Signage Design Inspiration, Tips & Tricks from 5 Leading Firms

From illuminated wall signs and eye-catching window graphics to the essential guideposts and blade signs pedestrians know well, good signage design and environmental graphics go a long way in both informing us and welcoming us in.

But what is it, precisely, that makes for a successful sign? Here, we attempt to answer that question by first looking at signage design examples from Duffy, Sussner Design Company, Test Monki, Gensler and TCA Architects—firms that so excel in creating impactful signage and environmental graphics that they’ve all been recognized in the signage & environmental graphics category of the HOW International Design Awards. These same leading firms also share with us what they believe goes into creating an effective sign.

(In related news, this year’s HOW International Design Awards deadline is Sept. 11! See all categories here and enter your work today.)

And be sure to come back next week for four ways to avoid signage disasters!

5 Key Elements of Effective Signage Design

Perfection is a myth, to be sure, but that’s no reason to stop striving for excellence in our work. And while everyone has their own idea of what makes for a creative masterpiece, when you’re looking at a specific type of work, there are a few key ingredients that those who are kicking ass seem never to leave out.

The Right Information

When it comes to the functionality of signage design, one of those essentials is quite simply the details being presented to the viewer. “That sign you are looking at better communicate the information you are looking for in order to be successful,” says India Howlett, creative director at TCA Architects. So you have to ask yourself: Does my sign include every detail people need it to? Is all of it absolutely necessary? Is any of it superfluous? 

Pleasing Aesthetics

Howlett goes on to say that while the information being presented is of the utmost importance, aesthetics are nearly just as critical. She notes that “ugly signs” can certainly communicate the right information, “but of course beautifully designed signage can and will engage the viewer in a more meaningful way.”

Good Ol’ Legibility

Whether a sign is meant to help viewers navigate their way or identify what’s in front of them, and regardless of whether it captures people’s attention with its beauty and interest, it’s vital that its information be communicated clearly—which brings us to remembering the basics: “Legibility,” says Suzy Simmons, co-founder and principal of Test Monki. “Sounds obvious, but when you’re designing on a screen, at a smaller scale most of the designs look great. But when you blow that sign up in a restaurant or business, things can go wrong really quickly. That cute graphic element that looked great on your 4K iMac is now the size of a small roach.”

Designing so that a sign can be read by all also means following requirements set by the Americans with Disabilities Act, Howlett points out. “We are always designing for the visually impaired patron/resident,” she says. “It is very important that they receive the proper information to make their lives easier.”

Brand Connection

Can things still go wrong if a sign is aesthetically pleasing while communicating the right information in a legible way? According to Brian Brindisi, design director at Gensler, they can indeed if the overall piece doesn’t have a strong enough connection to the brand.

“It’s important that signage connects to a company’s brand,” he says. “Ways to accomplish this can be through, color, material, typography and integration. It may look like just a sign, but at the end of the day it is an integral part of navigating through a space.”

A Great Experience

Ben Alpert, senior designer at Sussner Design Company, takes things a step further with his view on what it’s all about: the overall experience, from the moment you’re welcomed inside.

United Sports Brands HQ graphics by Sussner Design Company


“For the type of branded environments we create (like the United Sports Brands HQ graphics), it’s about building an experience through the signage,” he says. “For this project, we weren’t hired for wayfinding; we were hired to enhance the space with the corporate identity so the office feels like a seamless extension of the brand.”

signage design by Duffy


Creative director Alan Leusink echoes Alpert’s sentiment with an example of Duffy’s own signage design doing its job well: “The opening of Good Chemistry’s retail store gave us the perfect opportunity for curating signage to help create an educational and environmental brand experience, especially in a category where previous cannabis storefronts were a sliding window or gated entrance,” he says.

Related: Read more about Duffy’s intelligent approach to branding marijuana industry pioneer Good Chemistry.

“We live in a day and age where everything can be posted, tweeted or shared,” Leusink adds. “With signage, you have the opportunity to create something worth experiencing and sharing.”

Signage Design Inspiration Gallery

Want even more signage design inspiration? Check out all the winners in the Signage & Environmental Graphics category of last year’s HOW International Design Awards

9 thoughts on “Signage Design Inspiration, Tips & Tricks from 5 Leading Firms

  1. Sara Sam

    Awesome Signage Design Inspiration, Tips & Tricks from 5 Leading Firms! The 5 Key Elements of Effective Signage Design is so much informative.
    Thanks a lot for sharing this inspirational post!