Don’t Make Me Squint!

Photo: © Depositphotos.com/SIphotography

Photo: © Depositphotos.com/SIphotography

You’ve been there … you’re driving past a billboard on the highway, but it has tiny little type (or way too much) so you squint to read it as you zip past. Ultimately, you have no idea what it said.

Major fail on the part of that advertiser (and their designer).

But it’s not so different on the trade show floor. At show after show I see displays that weren’t designed to be readable, or at least that’s the end result. So here are some tips for designing graphics and signage that stands out and gets noticed – in a good way!

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  • Fonts and font sizes matter. Go for readable over quirky. Trust me … I’m a true fontaholic (600+ and counting installed on my computer), but only a few of them are appropriate for exhibit signage. Sure you want to avoid using generic fonts (Arial, Helvetica, Times – you know, the ones that came installed on your computer), but there are a lot more basic fonts out there to choose from these days. As a general rule, you want bolder fonts vs. thinner ones, but you can sometimes mix different weights of the same font to create emphasis. In fact, that’s another key point: don’t mix a bunch of fonts. Pick a couple that contrast well with each other. And when it comes to large text, sans serif (those fonts without the little “feet” on each letter) tend to work best. (Which is also a good reason to avoid using italics.)
  • Contrast is key. Even if you’ve chosen a great font, it won’t be readable if you put gray letters on a light blue background. You want high contrast. There’s a reason why road signs are typically black letters on white backgrounds or white letters on a dark green or blue background! Monochromatic colors or those in the same scale of light/dark take much closer examination to read, and you don’t have that luxury as people are cruising by your booth. Also stay away from combining opposite colors (like green on red or blue on orange) because they tend to have a vibrating effect.
  • Give words room to breathe. Don’t crowd letters or lines of text too close together. And be sure you’re not piling text on top of a busy background that competes or obscures your message.
  • Simplicity = Maximum impact. Keep your words to a minimum and avoid using technobabble. Again, think about highway signs: they use minimal words, making it simple to grasp the message as you pass by. If you do need to communicate multiple points, use a bullet list to make it easier to comprehend. (Also goes back to giving the words room to breathe.)
  • Proof your design before it goes to print. This goes not only for the actual words, but also the legibility. One good way to test is to print out one word at full size with the chosen background color on an 8.5-by-11-inch sheet of paper, then have someone hold that paper 10-20 feet away. Can you read it, or are you squinting? Another good rule of thumb I use is to look at my complete design as a two-inch thumbnail on my computer. If it’s readable that way, it’s a pretty safe bet that it will scale up to be readable as a booth-sized graphic.
  • You can be creative without being cluttered or confusing. Stick with one primary idea per sign or graphic. Big and bold vs. a hodge-podge collage wins every time. And always, always use high-resolution graphics and images so your words are as sharp as possible.

So don’t follow the lead of those less-than-readable billboards out there. Study those that are truly eye-catching and memorable. Here’s a video from Lamar Outdoor Advertising that gives you some great creative examples. (And pay attention to how easy they are to read.)

© 2016 Marlys K. Arnold  (from the September 2016 TradeShowTips Online. To receive tips like this in your inbox every month, please take a moment to fill out this request.)

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Marlys Arnold

With experiences as both an exhibitor and a show organizer, Marlys Arnold has a unique perspective on trade show exhibiting. As an exhibit marketing strategist, she travels the country consulting and training on how to create experiential exhibits that produce significantly higher numbers of qualified leads. She’s led workshops for events ranging from local consumer expos to some of the largest trade shows in the U.S. She hosts the Trade Show Insights blog/podcast, and is the author of Build a Better Trade Show Image, the Exhibitor Education Manifesto, and the ExhibitorEd Success System. She’s also the founder of the Exhibit Marketers Café, an online education community. To request an “Extra Shot of Exhibit Success” go to www.ExhibitMarketersCafe.com.

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