I recently came across a question on Quora (www.quora.com), a website that declares, “The best answer to any question”, where users can post questions and have them answered by other users, usually experts in the subject. There was a recent question that I felt I was qualified to answer; “What are the best fonts for signs?”.
I was raised in the sign business. When I started professionally 38 years ago, there was not the plethora of fonts available today. All layouts were done by hand using type catalogues as a guide. In 1982, I designed the “Ross Dress For Less” logotype with a pencil on my drafting table.
This process held true through the 70’s, at least until the popularity of dry transfer type (Letraset). This convenience was followed by the early Macintoshes, which offered a broad range of fonts. Since then, the choice of fonts has exploded to an almost absurd level. The biggest mistake I see in contemporary sign design is using too many disparate fonts in a single layout. With signage, the KISS theory (Keep it Simple, Stupid) should always apply.
It’s interesting to note that many of the traditional fonts, Helvetica, Times Roman, Futura, Optima, Avant Garde, etc., are still in popular use in sign design. Why? Legibility is certainly a factor, but there is a familiarity that improves the conveyance of the message. Overly elaborate or stylized fonts might look good on paper, but put them on a wall and the letter recognition suffers. Remember that you have to get your message across to a very mobile public with a short attention span while viewing the sign at a distance.
I generally advise designers to stay away from condensed or compressed fonts as they tend to blend together when viewed at a distance. And much the same reason as serif fonts are used in printing for their improved legibility, the same applies to signs. One of the more critical elements to typographical graphics is the kerning (the space between letters). Crowding the type reduces legibility, too much space and the message loses context.
One of the tests for the effectiveness of a sign layout is to print it in color (including the color of the background on which the sign is to be placed) and put it all the way across the room. Step back as far as you can go and evaluate the legibility. Don't trust your monitor for this purpose, as it is backlit and gives a false sense of scale and contrast.
Skip Moore, President
Bill Moore & Associates Graphics Inc.