A good sign, some would say, is worth its weight in gold. A bad one, well…

Through my occasional work as a graphic designer, and role as conscious consumer, I’ve developed a healthy analytical taste for signage. Whether over the door, on the shelf or at the POP, how the message is delivered has interested me for decades.

Logo design, font choice and size, layout and message are all part and parcel to signage. When well executed, signs contribute to or complete branding. When poorly done, they can be a nail in a company’s coffin.

The International Sign Association, with regard to signs with a street presence, accurately points out, that the job of a sign is complicated by “the fact that the reader is usually moving, and the sign must be seen, read and understood in an instant.”

“No matter how good your product of service is, if your sign does not make people stop and shop, you will not be able to compete,” says the association’s website.

“We always take the approach that your sign is the first impression you make with your customer … what image to you want to give your first time client about your business,” says Joe Beichert, of Timely Signs of Kingston (NY.)

Answers to those questions, Beichert says, help determine the company’s design, materials and colors selection approach.

Perhaps what concerns me most about signage, where small business is concerned, is when it appears no care or thought at all has been given.

Recently I visited a small arts and community center in a rural Catskills town. There were two things on the schedule for that day, and both were scratched (probably painted or possibly in chaulk) onto a wooden A-Frame sign. These portable signs are common in small towns. They’re portable, cheap, and versatile. This one looked like it was always stored outdoors, 12 months a year, in the elements. To put it another way, it looked dismal.

Apparently both Friday events were postponed that week, as the place was locked up tight and there was a bead of white tape crossing out the text. (Also the sign was folded and leaning up against the building rather than set up closer to the sidewalk. Clearly the intent was not to get people to stop, nor to inform, nor to invite back. There was nothing about this that made me ever want to visit again.

What struck me immediately was the utter lack of presentation. There’s nothing wrong with a temporary sign. Note, I left the word “cheap” off that description as some are anything but. This one was just depressingly bad. And for a center supposedly run by artists and those interested in the arts, I’d think they could do a little more with less.

More recently I happened upon this sign at just the right time.

Though its location made it less than perfectly effective. You can read more about that in my photography blog.

That same day I stopped at a rural roadside deli run by a friend’s family. I hadn’t see the fellow in a while and finally found the place open to tray my chances at saying hello. As I recall, he told me they had hot entrees folks could pick up for dinner after work. Seems like a possibly viable business model for commuter route.

For further background, let me explain this is in the sort of area where rare food trucks put up “Hot Dogs Ahead” signs on the shoulder of the road – perhaps a quarter mile out from their locations. This place had crude bits of scrap plywood painted with something along the lines of ‘Hot Food, Open. Just Ahead.” Sorry – if it weren’t a two lane highway with hardly any shoulder, I might have stopped for a photo.

The un-illuminated sign in front of the place (the portable sort you can tow and reconfigure like a movie marquee) said something like “Still the best pizza.” Though there were missing letters (no excuse here, I should have snapped a shot from the parking lot.)

I didn’t notice the name of the business anywhere. Nor would anything outside the building tell me it was actually a (very) modest grocery too.

Once inside, I had a confusing conversation with the fellow behind the counter until we figured out he was a new owner.

Turns out my friend’s family sold the place about six weeks earlier. I recall him telling me it was a constant battle to keep afloat. (yeah, I always thought the same thing: location, location, location.).

If the business had struggled to attract sufficient customers, or failed to keep them, perhaps an “Under New Ownership” sign is in order.

Not sure the new owner(s) are off on the right foot. It might be worth another stop to offer small business consulting though the way it looked on a Saturday, I’d better hurry.

“It’s amazing how many people don’t realize it but for many businesses your sign is your best advertising tool,” says Beichert, offering a concept I’ve heard many times over the years. “(Your sign) is up 24 hours a day, 365 days a years,” says Beichert.

Of course not every sign is obvious, the Five Guys (Burger and Fries) brand seems to have excellent brand recognition in the markets it serves – much like McDonalds, I suppose. And the Five Guys approach seems to be boiled down to simply “Big and Bold” is best. It’s certainly working for them, though I know of at least one franchise location in a business Jersey town that failed and closed in just a few years.

The question I ask you today is, if you have signs are your signs working for you or are they working against you? If they advance your brand or cause, they’re doing their job. When they’re casting a poor light, it’s time to reconsider.

Possibly a CIA field-office?

Woody Guthrie famously wrote (though never released) the following verse to “This Land is Your Land.”

“There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me. The sign was painted, said ‘Private Property.’ But on the backside, it didn’t say nothing. This land was made for you and me.”

I’ve heard the verse performed as “that side was made for you and me” which to me has always suggested the perceived absence of the ‘no trespassing’ sign.

In a world with constant messaging bombarding our senses sometimes less is more. For instance, my illegible watermarks on several images on this post are essentially useless!

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