The Technical Side of Sign Design: Designing Buildable Signs

Tips and techniques for a designer to quickly grasp sign design

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I am obsessed with signs and sign design. But before my first job at a sign company, it was not like that.

My first day on the job at a custom electric sign company was a tough one. Why? Simply because I was a graphic designer who had zero experience designing signs. In my mind, I was convinced I could design signs. My attitude was, “I am a designer, why do I need to learn to design signs? What’s the difference?”

When I speak with a graphic designer about sign design, the most common phrase I hear is, “I can design signs. What’s so hard about it?” To explain signage to a graphic designer does not usually work. I’ve tried that dozens of times. In some cases, a person has to learn the hard way and get frustrated. Eventually, a designer will say something like this: “You’re the sign maker, just make the sign!” A better way to speak with a graphic designer about signs is a question-based approach.

In this article, I will share tips and techniques which helped me become a self-taught sign designer, and eventually, a professional sign designer (since I make money doing it). Using these tips and following up regularly, in time, you should see a positive difference with the skill level of a graphic designer. Training is not easy, but your business will be better off with it.

We all know that “I can design signs” is a belief most designers have. However, when discussing sign design with a designer, a different approach must be used. This approach involves asking a willing graphic designer a series of questions about their sign knowledge (i.e., material used with sign types, basic sign drawing conventions, etc.). After posing these 10 questions (and others you invent), a graphic designer will almost always concede, “I know nothing about signs.” It is only at this point a graphic designer will be open to considering learning sign design. Anything before this point is a waste of time.

10 questions

The main benefit for a graphic designer to learn sign design

From my experience, learning sign design will eventually increase your understanding of branding and branding design, which is a specialized knowledge involving graphic design. Learning sign design will undoubtedly increase a designer’s understanding of identity signage (i.e., a small business logo sign). Sign design will show you why most billboard designs don’t work, mainly because you can’t read them. Just a waste of design. Learning sign design will absolutely increase a graphic designer’s skills, hands down. And lastly, sign design is more than dimensional signage, it also covers structural design.

Here are three tips and techniques that I employed to learn the basics of sign design and sign drawing layout.

1. Understanding an isometric image (basic drafting)

figure D
(Image courtesy Mike Burke)

What does drafting have to do with sign design? I’m glad you asked.

Drafting allows a designer to convey a 3D view of an object such as a front view and side view. This is a basic requirement of sign design, mainly custom electric signage. If a sign project requires more visuals to help sell a project, a sign designer may include a top view and even an oblique view (rarely needed). Basically, drafting will give a newly hired graphic designer a basic understanding of dimensional objects. This is the same requirement with sign design: to have a basic understanding of dimensional objects. Years later, I began to ask this interview question to owners of sign companies who replied unanimously with, “You’re right. I never ask a designer if they know drafting,” with pause and silence.

Tip one exercise in action. Pull up any search engine browser. Type in the word “isometric.” Make sure and click the “image” button at the top of the page, below the search box. Notice, with an isometric object you can view the front view, side view, and top view, all at once. So, now, imagine a dimensional letter as if was an isometric object. First and foremost, this is a visual principle that should be introduced to your graphic designer. Each day, your sign company should have a discussion about isometric objects. And more so, how an isometric object can be substituted for a sign object, such as a channel letter, a flat cut letter, a cast metal letter, or even a multi-layered ADA sign plaque. A basic study of internet searches with drafting should put your designer in the right frame of mind. Now you are laying the right foundation.

Multi view graphics
(Image courtesy Mike Burke)

Having a discussion about and viewing isometric objects is meant to help a graphic designer become familiar with envisioning 3D objects. This visual stimulus is a prerequisite if a graphic designer is going to grasp sign design. A designer must first become accustomed to designing 3D in their head. If not, a graphic design intended to be designed as a sign design will continue to be rejected as “we can’t build this.” And no designer wants to hear this.

2. Conduct a mandatory tour of a fabrication shop

After having my sign designs rejected for the umpteenth time, I decided to push away from the computer and go into the fabrication shop of my company. Fortunately, I worked in a midsize custom electric sign company, so it was a signage theme park for me. My goal was to inspect how signs were built. My learning process would have been accelerated had someone explained things to me. My boss was the quiet type. The shop foreman was way too busy. So, I had to use my own initiative to learn. I had to observe and take notes. When I could, I asked lots of questions.

So, I took it upon myself to do hand sketches as I watched the fabricators build. Then, I would go back to my design station and draw what I sketched. This is a time-consuming way to do things, but this was my only alternative. Remember, I had no one to teach me, and most people do not know how to properly explain signage. There is no school or training with sign design. If you want to learn, you have to take an initiative or read books.

Note: If you don’t have a fabrication shop, set up an appointment with your local wholesale fabrication shop. If you don’t work with a wholesaler, think about another sign company you have an alliance with and visit their shop. Be inventive.

3. Conduct a mandatory tour of a mall or retail venue

The business landscape is littered with signage, most of which is not very good. I would even say, there are a lot of signs you can’t even read. But this is not entirely the fault of sign companies. A good number of business owners have an identity logo created that they believe is good for business. Most of the time a logo designed by a graphic designer does not work as a sign.

A graphic designer who would like to be inspired with sign design should take a tour of a nearby mall (if you live in the United States). An American mall showcases some of the very best sign designs in action (i.e., installed). Mall signs are usually lit up, and just glistening with awesomeness. Again, it really helps if you have an experienced sign person explain signage to you. You cannot possibly remember everything, so take notes. And be careful about taking photos at the mall because security sometimes frowns upon this activity.

Mike Burke

Mike Burke

Mike Burke has several years of experience in sign design, from being the lead designer for various electric sign companies to subcontracting his sign design work and technical drawings. He's the author of several books related to the sign business. To learn more, visit

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