vistaprint guide to sign design

Ultimate guide to signage design: How to design a sign

The world is saturated with visual stimuli. 

Whether it’s the vibrant colors of a cold fall afternoon, a brightly designed shop front or the dizzying lights of electronic billboards in city centers. 

In this large and loud world, standing out among the crowd can be difficult, which is why signs are the perfect vehicle to communicate your brand. 

Signs are our guides in busy streets, visual “hellos” to our target audiences, elegant ways to get our messages seen. And with signs being such fantastic tools of communication, their design is equally important.

In this ultimate guide, we’ll take you through the do’s and don’ts of how to design a sign for your business, as well as lay out the nuances you need to take note of to ensure your brand’s message gets seen. 

What is a sign?

A sign is a physical information tool primarily used for advertising, marketing or informational purposes. Signs can display anything from a company’s name, logo or promotional message to warnings, information or other useful details. 

In marketing, signs are mostly used to increase brand visibility, guide audiences and promote products and services. 

But really, signs are so much more than just pieces of printed material or electronic displays. They’re storytellers, blending art, psychology and marketing. 

Rooted deep in history, signs have evolved from caveman wall paintings etched onto rock to sophisticated digital screens adorning bustling city centers. 


Stay informed and research your local signage laws so you don’t accidentally break the rules when placing your sign!

The purposes and roles of signage

Signs play an important role in our daily lives. Directing us, informing us and influencing our decisions and perceptions. From guiding us in sprawling malls to introducing us to new brands and products, their influence is undeniable. 

Let’s break down the different purposes and roles of the various types of signs: 


Billboards are considered the pinnacle of signs. Designed for mass communication, billboards are typically found along highways and in town and city centers. Aimed at capturing the attention of vast audiences, their large scale is perfect for promoting major events, introducing new products or launching new blockbuster movies. 

An infographic wall sign

Sourced via Billboard Today


Portable and versatile, banners are used for temporary promotions or events. Whether that’s a shop announcing a sale, promoting a local fair or even celebrating a birthday, banners are a cost-effective solution for conveying concise messages.

custom banner by vistaprint


Often found on sidewalks outside bars or cafes, A-frames are dual-side signs used to target pedestrians. They’re often used to showcase daily specials and promotions, or to guide people to an entrance. They’re also the most common design for road signs diverting foot traffic or announcing things such as a temporary ban on parking.

a frame sign

Digital screens

Modern and dynamic, digital screens are most commonly seen on bus stops or advertising large-scale brands in malls, airports and city centers – from Piccadilly Circus and Times Square to Tokyo and Dubai. Their utility and ability to allow for changing content make them a popular choice (if you have the budget). Apart from advertising, they’re also used for public service announcements and real-time updates. 

Shop fronts

The faces of brick-and-mortar businesses, shop-front signs introduce a brand and give the reader a clue of what they will find inside. A well-designed shop front can catch the eye of and entice potential customers, while a scruffy, lackluster one might do the opposite. 

custom storefront signs printed by vistaprint


Flags are versatile signs that can be used in a wide variety of ways. Whether they’re representing nations, institutions or brands, flags are fantastic tools for putting your message across instantly. Due to their dynamic movement, they’re great at catching the audience’s eye, which makes them perfect for conveying promotional messages. 

custom printed flags vistaprint

Branding and marketing through signage

In the marketing world, visual cues can dictate the choices and brand loyalty of your audience. This makes signage an influential bridge between your brand and your target market. 

Let’s take a look at the different ways signs play a role in shaping brand narratives and driving marketing strategies: 


In the fast-paced, dynamic world of business, first impressions matter. Your sign often serves as the first touchpoint or initial handshake between your brand and a potential customer. Your sign’s design, colors, typography and even what material you choose reflect your brand’s ethos and tell a story of who and what you are. 

A silent salesperson

Just like a salesperson pitching a product to a room full of people, a sign promotes a brand or product day and night – and often to far more people than just a room full. Its constant presence in the eye of the public means the selling never stops and neither does the silent reinforcement of your brand message. 

Elevating brand perception

Designing your sign requires a high degree of care. An aesthetically pleasing, clear sign can elevate your brand’s perception, making it appear appealing, trustworthy and professional. At the same time, a poorly designed or maintained sign can do the exact opposite, suggesting negligence, unreliability or a lack of professionalism. 

VistaPrint Tip:

Whatever you do for your sign, make sure it’s always aligning with your brand. That’s how you can build brand recognition!

The basics of effective signage design

When you dive into the advanced minutiae of designing a sign, it might start to become a tiny bit intricate and confusing. However, there are a few fundamental principles to keep in mind that are constant across a wide range of platforms and purposes. 

Because after all, if you don’t get the basics right, then nothing that comes after will have any effect whatsoever. 

