The 6 Core Disciplines of Sign Design

No matter how great the design may be, if it doesn’t communicate a message, it’s only a design

Remember, signage means communication. Design enhances the delivery of the communication. No matter how great the design is, if it doesn’t communicate a message, it’s only a design. Words are optional. Symbols can count as signage if an intended message/thought/warning/direction/etc. is being communicated.

Below I have listed my six core disciplines of sign design, and you may notice that my approach to each is a bit different and deeper than what you have previously considered. I try to consider the psychographic effectiveness of sign design, and when possible, I try to incorporate elements that might appeal to the viewer’s cognitive behavior.

6 core disciplines of sign design

  1. Define the sign type by identifying its purpose — what is it communicating?
  2. Identify the read distance — initial and optimal?
  3. Determine the best size and placement of the sign — can less say more?
  4. Design with appropriate contrasts
  5. Choose a font that’s readable from the initial and optimal distances
  6. Create a layout that promotes the proper importance and flow of the message(s)

This is something I’ve fine-tuned as a sign designer over the last 37 or so years. You may have seen a list like this online where companies offer up “solutionary” ideas to help their customer understand that there is more to sign design than just “a good-looking sign,” but my approach focuses on the core of design disciplines that will provide the customer with a sign that actually does what it is intended to do.

Industry differences have no effect on proper sign design. Cars, coffee, boats, houses, dogs, cats, cows, rugs, hats, pillows, or beds, effective signage must follow the core design disciplines that consistently produce effective sign designs. Period. And, I have noticed that 99% of most sign design fails have to do with designs that do not consider the appropriate read distance, contrast, or font choice for effective sign design. There’s also “thought count,” in which signs try to convey too many ideas to the viewer. No single core element is more important than the others as they all must be implemented for the sign design to do its job.

Matt Charboneau

Matt Charboneau

Matt Charboneau (shar-bo-no) started his career in the sign industry in 1985 as Charboneau Signs. He initially focused on hand-lettered signs, windows, and vehicles while also providing logo design and graphics. As years passed, he expanded into the world of electric monument signs, combining his eye for graphic design with his mechanical aptitude. He utilized the internet to provide his design services to sign companies around the country, providing remote assistance with design, fabrication, and installation drawings of all types of electric signage. In 2007, he became a contributing writer and the technical advisor for monument signs at SDG magazine. In 2017 he published the Pre-Sale Sign Survey Field Guide. In 2019, he started Storm Mountain Signs and the Sign Design Institute, which offers design training for new sign designers. He is reachable at or 970-481-4151.

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