Typography for Signage
by Ilene Strizver
Signage constitutes a small but highly-visible category of typographic design. Sometimes also referred to as environmental graphics, signage includes: billboards and banners, trade show booths and transit posters, retail and real estate signage, window lettering, magnetic placards, and sometimes even logos. Selecting appropriate typefaces – and using them appropriately – is critical to the effectiveness of any signage project.
Begin by asking these questions:
- What is the goal of the signage?
- What are the demographics of your target audience(s)?
- From what distances does the signage need to be seen and understood?
- How much time does the audience have to view and read the sign? Signage can be static, walk-by or drive-by, and this should influence the typeface choices and treatments you use. To design effectively, you also need to know the materials and fabrication methods to be used. Their characteristics and limitations affect how the type will behave in its final form (e.g., thin strokes might appear thicker or even thinner depending on how they are produced).
Once you’ve done your research, follow these basic guidelines for effective use of typography in signage:
- Stick to a minimum of fonts – one for the main message, another for secondary information.
- Forego the impulse to use a display typeface with delicate features. Instead, try a text face – Its more assertive design details will read better from a distance or on a quick drive-by.
- Keep your message brief and to the point, especially for drive-by signage.
- Adjust letterspacing (using tracking) as necessary. As type gets larger, it can look too open.
- Avoid tricky typography and other special effects, such as too many outlines, shadows, glows.
- Use highly contrasting colors for optimum readability and instant recognition.
- Check that type is readable in all potential lighting conditions (daylight, nighttime, etc.).
- Consider using symbols and simple images to replace and/or reinforce the typographic message.
- Avoid placing type on busy background imagery.
Last but not least, try to test your signage under actual conditions in terms of size, lighting, distance and any other viewer variables – before you commit to the final print or production scenario.
Check to make sure that your signage complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) if required or desired.
- Editor’s Note: Ilene Strizver, founder of The Type Studio, is a typographic consultant, designer and writer specializing in all aspects of typographic communication. She conducts Gourmet Typography workshops internationally. Read more about typography in her latest literary effort, Type Rules! The designer's guide to professional typography, 3rd edition, published by Wiley & Sons, Inc. This article was commissioned and approved by Monotype Imaging Inc.