4 Ways to Avoid Signage Design Disasters

Creatives from some of today’s leading firms discuss where things have gone wrong in the ideation or execution of signage design—& what they learned from it.

4 Ways to Avoid Signage Design Disasters

Creatives from some of today’s leading firms discuss where things have gone wrong in the ideation or execution of signage design—& what they learned from it.

We all make mistakes and (hopefully) learn something in the process—but it’s much more fun to learn from the mistakes of other people, right? 😉 In this follow-up to last week’s Signage Design Inspiration, Tips & Tricks from 5 Leading Firms, we asked those same leading firms about where things have gone wrong in the ideation or execution of signage design—and what they learned from it.

Below, you’ll hear from creatives at Duffy, Sussner Design Company, Test Monki and Design Ranch—all of which have been recognized in the signage & environmental graphics category of the HOW International Design Awards. (Remember—this year’s deadline is Sept. 11! See all categories here and enter your work today!)

Pay Close Attention to Scale

“One thing we learned very early on was that scale in relationship to the surroundings changes everything,” says Nathaniel Cooper, creative director at Design Ranch. For that reason, those at Design Ranch make mockups at actual size for nearly everything and then tape them up in their locations to ensure they have the size just right. “Nothing’s worse than being there on install day and the sign or graphics feeling too large or too small,” Cooper adds.

signage design by Duffy


Duffy’s creative director Alan Leusink recalls scale being a big challenge when it came to the firm’s final application of the Mall of American entrance signage. “We were in the final stages of installing signage designed to span the new four-story glass facade entrance when materials, building regulations, finishes and the quickly approaching opening date all came into play,” Leusink says.

“Because it was applied in multiple sections, the paint gradients didn’t match at the intersections of each section,” he says. “Multiple attempts were made before its final installation. Through the process, we learned how critical the choice of materials are when working with signage so large. Using smoother, lighter material would have eliminated a lot of the issues we faced. It wasn’t traditional signage, so we should have looked beyond traditional materials.”

signage design by Sussner Design Company

And sometimes when considering the scale of a project, it’s best to remember that just because we can do something, doesn’t mean we should. “In our own office, we created an ultra-detailed repeating border that was cut from vinyl,” says Ben Alpert, senior designer at Sussner Design Company. “We ran it around almost the full perimeter of our space. It looks amazing, but our printer and her team spent a lot of hours weeding the tiny negative spaces in the design by hand. They will never let us live that one down. We try to keep the cut vinyl stuff bigger in scale now.”

Speaking of Materials … Test, Test, Test

signage design by Test Monki

Test Monki learned the hard way that testing, and then testing some more, isn’t just a good idea—it’s a vital step. When the team worked on their first chalkboard sign, the designer in charge of the project spent hours researching rope, birch rods, chalkboards, chalk, sealants and more. Once everything was gathered, the designer spent several more hours drawing the logo to perfection. Then came time to seal the chalk on the board.

“I asked her if she had tested the sealant beforehand,” says Suzy Simmons, co-founder and principal of Test Monki. “The deer-in-headlights look told me the answer. When we sprayed the sealant, the logo completely disappeared and the chalkboard now had a weird sheen. She wiped said sheen but soon realized that she would have to wipe down the entire board, putting her back to square one. At this point, the project was way over budget, but she re-drew the whole board again.”

The team laughs about it now, but is thankful to have learned a valuable lesson. They now ensure that every environmental graphic can be both produced ­­and installed properly.

Work Closely with the Signage Company

At Design Ranch, they’ve often found better and sometimes even less expensive ways of making something just by bringing the signage company into the process early on.

“It’s also important to continue to have check-ins along the way to make sure your vision is not changing through the building process,” Cooper says. “We make sure we’re always on location for the install as well. We’ve caught things so many times that we never miss the install.”

Overcommunicate the Details

Test Monki design director Gabby Nguyen recalls having to think quickly to correct a mistake with some acrylic menu boards made for Huti’s Free-Fire Grill. “When we sent the design file over to the client, we mentioned that the Illustrator file was designed at half the size,” she says. “The client failed to convey that message to the printer, so I got a call the day before the restaurant was to open saying, ‘Man, these menu boards are tiny.’ When I got to the restaurant, I realized that they printed and cut the acrylic to half the size.”

With no time to reprint and cut new acrylic, the team had to figure out a quick solution and ended up printing on foam boards. Nowadays, Simmons notes, they overcommunicate everything, making sure to include details in every document their clients and vendors receive from them.

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