Thursday, February 7, 2008

Why Your Sign Needs Design

This sign is really quite mundane. Taking a deep breath and incoherently chattering “Residents and Invited Guests Only Guests Must Be Escorted Beyond This Point No Solicitation No Smoking,” it attempts to serve to briefly and efficiently inform those entering my dorm of several important ground rules to be observed during their stay. For this purely utilitarian purpose, a sign should employ typography as clearly and effectively as possible. Unfortunately, this sign seems to have been designed with little or no thought toward actual clarity and efficacy. Similarly, its aesthetic qualities have been dictated purely by the method used to create the sign, with no thought toward the overall appearance of the sign or an appropriate choice of typeface or kerning. Even a sign with such an unextraordinary purpose can be improved and optimized.

This sign is front and center on the door leading to the staircase in my dorm. In its position on a door, it is likely to be touched by many hands over the course of a day. This has apparently motivated its maker to create it out of a durable, easily cleanable plastic, with no ink to fade or adhesive to lose its tack. The sign is “written” by a CNC (Computer Numerical Control) router into a plastic panel. It will not soon wear away or remain dirty.

The design of its typography is dictated purely by the router used to engrave it. There are no serifs, as that would be impossible to accomplish, but rather rounded termini. The X-height is relatively tall, and ascenders and descenders are tightly reigned in, conveying a somewhat appropriately institutional demeanor. It is a very narrow font, almost so narrow that legibility is impeded. Intentional kerning appears entirely absent, interrupting the reader’s eye frequently. There are inconsistently vast spaces between words, and each one, save the “and,” is capitalized, giving them all equal importance and making it unclear where one thought ends and another begins. There is no punctuation whatsoever, exacerbating this lack of clarity. The separate rules, “Residents and invited guests only,” “guests must be escorted beyond this point,” “No solicitation,” and “No smoking,” are globbed together in a diamond of text, each line spaced the same, with no demarcation of separate thoughts. The sign is basically incoherent at first read, which is totally counter to its intended informative nature.

Such a relatively insignificant, utilitarian, unexciting sign need not be so devoid of aesthetic and logical consideration. My refinement of this message clarifies, adds much-needed legibility, and considers the qualities of the type itself. The separate imperatives are each segregated into their own sentences, employing actual grammar rather than a policy of equal-opportunity capitalization. The two similar first rules are grouped, and the two final prohibitions are allowed breathing room on their own line toward the bottom. The overall form of the text aims to be more thoughtful, uniform, and proportioned, while increasing legibility. The font I used, Optima, is a sans serif humanist font with classical inspiration and a contemporary appearance. Designed by Hermann Zapf over much of the 1950s, it was inspired by 16th – century grave plates found in a Florentine church, and adheres closely to the golden ratio. Optima is legible and especially well-proportioned at large sizes, and its subtle elegance is the reason for its frequent use in applications where a feeling of “style” or “class” is important. Its termini, which are slightly bulged and weighted heavier than the rest of the letter without being true serifs, give it both the title-appropriate qualities of a sans serif font, and the body text-appropriate legibility of serifs. This suits the sign, which falls somewhere in between these two purposes. Optima is used on the Vietnam War Memorial and by the Asian Art Musem of San Francisco, among other institutions. It is more commonly seen in contexts meant to convey a (sometimes false) sense of class or culture, such as advertisements for timepieces or cosmetics. Its appearance brings to mind connotations of elegance and authority, making it ideal for this message from “the management.”

Making a durable sign in a font that isn’t purely mechanically dictated is not a proposition any more difficult or expensive than the original method. Laser engraving would enable the definition of Optima’s more delicate features while using the same placard material. It would be intuitive to assume that the laser is the more expensive, and therefore less accessible method. However, in calling a few local sign shops, I was given estimates suggesting one would pay half as much for a laser-engraved sign than for a router-engraved one. This sign, then, has no excuse for employing such a bland, awkward font.

It seems as though some signmakers believe a utilitarian sign can or should not be of any aesthetic value, or be made with any design consideration in mind. It could be that aesthetic consideration and usability are somehow divorced in their minds, or that designing such a sign would be considered a frivolity. The most basic and inelastic method available, which at first glance could easily be assumed to be the most cost-effective, may not be the true “budget” option. The process lending itself to more aesthetic liberty is apparently more frugal. Even this mundane, unexciting, purely functional sign can be bolstered in appearance and function by a modicum of consideration for typographic and aesthetic values. This is evidence that, no matter how small the job, a little bit of good design can improve it in many ways.

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