With that in mind, let’s dive into the basics of signage design: 

  • Legibility: Here’s an easy question for you: What is the primary purpose of a sign? That’s right, it’s communication. So if your audience can’t easily read or understand your sign, you’ve fallen at the first hurdle. Make sure that you choose fonts and type sizes that are clear, uncomplicated and readable from a distance. That means avoiding overly decorative fonts and making sure there’s a good contrast between your text and the background. 
  • Conciseness: In today’s fast-paced world, you have next to no time to get your message across. So ask yourself, if someone only glanced at your sign for two seconds, would they get the message? Clarity and brevity are key – because it’s not about how much information you can cram onto your sign, but how effectively you can communicate your essential message. Make sure you dig down to the very core of what you want to say and let every single word and image count. 
  • Visibility: What’s the point of a sign if the sign can’t be seen? Visibility is an obvious factor to consider, but it’s one that is often overlooked. Consider your sign’s placement, size and orientation. Is it going to be seen by pedestrians or drivers? Can it be seen at night as well as it can be seen during the day? These are all key questions you need to ask yourself so that you can really make sure your sign is as effective as possible. 
  • Engagement: A truly effective sign engages its audience. And the fun thing about engagement is there’s no one single way to do it – you can be as creative as you like. Are you engaging through a splash of color? A hint of humor? Or maybe even an intriguing, eye-catching design element? If your sign can evoke emotion or pique curiosity, then you’re automatically on to a winner. 
  • Consistency: Every single sign you create, from the largest billboard to the smallest card, should be in complete harmony with your brand. Consistent use of colors, fonts and imagery across different signs reinforces your brand’s identity and facilitates a cohesive brand experience. 
  • Adaptability: In the dynamic world of business and marketing, the importance of having the ability to adapt can’t be overestimated. While your core design needs to be consistent, your signs should also allow for updates, tweaks and changes without needing a complete overhaul – whether that’s for promotions, seasonal offers or even new product launches. 


If you have the budget, consider getting some backlighting or spotlights for your sign to keep it visible at night. If you can’t stretch to that, try to make sure the area your sign is in is well lit by street lamps.

printed sign on outdoor tent with text

The top 6 design elements for creating the perfect sign

Crafting the perfect sign is a precise blend of art and science. Each element needs to be meticulously chosen to create a cohesive, engaging visual communication tool. 

Let’s take a look at the top design elements for creating the perfect sign: 

1. Color

Quite obviously, color is a pretty important element in any sign. But that doesn’t mean everything has to be vibrant pinks or electrifying blues – color can be used in subtle ways to both entice and cause reactions. 

  • Psychological impact: Each and every hue of each and every color has an associated emotion or perception. Red can evoke excitement and urgency, blue can give a sense of calm and tranquility, while green often showcases nature or health. 
  • Brand consistency: Make sure your chosen colors align with your brand’s existing palette. Having consistency in your colors helps build your brand identity. 
  • Contrast: Proper contrast between your text and your background colors enhances readability and allows your sign to grab attention much more easily. 
custom printed window decal vistaprint

2. Typography

Your typography is the voice of your sign. It allows you to make your brand resonate with clarity and intent. 

  • Personality: Fonts can actually carry inherent personalities. Think of the seriousness of Times New Roman, or the silliness of Comic Sans. As a rule of thumb, serif fonts tend to convey a more traditional angle, while sans-serif feels much more modern. Use your typography to subtly convey your brand and your message. 
  • Spacing and size: Your sign needs to be legible. For that to happen, you need to focus on the size of both your sign and your font, as well as how the text and images are spaced out on the page. 
  • Simplicity: As we said before, signs are communication tools. And who wants to be complexly communicated to? With your sign design, aim for ultimate clarity. You can do this by avoiding overly decorative or cursive fonts and sticking to something simple. 

3. Graphics and images

They say that a picture is worth a thousand words (sounds like a good tool to use when space is at a premium doesn’t it?). But while that may be true, the right picture is worth much much more. 

  • Universal language: Imagery and graphics transcend language and culture. They are universal communication tools that can reach each corner of the globe and resonate. 
  • Resolution: You should only use quality, high-resolution images to maintain clarity and professionalism. Nobody wants to look at a sign with blurry images. 
  • Relevance: Your images and graphics should be directly related to your sign’s message. Never just add things for the sake of it. 
custom printed store sign vistaprint

4. Material

Your choice of material can impact both the aesthetics and the longevity of your sign. Here’s what you need to consider: 

  • Durability: Your material should be chosen based on the environmental exposure your sign will experience. A paper sign won’t last long in a rainy environment with no cover. 
  • Context: Choose a material that fits the context and message of your sign. If you’re promoting an eco-friendly product or brand, it’s probably best not to use unrecyclable plastic. 
  • Sustainability: While we’re on the topic of sustainability, utilizing an eco-friendly material can be a great idea for your business. It can help showcase your brand as modern, forward-thinking and committed to the environment. 

5. Texture

While it’s not often thought about, texture can actually add another layer to the design of your sign – moving past just focusing on the visuals.  

