One simple way to increase the probability that a channel letter sign will be effective for a commercial client is to make sure it ranks high on the legibility scale. It is important, however, to first understand the difference between legibility and readability.
Legibility is the degree to which a chosen typeface makes it possible for someone to read something without effort. A highly legible typeface, therefore, is quickly comprehended by the reader without requiring a mental ‘translation.’ Legibility is also an informal method of measurement as how easy it is to distinguish one letter within a sign from the others next to it.
Readability, on the other hand, measures how well a given combination of words is read within a larger body of text. A common example would be a paragraph on the page of a book.
Sans serif fonts tend to offer stronger legibility, while serif fonts tend to offer better readability. With that in mind, the rule of thumb for effective signage is to configure the typeface for optimal legibility, which typically calls for a sans serif font.
Such definitions are important to keep in mind when customers ask for their signs to be produced in an ‘artistic’ font.
“Letterforms composed of unique shapes, artistic deformations, excessive ornamentation or other novel design elements cause the reader to have to process what they are looking at first, instead of just taking in the message,” wrote graphic designer Douglas Bonneville, author of The Big Book of Font Combinations, in 2011.
Compared to other written media, it is especially important with signs to place an emphasis on legibility, as they typically must be read quickly from a moving vehicle at some distance. When customers present a signage concept that is heavily artistic, but would not be highly legible in a visually competitive environment, signmakers should consider asking them to reconsider the value of their design. Would they prefer an artistic channel letter sign or a legible one that yields a 25 per cent increase in foot traffic for their business?
Many people find sans serif fonts lack a sense of excitement. They may not carry the same ‘flash’ as custom fonts, but when push comes to shove, most commercial sign customers will take foot traffic and higher revenues over pizzazz any day!
Some basic sans serif fonts that offer high levels of legibility include:
· Century Gothic.
In addition to legibility, there is another reason when designing signs to select from among these standard sans serif fonts. For channel letter signs, these fonts tend to offer sufficient interior space for the optimal placement of light-emitting diode (LED) modules for internal illumination. Figure 1 shows a letter channel with sufficient space for LED module placement. This involves not only adequate space for mounting the modules in place, but also enough room for the LEDs to light the sign face optimally, given their directional lighting angles.
A more ‘creative’ or serif font, on the other hand, may well entail compressed interior channels, which can prevent the optimal LED module placement. Tighter channels can restrict the LEDs’ viewing angle and result in a compromised illumination area. This is not a good situation, as the customer who has approved the font is less likely to approve a dimmer appearance, leading to a change order prior to full production and a delay in the sign’s installation.
Avoiding sign communication failure
Illegible signs are a real issue. James J. Kellaris, the Gemini chair of signage and visual marketing for the University of Cincinnati, has researched the effectiveness of sign legibility for retail customers. Presenting the results at the Signage Foundation’s 2012 National Signage Research and Education Conference (NSREC), he said approximately 41 per cent of the population of the U.S. had “driven by and failed to find a business due to signage communication failure. Plus, consumers tend to make quality assumptions about a store based on having clear and attractive signage.”
辛辛那提大学标识视觉营销主任James J. Kellaris研究了有关标识易读性和有效性的专题。他在2012年国家标牌研究和教育基金会上提出了观点，他说：“在美国，大约41％的人口由于标识可读性弱而忽略它们的存在，导致标识商店的业务下降。此外，消费者会根据标识的清晰度来对标识商店的质量进行假设，他们会认为可读性越强的标识，这家标识商店的质量与服务会更好。”
The term ‘clear’ is also important in this respect. If a sign’s font is not clear, after all, the sign will not be legible.
Kellaris presented further research at the 2014 NSREC, based on perceptual evidence from grocery store shoppers. In this study, he compiled a list of common reasons people found signs hard to read. Among these were situations where “the letters use a fancy font.”
The objective for any commercial sign is of course immediate comprehension, not hesitation, translation or analysis. The reader must quickly and easily grasp the sign’s message. With this in mind, a retailer or other sign shop customer can hardly lose with a highly legible sans serif font.
The letters will be easily readable and provide ample illumination space. When combined with an appropriate colour configuration, such a letter set will generate excellent results.
Decorative fonts certainly have their place in the sign industry, but most prominent business signs are not that place. It is a signmaker’s responsibility to inform customers about the potential drawbacks of a ‘creative’ or ‘artistic’ font and to see if they are willing to consider higher-legibility options.