Signage: pointing in the right direction

David Catanach, director of ISA-UK, formerly the British Sign and Graphics Association, outlines the importance of correct signing and finding the right supplier

Possibly, the very first thing many people see of your existence is your sign. The sign does two things. It acts as a beacon, guiding the visitor to the right location and, more importantly, it delivers a message about your services.

Get it wrong and it will not only convey the wrong message. In turn, it could add to the anxiety of someone in an environment way outside their comfort zone. Get it right however and signage can be a powerful tool which will help them be more relaxed in your environment and contribute to the effective running of the property. The importance of well-designed and planned signage as part of your overall strategy cannot be overstated.

The question is how do you get it right?
To find the right answer you will need to consider a number of factors, including: what are the right type of signs?; What are the design criteria and what content should the signs have?; Who should make your signs? What materials should be used to create and construct the signs?; Do you need planning permission to erect your sign? And, how do I meet my legal obligations if the sign requires maintenance and inspection during its lifetime?

Creating successful signage involves more than an attractive arrangement of logos, pictures and slogans. It requires the understanding and blending of complex elements such as marketing and demographic and it requires an understanding of ‘visual acuity’. The task is further complicated by the fact that the people will be on the move when they see the sign and it must be possible to read and understand its message in an instant.

It’s worth repeating, no matter how good your product or service is, if your sign does not inform, it has failed. Investing in professional sign design is sound advice. Experienced designers understand how to get attention and, more importantly, how to get the right reaction.

Let’s start with some of the basics: Sign legibility depends on many factors, but the more important are:

Letter size – generally, the larger the size, the greater the legibility.

Letter shape – some letter styles are more legible than others. In particular, script and extended letter styles are more difficult to read unless they form a well-advertised brand name or logo.

Letter spacing – letters are more discernible if they are spaced apart at a reasonable distance. Crowding together, particularly of adjacent vertical strokes can make them difficult to read.

Brightness – to be legible, a sign has to be bright enough to stand out from its surroundings.

Location – signs will be more legible if they are placed in a position without competing or confusing backgrounds.

Colour – a sign with a colour that contrasts well with that of its background will be more legible than one where the colours tend to merge.

Use of directional indicators – not only is it important to keep these icons legible from a distance, consider ways that will not lead to confusion when displaying more than one direction is indicated.

The following lists in order of decreasing legibility the top five combinations of letter and background colour, with the colour of letter followed by the colour of background:
1. Black/Yellow
2. Black/White
3. Yellow/Black
4. White/Black
5. Blue/White

Other factors which can influence the design are letter height, spacing and viewing distance and, just as importantly, your ‘corporate’ colours.

Mathematical formulae do exist for calculating the optimum values for many of these things and road traffic signs for example are enshrined in the relevant standards and legislation. However, it’s not simply a matter of dropping a few numbers into a spreadsheet and waiting for it to generate the design.

While an experienced sign designer should have an understanding of these fundamental principles, it is far more important that he or she has the creative ability to combine these elements to produce a sign that meets your requirements.

It is also vital that the designer has knowledge of the materials, production techniques and standards which apply to or are used in the construction of signs.

And then there are the planning requirements. Today many businesses and public agencies are influenced by designers who handle their corporate identity programmes and come up with signage schemes that consider neither the intricacies of planning a system nor the feasibility of bending rigid materials into all sorts of weird and wonderful shapes.

Thus, when the signage programme goes out to tender, both designer and client are disgruntled when they discover to learn that what they have requested just isn’t possible or it is cost is prohibitive.

This is why it makes sense to consult a reputable Signmaker (such as a member of ISA-UK) at an early stage in the design process. Most signmakers, and especially those who specialise in wayfinding or corporate branding, have a good idea of what the planning authorities will allow and will be able to advise on the suitability of designs and availability of materials. They may also be able to suggest more effective – and very often much cheaper – alternatives to those specified.

Nowadays, many signmakers also boast an in-house design capability and will happily help create workable concepts that meet both aesthetic and budgetary considerations. When a project is particularly complex, or involves many different types of sign, the best signmakers will produce prototypes to test feasibility and will also supply material samples so that the client and the designer can see whether the specification they had so fondly envisaged is viable.

Although wayfinding is a greatly underrated specialism, it actually takes a great deal of skill to produce an attractive and effective wayfinding scheme, which guides visitors smoothly around a complex of buildings or floors and then safely back. Wayfinding signage is vital if any large visitor location with multiple entrances and facilities.

A key consideration when designing a wayfinding scheme is the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA). Again this is something where a specialist (ISA-UK) Signmaker or design consultant can help. Information on the requirements of the DDA in relation to signage can be found in the Sign Design Guide (Peter Barker and June Fraser). This is published jointly by the JMU Access Partnership and the Sign Design Society.

We have given numerous examples of why it is vital that you chose a reputable Signmaker. So, how do you find a reputable signmaking partner – one that is capable of delivering signs that best meet your needs and at a cost you can afford?

It may seem like a daunting task, but the good news is that in the UK there are a large number of superbly equipped, highly skilled and very creative specialist companies capable of providing you with signage of the highest quality.

Of course, as in any other business sector, there are also a number who will happily promise the earth, take your money and then fail to deliver. The question is how to avoid these.

One way is to check that your signmaker is a member of ISA-UK. The Approved Signmaker Search facility on our web site will help you do this. It includes profiles of all member companies and links to their web sites, where you can find more information on the services they provide.

All members of the ISA-UK are vetted before joining and all have signed up to the association’s Code of Practice, which is designed to promote the highest standards, design, workmanship, health and safety, and commercial practice within the sign industry.  The ISA-UK badge is the sign of a quality Signmaker. It is essentially the Code of Practice that sets members of the ISA-UK apart from many others in the industry. The fact that they are members is a clear indication that they are serious businesses and are serious about the sign industry.

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