This post is the first part of a multi-part series on signage and attention-grabbing design.
Signage is hard. Posters are an extension of signage.
As a designer, I see a lot of examples of signage done well. And a lot of examples of signage done wrong. And some that are so unrepairable that it's better to just burn the paper on which it's printed in deep, vivid CMYK. The key letter being K, meaning the color black.
You may say, "Blue, if you're gonna be all vague about the posters you've seen, can you summarize the lessons this article will teach in a single exchange of dialogue similar to a quote from Megamind?"
"There's only room for one urgent piece of information in this town."
"Oh, you're a bit of information alright, just not an urgent one."
"Oh yeah? And what's the difference?"
Cue rock music.
Your sign should jump out as important information in about half a second.
Yeah. I'm not BSing. Half a second is your time limit for someone to see your design and think "Hey, I think it's trying to tell me something!" and attempt to start reading it.
The person should not think the poster is literally speaking to them. If they do believe so, I think you should find different people to give you feedback. Maybe give your (ideally) former tester a nudge toward the local psychiatrist.
Anyway. If the person reading the poster can't tell it's at least giving them new, actionable information within that half-second window, then it seems less urgent to them. You need to do the work of making it seem important. If your sign that says "This is the room where you can meet hot singles your age!" is writing on a post-it note, no one is going to barge in and demand to know the location of said hot singles. People might giggle if they're lucky enough to see it when they pass by, but that's it.
Now, if your sign said "HOT SINGLES LOCATED INSIDE" in bright red text and was ten inches wide at eye level, you'd get a whole crowd of single people ready to mingle on in there.
Convey urgency. Convey with your sign that it should be read quickly. This isn't some Did you know? poster, this is an indicator of new information that needs to be processed right now. That thought process should happen within half a second of seeing the sign.
Your sign should take five seconds or less to read fully.
Again, no BS. You have no idea how crowded the area will be or how fast your audience is moving when you put the poster up.
A hypothetical person's eyes should be able to go from seeing the first word to having read the entire poster in five seconds. Say your audience is a crowd of fast-moving kids on their way to class or a bustling crowd of airplane passengers on the jetbridge to the airplane. No one has time to read twenty or thirty words. They're all walking fast and they shouldn't have to snap their necks turning back around to finish reading your message. They may have to slow down to read the words on your poster, but they won't break the flow of traffic. And that slowing down will intrigue people behind them, and so it'll be like dominoes falling: everyone needs to know what the person in front of them is seeing that's so interesting.
The metric is efficiency, not word count
Having five words on your signage sounds like an amazing way to make it readable quickly.
Well that's pretty freaking efficient, no? But who's hosting it? What if there's more than one winter party? What will kill you if touched?
Just because you have a smaller word count doesn't mean you're communicating efficiently; you're just communicating less information. Creating less visual noise. Having no visuals makes your poster simpler, but at the cost of accessibility and understandability.
The next post on this blog will be a nerdy one. I'm working on a reliable way to judge all of these things, which will be released as kind of a guide in the next few weeks. No weird designer lingo, just advice and lots of numbers. Want to know when I'm finished? Sign up for notifications. I'll see you then.
- blue linden