As an Ad Man, my trips anywhere in the car or motorcycle have me shaking my head as I notice signage that either makes the grade or is a complete waste of money for its owner. It boggles my mind just how many really bad signs there are out there in the good old USA. It’s so easy to find a bad sign once you know what to look for. Conversely, it’s very easy to recognize a good sign too. It’s not rocket science. Hey, business owners, are you paying attention here? Your bad sign is probably costing you way more business income than the price of a new and effective sign. Note to self: Produce some real stats on the amount of income lost due to bad signs…I’m sure it’s a staggering number.

What Are Bad Signs?

A bad sign is any sign that doesn’t communicate to its intended audience in a timely fashion, which is to say, immediately. If you’re driving around looking for a Kolache on the go while visiting an unfamiliar area, you’re looking for some help from a distance. You’re looking for a sign! You’re looking for the word KOLACHE or Breakfast Drive-thru or something really obvious. You are NOT looking for Yolanda’s, which may mean something to locals in the know, but means nothing to anyone else. The exception would be if Yolanda’s signage was accompanied by a large photo of a Kolache.

Too Cute = Not Effective

To make matters even worse for many bad signs, businesses insist on using an artsy and virtually unreadable script which is of no help whatsoever. Add to those offenses a poor composition, size, and lack of contrast and we have a truly terrible sign folks. Ok, ok, I know. About this time I’d have Google guiding me to some place with good reviews too, but the sign still helps once you get close. So, there you have it, bad signs. Let’s review: A name or brand rather than a more descriptive word. Fancy fonts or busy artwork that is hard to read. Poor layout and color choices. Lack of contrast between background and text. Too busy rather than simple and too many irrelevant words rather than familiar choices in a wasted effort to be unique. This results in a kind of “It’s better to look good than to work well” scenario.

Examples Of Good Signs?

A sign that rapidly and clearly communicates to its intended audience is an effective sign. One of the very best and most effective signs I have ever seen for grabbing attention was a billboard on the highway as I drove from Atlanta to Orlando years ago. The sign was enormous and sticking up out of the surrounding trees, isolated and without any competition for attention. So there it was a giant billboard with nothing but four little words on its face. The face of the sign was bright yellow, and the text was pure black, the combination offering among the highest contrast possible to the human eyes. Four little words: BUTT NAKED, EXIT NOW!

Other Effective Signs

Effective signs are everywhere of course. This is particularly true in retail or services that are considered commodity or tradesman. Businesses like those selling DONUTS, GAS, SHOE REPAIR, DRY CLEANERS, BURGERS, SEAFOOD, PLUMBING, BARBER SHOP, HAIR STYLIST, etc. Some traits shared by these types of businesses are that their clientele tends to be transient or localized. Their customers generally won’t drive past a short distance to buy something. Think about it, how far would you drive for donuts? So, the key is to capture every single transient customer prospect possible using effective signage.

Big Brands = Different Rules

The advantage of decades of institutional advertising is that the same rules for signage don’t really apply to big brands vs Main Street businesses. Many younger children will let their parents know when their car is coming up on the Golden Arches miles before they arrive at the exit…and they don’t even read yet. Dad recognizes the big yellow sea shell as his preferred gasoline long before the exit is upon him and there’s no word gasoline to be found anywhere on the sign. Big, well-known brands have already paid to ensure that the general public knows what they make and sell. That’s branding. It’s powerful stuff. It’s also expensive and takes a long time to establish in nearly all but extreme cases of instant fame.

For Most Of Us, We Need Good Signs

So, there you have it. Here’s a list of things to remember if you or someone you know needs to deal with signage:

  • Focus on the what rather than the who. In other words, people are looking for something specific that you sell. So spell it out! DELI, KING SIZE SHOES, WEDDING DRESSES, USED BOOKS, YARN SHOP, etc.
  • Use large block lettering – Extra Bold and Simple. No script or comic sans.
  • Contrasting colors between the text and background.
  • Make the key word(s) as large as you can.
  • Keep the sign simple and uncluttered. Logos can go if it means bigger meaningful text.
  • Consider an additional sign for the business name and logo if you want, unless of course, you’re SUBWAY or BURGER KING, etc.

If Unsure, Hire an Expert

Regardless of your friends and family approval of your latest sign idea, it may make sense to hire an expert. As I’ve pointed out repeatedly over time: well-meaning family and friends lie to you. They tell you what they believe you want to hear. Even if on the outside chance your family and friends are brutally honest with you, they’re probably wrong. Hire an expert. It won’t cost you that much and you’ll be certain to get the results you’re after. As much as I hate to say it, sometimes the guy you don’t want to ask is the friendly neighborhood sign maker. He may make great signs but isn’t necessarily a marketing guru. If all else fails, drop me a line and I’ll take care of you.


Bad Signs




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