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The Total Language of a Sign

The total language of a sign – not only what it communicates but how it communicates – must be considered for signage to be maximally effective. There are multiple components which make up the total language of a sign and must be considered by designers and manufacturers to properly execute a spatial vision for their clients.

Before we consider what components go into the language of a sign, we must first consider the purpose of a sign or signage system. Different signage elements combine to assist the primary functions of orientation and information. Signs orient and they inform. They organize spaces, clarify one’s sense of direction, and help determine both the flow and behaviour of users within an environment. When signage is standardized to a specific communicative language, it brings visual harmony to a larger space, as well as coherence. This coherence affords users a sense of comfort by providing them with readable information, understandable by all. They will feel welcomed and structured within a space, contributing to their sense of personal security.

In order to create this sense of personal security, the total language of a sign must communicate effectively. This means that users of your space should be able to read, absorb and use the message of your signage instantly.

Total signage language includes the following elements:

  • Content: Once a client is attracted to a sign, it must communicate something to them. This can be done through language most readily; however, language should be kept simple, concise and to the point. Wordy signs that use too much jargon will be immediately dismissed as clients seek out simpler, usable information about the environment.
  • Graphics: If your sign does not use written language, it might use graphics to communicate a message. These could be directional cues (in the case of arrows) or identification images (figures to signify the function of a certain space). These should follow universal images wherever possible as users will come to expect certain methods of graphic communication. New imagery can confuse how they interact with your space.
  • Shape: The shape of a sign should be intuitive. This is not always as straight-forward as it sounds and includes considerations about the environment in which a sign appears, what other design elements are around and what is appearing on the sign itself. Oftentimes, the simpler the design is, the better it functions so keep shapes straightforward according to your needs.
  • Colour: Colour can be very helpful for communicating information about your brand or for separating regions within a larger architectural space, particularly when different areas are marked for different functions or services. Colour can also be detrimental to a sign if it makes language difficult to read or graphics difficult to see. Pick appropriate colours to communicate most effectively.
  • Location: Of course, where a sign is placed is part of its overall language. People have come to expect that signs (particularly directional signs) appear in certain places such as overhead, before rounding corners, or in front of elevators. Follow these standardized placements to make sure your sign is seen and communicates most effectively.
  • Lighting: Signage lighting is crucially important because it ensures that all of the thought you have put into your sign is worth it in the end because, ultimately, the sign can be seen. Lighting can include design elements within the sign itself (whether using front or back lit letters or lightboxes) or can be part of the architectural design of a room (in the case of spotlighting a sign). Either way, visibility is a major consideration in the total language of a sign and ultimately allows it to fully communicate.

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