  • Tactility: Textures can make a sign feel more premium and be more memorable. It can also convey luxury, which is perfect for high-end brands. 
  • Accessibility: When you want to reach a wide audience, you need to take people’s needs into consideration. Incorporating features such as braille enhances inclusivity and widens your reach. 
  • Depth: Back on the visuals, texture can also add a richness to your sign’s visual appeal. 

6. Size and scale

Your sign’s dimensions should fit with its purpose and your viewers’ vantage point, so remember to consider these points: 

  • Viewing distance: Choose the size of your sign and font based on where your audience will be positioned. For example, if it’s on a highway underpass, you’ll need your sign to be big enough to be easily seen by drivers. 
  • Proportion: Make sure that you keep a level of harmony throughout all of your design elements. This is done with things like proper sizing and alignment, as well as consistent spacing. 
  • Environment: Ensure that your sign fits in its intended environment and harmonizes with its surroundings. Avoid potential obstructions, clashing background colors and poor lighting conditions. Also, make sure your sign doesn’t pose any hazards like obstructing pathways or drivers’ sight lines.  

The 4 simple steps for designing your sign

Crafting an impactful sign is an intricate journey. We’ve already looked at all of the design elements and the basics of designing your sign, so now let’s take a look at the actual steps you need to take to design your sign: 

Step 1: Research

The first step is to take a deep dive into the who, why, where and what of your sign. Research the history of signage within your industry and take a look at the famous, timeless designs that have performed well. From here, you can start to spot trends that you can use to help you design your own sign. 

It’s also important to take the time to truly understand your target audience. Figure out what their preferences are, what they aren’t so keen on and what truly resonates with them. 

Step 2: Drafting

Creativity tends to flow when you’re given free rein in a “no such thing as a bad idea” environment. 

Start off by sketching out your design to get a rough idea of what you want your sign to look like. Your drafts don’t have to be works of art and you certainly don’t need to be good with a pen to do this; your sketches can just be little scribbles – anything that makes sense to you and allows you to be free and creative. It just needs to be enough that you can play around with some ideas. 

As your vision starts to become clearer, transition to digital mock-ups and start to refine your details, tweak colors and adjust your typography. 


Less is more! Keep your messaging short and concise to capture attention quickly.

Step 3: Reviews and feedback

Once you have your first full draft, you’re going to want to collaborate and fine-tune. Share your draft with a diverse group – whether that’s colleagues, potential customers or stakeholders. 

Their feedback can give you a fresh perspective, help you to spot things you’ve become blind to or highlight areas of ambiguity. You can then collate this feedback and use it to both refine and enhance your design. 

Step 4: Finalizing your design

This is where all of your hard work comes together. Before you truly finalize your design, make sure you pay close attention to the finer details. Make sure each and every element harmoniously aligns, do a rigorous check for grammar or spelling errors and confirm that your design is compatible with your chosen material. 

Remember, the success of your sign relies on these final checks – so make sure you are as thorough as you can possibly be. 

5 examples of great signage design

So there we go, you now know everything you need to know about how to design your own sign. But before you head off to get started, how about a little bit of inspiration?

Let’s take a look at 5 examples of fantastic signage design: 


A bright red Coca-Cola sign

Sourced via

Coca-Cola is the perfect example of a brand using color and typography to create a brand identity. As soon as you see this sign, you know exactly who it is – we’d wager even if the sign said “Cold Drinks” you’d immediately think of Coca-Cola. 

Second Home Kitchen & Bar

A textured, wooden sign for a kitchen and bar

Sourced via

This restaurant’s sign makes lovely use of contrast, texture and depth. The white color of the lettering against the grainy wood backdrop highlights the text perfectly, while the raised lettering adds depth and really catches the eye. 

Handmade clothing store

 A metal, black-and-white sign

Sourced via

This mock-up of a sign for a  handmade clothing store beautifully conveys simplicity and luxury. The round signage with a white surface and black frame is simple yet elegant and it perfectly captures the fact that this is a luxury brand. 

Pub sign

A chalkboard pub sign with a colorful pie chart

Sourced via

British pubs are well known for their tongue-in-cheek, lighthearted signage encouraging you to come in and grab a drink. While this is a simple, chalkboard sign, it’s a fantastic example of using humor, bright colors and graphics to entice your audience. Try walking past this sign and not cracking a smile – we dare you! 

Sony Nuro

A 3D billboard with a kitten sleeping with its arm resting over the side

Sourced via

Now for a budget-busting example, this 3D digital billboard took Tokyo by storm. With its hyper-realistic technology, this billboard of Nyaro the kitten featured the feline fiend throwing his fish supper from one screen to another, taking naps or seemingly jumping out onto the street. A wonderful example of how you can capture the imagination of your audience and entertain them, while also showcasing your brand.

A sign of the times

From ancient paintings to digital kittens, signs have certainly come a long way over the years. 

Today, signs aren’t just mere information carriers – they’re brand storytellers, expert guides and even artistic masterpieces that grab the attention of anyone who passes.

So as you start off on your signage journey, remember the principles of design and the nuances of human psychology and create a design that makes sure your audience won’t be able to miss it. 

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