Designing Award-Winning Signs: Finding Your Font


Finding Your Font

What sets the sign industry apart from every other graphic design, marketing or advertising field? Can you name it? It’s really a very common aspect of design that is shared by every graphic design, marketing and advertising firm today, but is handled differently only by the sign industry. Give up? It’s the grand and glorious font! Yes, the font—we cannot communicate without it and for graphic designers, marketers and advertisers, the font is what creates the emotion, urgency and visual identity of a design.However, the sign industry focuses not only on the skillful, balanced arrangement of alphabetical or numerical shapes, we must also pay close attention to the constructability of the letters and numbers we design. Nobody else does that! It’s not good enough in the sign industry to just look cool—our designs must be buildable and serviceable. The art of channel letter fabrication requires a sign designer to pay close attention to certain elements of the font so that the letter can be built either by hand or by machine.

Stroke and serif size is what we will be addressing in this article.

A Wide Selection of Fonts

I’m not sure where the number stands today, but at last check via the Internet I found the number of available fonts to be in the 250,000 range. I have attempted to search for fonts within a 90,000+ font library and even with the best font management tools, it’s a daunting task. With that level of variety and selection, the sign designer is often presented with fonts that have been chosen by print media designers for the simple reason of “looking cool” with no regard for the constructability of the typeface. Stroke width and serif size are often ignored by print media designers because they never have to worry about them. They have no real effect on the final product they give to their customer—unless, of course, it’s a sign design.

How Narrow is Too Narrow?

The sign designer’s job is to calculate and identify the narrowest strokes of the letter and provide the fabricator a stroke width that’s just wide enough to get their fingers, tools and lighting components in. The best way to really understand these challenges is through hands-on experience by helping to build a couple of channel letters. I highly recommend this type of cross-training for the purpose of better understanding the challenges each department faces. In this way, the designer will have a better understanding of what it takes to build a channel letter, and how adding just a quarter of an inch to a letter stroke can make a difference in how fast it’s fabricated.

In most cases the sign designer must manually adjust the letter stroke in order to provide adequate space within the stroke for fingers and tools. One of the easiest and fastest methods of widening a stroke is to add a uniform outline to the entire letter. “Fattening” the letter can sometimes ruin the appearance of the font so much that the letter loses its signature appearance.

Step 1: The process of manually widening the stroke is done through node editing. First, convert your letter to curves, then, use your node editing tools to move each node the appropriate distance to provide a wider stroke, or a larger serif.

Step 2: For this example I am working in Coreldraw. I have selected both of the nodes I want to move and then gave the nodes an attribute. That attribute is set by using the Shape Tool and here I selected the Straight Line attribute so that I can move it to where I want it to be without affecting the other nodes in the letter. As I have shown in Graphic D, I am working in scale and I have marked the desired stroke width by placing a red line box behind the stroke. I will now bring the stroke lines out so they line up directly over the rectangle I have drawn. In this way I now know that the stroke is at the appropriate width for fabricating a channel letter.

Allow Wrench Room

If you are designing a neon channel letter, the minimum stroke clearance needed is much wider than what is required for a LED illumination, both of which are dictated by Underwriters Laboratory (UL). The best way to remember this is to actually watch the fabricators assemble a traditional neon letter and an LED letter. Watch how the narrow stroke poses challenges in assembly of the tube supports and the wiring of the double-backs and boots, as well as fitting that piece of 15mm glass tubing inside there, too. It gets crowded pretty quickly and it is wise to be familiar with UL Standard 48 for channel letters. All in all, there has to be enough “wrench room” to assemble the letter, with adequate clearances for fingers, calk guns, illumination and wiring.

In conclusion, the most important thing to remember when selecting a font for a channel letter sign, or when being presented a logo design that needs to be created as a channel letter sign, is to check the width of the narrowest stroke, and verify that the serifs are of proper size for your fabrication capabilities. This one frequently overlooked step should become a regular item that you verify on every job you design.

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