What Makes a Great Sign? A Guide for Graphic Designers

Updated: Mar 17

At the beginning of every project, the possibilities seem endless. Even with a brief in hand, the creative journey is exciting from the design perspective.

But a lot goes in to turning a design idea and concept into a successful, physical piece that fulfills its purpose in the real world. It could be a simple sign for a business, an interpretive panel full of text, images and graphics, or a piece of art that will become a permanent part of public life.

We asked our ALTO™ graphic designers for some general tips on creating great designs, as they’ve spent hours upon hours reviewing the digital work before projects head to fabrication. No matter what type of project you’re working on, these guidelines can help a project go from concept to reality.

Tips to Help You Get Started

First off, gather the full information from the client. The more you know, the better prepared you will be to start developing concepts.

Get the Brand & Visual Guidelines

If you’re working with a brand of any kind, and that can be a company, park, institution or community organization, do an in-depth look at their brand guidelines. That means gathering logos, information about Pantone or RAL colors, and fonts to ensure consistency. In terms of logos, for example, panels may need to include the logos of many companies or organizations, as many public projects are collaborative.

Figure out the focus of the project

Is it going to direct people from place to place? Is it simply informative or more educational? Some projects will only require working with text and icons, while others involve the above, plus photos, archival materials and custom graphics.

Where is the project going to be installed?

Lighting and environment both have a huge impact on color choice, font size, contrast and element sizes, so know the site as well as possible. Colors and contrast choices in high-traffic environments like city streets are very different from those made when designed projects in natural environments such as parks or nature trails.

Get High-Quality Digital Assets

If the project requires the use of photographs, archival materials or other digital assets, make sure they are very high quality. Printers and fabricators often have minimum resolution requirements for these elements.

No matter what the project, remember that the #1 goal is to get viewers to engage! The final audience should always be a part of guiding the design process.

Design Guidelines

Once you’ve gathered the information, requirements and assets, the fun begins. Even on projects with relatively few elements, putting them all together into a coherent design can be a challenge.

1. Scale and Hierarchy

The way elements are arranged and treated visually relates directly to their importance. Significant elements (be that text, an image or an icon) should be larger and bolder, while less important elements can be smaller or fainter.

Lamorinda, CA park signage by BessDesign

2. Balance

Play with symmetry or asymmetry to strike the right relationship between the graphics elements, especially when several panels or signs will be installed close together.

3. The Rule of Thirds

This doesn’t always apply, but it’s a great starting point. 3 columns and 3 rows, for example, divide up the visual space neatly and in a way that most viewers are used to reading visually. Typically, the focal point or points will be where the vertical and horizontal lines meet.

4. Don’t crowd the space

This can be a huge challenge, especially for interpretive or wayfinding panels. It’s important to find that sweet spot between white space and content, otherwise the visual space can get too crowded. That’s overwhelming for viewers, to the point that they may avoid engaging at all.

5. Design for the edges

Edges are part of the design and will depend on the thickness of the panel. Some common panel or sign materials, like HPL (high-pressure laminate) have a thick black edge, so the design will only go to that margin. ALTO™ Aluminum, for example, allows edges to be wrapped for a seamless finished look.

Lamorinda Park, CA by BessDesign

6. Complimentary elements

As much as possible, find the harmony between the different types of content you’re using. Fonts, for example, signal different expectations, as do colors. This is the part where you’re developing a tone and a feeling, in fact a consistency, which is what ultimately draws people in.

Working with Different Materials

Materials play a huge role in design decisions. The more information you can get about this, the better. Sometimes the material informs the design, but sometimes it goes the other way.

Talk to the fabricator. Getting technical information, graphic requirements and seeing previous examples of work will really help you develop your design. Until you investigate materials, you won’t know all the options out there. Some materials will allow you to create unique or custom shapes, do layering or cut-outs.

If you have a lot of information or a project that goes beyond a simple rectangular surface, investigate materials that allow for creative options like bends, folds, or multi-dimensional surfaces. It allows for a lot of information to be displayed in unique ways, without crowding it all on one plane.

If there’s a material you’ve worked with before, suggest it to your clients. There are a lot of different types of sign and panel materials on the market, and your expertise can help your clients make the right decision.

Once the design is done and approved, the project moves on to a fabricator. Sometimes, elements will have to be tweaked in this phase, depending on the materials and requirements of the fabrication company. The more prepared you are for this, the better.

The design phase is certainly the most intensive part of any project. There is so much to balance, between clients, their audience, content, branding, the site…it goes on and on. Starting any project off on the right foot goes a long way towards bringing that project to completion.

Learn more about ALTO™ Powder-Coated Graphics

for your upcoming projects.

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