Designing Award-Winning Signs: Drawing Night Lights

EMCs and the art of proper sign illustration

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It’s well understood that a good night-view illustration can make or break the sale. Designers have the ability to illustrate just about every element of a sign in some dynamic semi-photo-realistic ways. This gives the client a better understanding of what the finished sign might look like both during the day and at night. So, it only makes sense that understanding how the illumination and visual energy of the EMC affects the rest of the graphics on the sign is critical to effective monument sign design.

The EMCs of today have the ability to be very bright, and as a result the ID cabinet can literally disappear under the glare of the EMC. “Simply turn down the intensity if it’s too bright,” is the most common response to a poorly designed monument; however, that’s not always an option, nor is it practical to tell the customer that they need to dim their EMC if they want the rest of their sign to be visible in the dark.

As the designer, it is your job to not only illustrate the sign accurately, but to also anticipate problems that may occur with readability.

First step is to determine what the sign’s purpose really is. Ask the salesperson, “What is the purpose of this sign, and why is it necessary?” If the purpose of the sign is the EMC, then less emphasis needs to be placed on the primary ID cabinet so it does not try to compete, while still making the message visible over the glare of the EMC.  (See Image 1)

If the EMC is secondary to the primary ID cabinet graphic, then steps must be taken to make sure the primary graphic stands out and is visible above the glare of the EMC. (See Image 2)

If you find that the sign you are designing needs to communicate a static message or name, along with the visual hype of the EMC, then there are some key points to consider when designing with an EMC:

– Space
– Clarity
– Environment
– Contrast

Let’s examine these three design factors:


The final frontier … sorry, just couldn’t leave the Star Trek reference alone. Space is just as it seems, the more space you put between the primary sign face and the EMC, the better. The closer the graphics or main face is to the EMC, the harder it is to see and read the primary graphic at night. Space is the great equalizer and the more of it there is, the better. Sometimes it only requires a larger reveal to give that little bit of differentiation between the dynamic EMC and the primary sign faces’ graphics.


If you have ever dealt with a customer whose logo has more going on than a Where’s Waldo poster, then you understand where I am coming from on this. Here is your opportunity as a designer to sell the salesperson on why you chose not to include the customers full color logo on the sign. Be aware that the obvious knee jerk reaction is to create a drawing that illustrates how the glare of the EMC will be hazing-out that crazy-busy graphic they call their logo. However, tread lightly here as there is a very real danger that the customer’s opinion may be affected by their own passionate love of the logo their daughter made for the company back in 2002, and they may completely miss the point of your illustration. Regardless of your sign history and or design experience, setting the groundwork for what will work and what won’t work on the sign is paramount. Remember that you are the sign design professional, not the customer. It’s your role to show them what will and won’t work.


The area around the sign is key to how well it will read. Imagine if the sign was along the Las Vegas Strip, then it would require a different design discipline so that the message isn’t lost in the sea of visually demanding light and movement. If the sign has a big bold empty night sky to shine against, then the environment itself can act as the sign’s canvass, giving the main ID cabinet even better opportunities to stand out and be seen. Weighing the realities of the environment can make a big difference in how the EMC sign design is illustrated.


Contrast is key to an effective read of the ID cabinet message. When the ID cabinet must compete with the EMC, it’s advisable to use an illuminated cabinet and an entirely illuminated flex face. Use colors with the highest contrast so that the message is loud and clear above the visual playground it’s riding above. White on black, black on yellow, blue on white, the list goes on. If your ID message needs to stand out over the EMC, this may be the easiest and least expensive way to do it.

Know your products and their limitations

When placing the EMC within close proximity of the primary cabinet (where the main logo graphic is located) it’s important to consider the realities that exist based on the overall size of the sign. One of the more refined methods, such as routed push-thru, can be a huge step that doesn’t really provide the “bang” that it would on a much smaller identity marker or ground sign. 

If your main ID cabinet is more than 20 feet above grade, and an EMC is involved, a routed and backed method will prove to be just as effective at a much lower cost.  (See Image 3 and Image 4)

Then there are times when a face-illuminated logo cabinet with the logo printed on a white background is your best choice.  Illuminating the entire face of an ID cabinet is necessary if it must be bright enough to compete with the dancing, moving and flashing going on directly below it on the EMC.

Channel letters are a good choice if the sign is tall enough and the ID cabinet is wide enough. Channel letters do a great job of competing with the EMC for top billing. The drawback in some cases is the added cost that channels present. However, if the budget allows, then by all means use them.

Especially when the ID cabinet can be rendered as a name only, without a logo, such as when it simply identifies an office park, shopping center or a sports complex.

If there is any doubt on what to do, just remember that EMC’s tend to drown-out all of the other graphics that are placed above it, so take special care to address this during design, and not after the sign is up.

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 [email protected] or 970-481-4151.

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