Marketing: How to Make Good Signs

By Alexander Hiam

As a marketer, you need to master the strange art of writing for signs. Too often, the language marketers use on signs is ambiguous or overly wordy. Here’s how to keep from falling into those traps.

All across the United States are millions of street signs that say Ped Xing. Who writes a sign using two made-up words? Only someone who wants to force the viewer to decipher his code. Ever notice that cars don’t stop for people crossing? Why should they?

The sign doesn’t actually tell them what to do (lacks a call to action), doesn’t give drivers a good reason to stop (lacks a benefit or cost), and doesn’t even use any words they know (lacks clarity). In marketing, you can’t get away with such bad writing. To make the meaning crystal clear, a marketer can use something like: “Always STOP for People in Crosswalk” or “Let people cross the road safely.”

Adding a smaller-print reminder of the fine for not stopping may add even more power to this clear call to action. If this wording requires a slightly bigger sign to be readable, then use a bigger sign! The sign’s design must fit the message, not the other way around.

Before you approve any sign design, review the copy to make sure the writing provides a model of clarity. Try misinterpreting the wording. Can you read the sign in a way that makes it seem to mean something you don’t intend to say?

Also, try thinking of questions the sign doesn’t answer that seem obvious to you — remember that the consumer may not know the answers. For example, some people have a terrible sense of direction, so a sign on the side of a store leaves them confused about how to enter that store. The solution? Put an arrow and the instructions “Enter from Front” on the sign!

Designing an informational sign

Marketers design some signs to convey substantial information — directions, for example, or details of a store’s merchandise mix. Informational signs are often either too brief or too lengthy. To craft the most effective sign possible, divide the copy and design into two sections, each with a separate purpose:

  • Have a header. The first section is like the header in a print ad. You design it to catch attention from afar and draw people to the sign. Be brief and use large, catchy type. (Often, the header is simply the name of the business, but if not, include the name and logo elsewhere on the sign.)

  • Communicate essential information. The second section of the sign needs to communicate the essential information accurately and in full. If the first section does its job, viewers may go right up to the sign to read the informational part, so you may not need to make that type as large and catchy. The consumer should be able to easily read and interpret the wording and type, though.

Most signs don’t have both a distinct header and essential info; therefore, they fail to accomplish either purpose very well. They neither draw people very strongly nor inform them fully. Unfortunately, most sign makers have a strong urge to make all the copy the same size.

When pressed, the sign makers sometimes make the header twice as big as the rest of the copy. But going further than that seems to upset them. Well, to get a good sign, you may have to upset some people. As in many aspects of marketing, if you want above-average performance, you may have to swim against the current.

Getting creative to make your sign stand out

The average downtown street in the average city has more than 500 signs per block. Try walking such a block and then listing all the signs you remember seeing. One or two may stand out, but most go unseen. To avoid having your sign be lost in this sea of similar signs, you need to make yours stand out.

Signs permit innovation in two interesting areas. You can innovate in the copy and artwork, just as you can in any print medium. You can also innovate in the form of the sign itself. Experiment with materials, shapes, lighting (revolving or variable lighting is rare but amazingly eye-caching), location, and other creative ways of displaying signs.

Signs should be creative and impressive!

Here are some of the many variations in form that you can take advantage of when designing a creative sign:

  • Hand-painted (personal look and feel)

  • Wood (traditional look; routing or hand carving enhances the appeal)

  • Metal (durable and accurate screening of art and copy but not very pretty)

  • Window lettering (hand-painted or with vinyl letters/graphics)

  • Lighted boxes (in which lettering is back-lit; highly visible at night)

  • Neon signs (real wow-factor here)

  • Magnetic signs (for your vehicles)

  • Electronic displays or digital signs (also known as electronic message repeaters; movement and longer messages, plus a high-tech feel; often these displays take the form of LED signs that make it relatively inexpensive to change your message at will)

  • Small screen- or laser-printed boards with metal brackets for standing in lawns near roads (an inexpensive short-term option for promoting an event)

  • Flat-panel TV screens (with shifting sign content and images or video)

If you want to quickly and easily place large lettering on a wall (perhaps the lobby of your office building?), you can contact one of many suppliers of custom vinyl letters. Figure a cost of around a dollar per letter for foot-high letters, and you won’t be too far off in your budgeting. This fairly new medium is a great way to get a message posted quickly and at modest cost.

Each of the options presented here requires a different source or supplier, so you need to do some homework after you decide to explore a particular sign design. But have faith that you can find good commercial sources for any and all types of signs.