .

Sign-Visibility Conclusions

The USSC published the following research conclusions on page 23 of its “Sign Visibility: Effects of Traffic Characteristics and Mounting Height” report. For further information, contact the association at (215) 785-1922; www.ussc.org.

* The amount of time a driver has to detect, read and comprehend a low-mounted, roadside sign is dependent on the position of the subject’s vehicle in the roadway cross-section.

* The amount of time a driver has to detect, read and comprehend a low-mounted, roadside sign decreases as the amount of “other” traffic on the roadway increases; decreases as the subject’s vehicle’s lane position is closer to the roadway centerline; and increases as the distance that a roadside sign is laterally offset from the edge of the roadway increases.

* The amount of time provided to a driver to detect, read and comprehend a roadside sign should be a minimum of 1.5 seconds. This “read-only” value doesn’t include any time for maneuvers.

* If a driver can’t be provided with at least 1.5 seconds to detect, read and comprehend a proposed or existing roadside sign, the sign’s design should be reconsidered or redesigned (e.g., elevated) to allow a driver a clear sight line for at least 1.5 seconds.

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