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Sign, Sign, Everywhere a Sign

Jim Correll, director Fab Lab ICC at Independence Community College, Independence Kansas 

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign; so go the lyrics to the 1971 song called “Sign” by a group called “5 Man Electric Band.” Indeed, there are signs all around us. Some like the road and street signs that convey information to help us get from point A to point B without crashing into each other are generic and consistent, a good thing given their purpose. Early in the days of automobile travel, roadbuilders saw a value in this consistency. The purpose of other signs is to convey information about businesses, products and services. Today, elaborate digital signs are available so messages can be changed every few seconds. 

Missing Signs Are Part of the Story Too 

Sometimes signs that are missing are an important part of the story. In 2014, Independence brought a community branding expert named Roger Brooks to town to give people an outsider’s view of the community. One of the main points made by Mr. Brooks was that there are a lot of great attractions and businesses in the community but directional signage either doesn’t exist or is not prominent in helping visitors and newcomers find things. He suggested destination signage, branded and consistent, be added along all highway entrances into town. He also suggested what are called “blade” signs under the awnings of downtown businesses. Blade signs are perpendicular to the traffic path and easier to read than the parallel signs on the store fronts. Someone in the audience commented that the blade signs were against city ordinance. I’m paraphrasing, but his response was something like “Well, you can regulate your way out of existence.” There has been a movement just in the last few months to design and create the destination signage for community entrances. As far as I know, the ordinances against blade signs are still in place although a few rogue business owners have hung them anyway. 

Some Signs Say Too Much 

Many of our signs try to say too much, especially billboards. Most people will only spend 3 – 5 seconds reading a sign, while driving; it’s more like three seconds. Words and images and even the fonts should be chosen very carefully to be very brief and concise. You can’t read many billboards until very close and then you zoom by without time to finish. I knew a billboard designer once whose sign text, I thought, was too big and bold to be attractive. I changed my mind when I noticed that, in a two-sign structure, his sign was always readable from much further away than the one with too many words. 

Signs Should Say Welcome, Some Do Not 

Most signs in businesses and organizations should be used to welcome customers or patrons to use their products and services. The messages conveyed by our signs go far beyond the words and images. Many times, the subtle—or not so subtle—message beyond the message is contrary to the intent of the sign. Look around. Many signs you see are worn out, dirty or faded. Often, there are too many “No’s.” No Public Restrooms, No Substitutions, No Shoplifting-You Will Be Prosecuted and We Are Watching You, No [insert your text here] Allowed. People want to buy from or otherwise patronize businesses and organizations that are clean, welcoming and up to date. Signs that are worn out, dirty or faded make the opposite impression. 

Signs Should Not Punish the Many for the Faults of a Few 

The “No” signs usually are a result of a small percentage; let’s say 10%, of customers doing something that makes us mad. We want to make sure the offending practice doesn’t happen again, so we put up a “No” sign.  The problem is that 90% of our customers would never do the offending practices and are a little (sometimes a lot) put off by all the negativities. Sometimes, we’re put off enough that we don’t come back. Many “No” signs can be reworded to eliminate the word “No.” Instead of “No Public Restroom” how about “Restrooms Are For Our Customers?  

It’s a good idea periodically for us all to take a look at our signage and try to do so with the objectivity of a stranger. There are many tools at Fab Lab ICC available to help with the physical upgrading of many types of signs. We have people in our network of entrepreneurs and small business owners that are very good at wording and layout to help make sure you are conveying the messages you intend. 

Jim Correll is the director of Fab Lab ICC at the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship on the campus of Independence Community College. He can be reached at (620) 252-5349 or by email at Archive columns and podcasts at 

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