There is a lot of confusion about what a sign designer actually is. The term, sign design, is a misnomer, which means, it is inaccurate.
Actually, sign design is more than design. Sign design involves working with a lot of brand designs, not actually creating them, more so, resizing, adjusting and placement. A sign designer learns about branding simply by dealing with sign design submittal (also called a sign plan) and placement all the time. Through time, a sign designer understands what works and what doesn’t.
Sign design also involves drawing objects (similar to drafting) which will include dimensions and the use of various scales. Sign design also involves creating sign presentations for a sales call. A sign designer must learn to interpret a sign request, provided mostly from a sales person. Interpreting a sign request opens the door to a lot of misunderstanding since a sales person is not a writer. And worse, a sales person usually finds it difficult to explain visual sign elements in written form. A sign designer is also required to interpret a sign survey, usually from a set of very badly written notes. Sign design is difficult, nonetheless. Sign design also involves drawing technical drawings such as an attachment detail and a ground sign installation detail. And the list goes on.
Figure 1. Sign Specifications
With regards to actual design, sign design is focused predominately on logo and letter design. The logo design refers to identity signage with a number of projects done with small business. However, with architectural sign design, the focus is dominantly structural in nature. Sign design also requires a designer to understand various factors outside of traditional graphic design, like designing on a budget and possessing a basic understanding of fabrication, including how to create a full sign plan with how-to-build. Sign design is not easy.
Figure 2. Estimating Drawing
As explained above, graphic design and sign design are not the same. This is clearly articulated by Lucky Benson, a professional sign designer. Lucky writes, “Where graphic designer are only limited by their imagination and page size, sign designers must take into account several factors. Some of those design factors include a city restriction, visibility issues, and client budget constraints. A sign designer must envision 3D objects and formulate that image into a workable sign design with both sides of their brain, the creative right side and the technical left side.”
Figure 3. Fabricated Reverse Channel Letters
To say sign design only covers designing sign is a huge misconception with people who hear the phrase. This misconception carries over to include people within the sign business (even owners). To add to this confusion with sign design being a misnomer, there are actually several different types of sign designers within the overall visual communications industry.
Figure 4. Comparison of Type of Sign Designers:
Non-Illuminated, Custom Electric, Experiential Graphic Design
So, when discussing sign design, what type of sign designer are you talking about: An electrical sign designer? An architectural sign designer? A sign designer who designs non-illuminated interior or exterior signage? An EGD designer who also specializes in Wayfinding design? There are actually a few more types of sign designers. Although these three types of sign designers have similarities, the skill set among each vary and sometimes vary greatly.
However, a sign designer will usually specialize in one area. It is commonplace that a business owner will hire a designer not knowing the actual type of designer they are hiring. No wonder so many sign businesses have issues within their art department, which are usually blamed on a designers attitude. This is a huge misconception. Most graphic designers who work in a sign company are simply unhappy. They signed up for design and kinda feel duped that they got all kinds of other things graphic designers are not used to.
So, what is sign design? First and foremost, sign design begins with a viewpoint completely opposite with how a graphic designer approaches design. With sign design, a designer has constraints, several of which are mentioned here.
One constraint is the area involves where a sign is placed, that is, where it will be installed. This is commonly referred to as a municipal restriction. City municipalities require exterior business signs to meet a certain square footage requirement.
Another design constraint is called minimalism. Signage is one second advertisement, at best. With sign design, less is more. If you design signs, don’t write an article with a design. Do not place everything about a business on a sign. No one will read it. Clutter usually muddles up signage, and in the end, a sign becomes unreadable, therefore defeating the purpose of a sign. Contrary to what business owners, government officials consider to be important, more information added onto a design is not good. More information on a sign will accomplish just the opposite of what people actually think it will achieve. It is a misconception that more is better with signage.
Lastly, sign design is something most graphic designers struggle with. A professional sign designer, upon completion of a design, must add sign specifications (i.e., written call-outs) with how a sign will be made. Graphic designers with no sign design experience get really frustrated with this.
A newly hired graphic designer is responsible to design a sign that will eventually be made into a dimensional object. This skill may be called envisioning, that is, to envision. Most graphic designers will struggle with this mental process. One of the ways to overcome this hurdle is to learn from good, up to date books on the subject, and this includes video training. Another way is approach the learning process is by walking around retail business environments within any city (stores). And lastly, to truly learn sign design, a designer should work for a sign company. A graphic designer who assumes they can design signs, will quickly learn, in order for a design to work, a graphic design will almost always need to be revised and modified. It’s simple to talk about sign design, and the concept of sign design, but it is very hard to grasp, and even harder to accomplish.
Figure 5. A Tech Guide for Signage. Source: SignDesignBooks.com
A graphic designer willing to learn sign design may consider starting with books written by this company: www.SignDesignBooks.com. Since this company is a pioneer in the field of creating easy to read books on the vast subject of sign design. Also, it should be noted, there are no colleges or technical schools that teach electrical sign design. There are also very few books on the subject of how-to design signs. But in 2009, the first book was produced by SignDesignBooks called Inside Sign Design.
Remember, a sign designer is not a graphic designer, although a sign designer must have a foundation with graphic design. Obviously, a sign designer can do graphic design, even if they are not that good at it. However, a graphic designer who designs a sign usually cannot explain how to have it built. This is a dilemma with most graphic designers. However, there are a few graphic designers who just have a natural ability to design signage, even if they don’t know how to write sign specifications. But there aren’t that many. Inside Sign Design explains how to write sign specifications for approximately seven different sign types.
Figure 6. Inside Sign Design. Source: SignDesignBooks.com
It takes years to be a good graphic designer, right? Why would it be any different with sign design?
A person who desires to learn sign design, should first have a good grasp with graphic design. This is a good start. However, there are people who have worked with the production side of a fabrication shop who have segued into a sign designer. This is a fact. There are drafters who have become sign designers. Within sign companies, there are estimators and sales people who know good sign design, and since they do not know graphic design software, they usually just explain their vision to a sign designer. In some cases, it works.
To become a professional sign designer, it really helps if you love typography. A basic understanding of architectural shapes and forms also helps. There are also the traditional design variables such as understanding color, color contrast, gradients, textures, shadows and lighting. A sign designer must know several types of metals used with fabrication of signage, including how to assign Pantone colors with their finishes.
However, with professional sign designer, knowing how to design signage that will work in daylight and with night surroundings is also key. There are more than 30 different sign types a professional designer becomes good with. And each sign type has its own particularities. So, despite popular belief in the design world, designing signs is no easy task.
In the end, a graphic designer who wishes to expand their design skills will increase their brand knowledge, greatly amplify their knowledge of dimensional design, should learn sign design. Because this is what it takes to become a professional sign designer.