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December 1, 2003 12:03 AM

Broken: Sign typography

Andrea Emery writes from Ottawa, Canada:

Every day I cycle into school and on my way in, I pass this building sign. It's been up for quite a while and I couldn't resist snapping a photo of it. It's a perfect example of the Gestalt principle of proximity: things that are grouped closer together are perceived as belonging together. Therefore we tend to read this sign from top to bottom and not necessarily line by line.


It also doesn't help that there's a big dividing bar down the middle of the sign!

Posted by: codeman38 at December 1, 2003 02:00 AM

what?!? if it said something up and down in two columns, maybe. but "car products on" and "care now sale" dont make sense on their own. how would you have done it and how much does it improve the sign?

Posted by: araboth at December 8, 2003 05:25 PM

How about this:




instead of:




When driving, a sign should be instantly readable the first time. With the version in the photo, most people will have the following internal thoughts:

"Oh look, a sign: 'Car products on care now sale.' Hmm. That can't be right. I must have read it wrong. Try again. 'Car products on...' (okay so far) 'care sale now.' Did they put up the sign wrong? Oh, 'Car care products now on sale!' Now I get it. Aaaggghhh!!! Tree!!!!"

Note to amateur typesetters:

It is never more readable to center multiple lines of text (this remains true despite the widespread use of this method).

This applies doubly when the text is in two columns!

Posted by: Rick Clark at December 13, 2003 02:44 PM

Oops. The web form deleted my extra spaces. The second version I typed was supposed to emulate the sign, like so:




Although now that I look at it, even:




is inferior to:




2nd note to amateur typesetters: Pay attention to line breaks.

They can help or hurt readablility.

Posted by: Rick Clark at December 13, 2003 02:51 PM

I am reminded of a sign I saw at a convinience store:



Except this sign was designed to be read vertically; the words didn't actually line up for that, but that's how it was supposed to be read and it was somehow easier to read it line by line. Whoops.

Posted by: Windrider at January 14, 2004 09:42 PM

Perhaps the "on" should've been moved a little closer to the sale, as with "car" and "care"

Posted by: ..... at June 13, 2004 10:28 AM

I think an unhappy employee who's intent was to confuse made the sign. A place I worked at when i was in high school had me put letters on a sign. I can't remeber exactly what it said but i confused a lot of people- on purpose. The manager asked me to fix it once then i think he forgot or just gave up. That's what happens when you pay people cheap and you treat them like crap. They make stuff that is actually


( that is Broken misspelled for those that didn't get it.)

Posted by: Wal*Mart Security at June 24, 2004 03:14 PM

Unfortunately the sign industry is full of small-brained production people who know absolutely nothing about type and it's importance in any industry. If you can't relay your message convincingly and meaningfuly then you should have no message to relay.

People . . . those of you who either own or operate businesses, please invest in a knowledgabel graphic designer to do your brochures and your signage. Don't try to do this yourself or you will just make a mess

Posted by: signtypeguy at January 3, 2005 01:59 AM

I am trying to find online references to signs that appear on road signs, public transportation and so forth. I have very little theoretical knowledge in typography and typesetting (and/or graphic art) but this book "Signs - Lettering in the Environment" by Phil Baines and Catherine Dixon really brought this fascination with the aesthetic quality in signages.

I used to pass by this Catholic Church which had this banner that read: "Mary Our Mother". The text in the banner is readable. But there might also exist some problems when our mind plays tricks with the meaning of similiar spelled or sounding words. One could interpret it as "Marry Our Mother".

Posted by: Yamashita Riki at March 16, 2005 12:44 AM

windrider that can be read 2 different ways.

Body Hair piercing cuts or body piercing hair cuts

Posted by: unknown at March 25, 2005 09:56 PM

And when taking advice from opinionated people like signtypeguy, make sure they know how to spell words like "knowledgeable," or you could end up with screwed up brochures anyway!

Posted by: Amber at January 31, 2006 02:28 PM

Amber-- and know where apostrophes do and don't belong in "it's"-- in the UK this error is often called Greengrocer's Apostrophe. (Or Greengrocers' Apostrophe?)

(I'd rather get rid of apostrophes altogether.)

Posted by: Simon Trew at January 31, 2006 07:23 PM

Well spotted, Simon! And we both missed "meaningfuly."

Wow - I guess it really IS important to invest in a knowledgeable graphic designer - if we were to do it ourselves, and get the spelling, apostrophes, and grammar correct, our signs would never appear on This Is Broken - and that would mean much less exposure!

Posted by: Amber at February 2, 2006 12:14 PM

I am reminded of Corner Gas episode where the two businesses in the small town start putting up confusing or rude signs so customers will come in and talk about them.

Posted by: Kat at February 21, 2006 06:37 PM

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