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Printing Industry Exchange ( is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Custom Printing: Yes, It’s Cool; But Is It Readable?

My fiancee and I were at an open air mall the other day. I can’t remember why, but I do remember that she commented on a sign for an all-night, store-front medical building. It was unreadable, she said.

The signage in question was what is known as channel lettering: three dimensional letters crafted out of metal and plastic and then lit from within. The process is very expensive. I have a friend who owns a sign-making company that produces such work. It is a cut above digital signage (banners and such). These are permanent fixtures, like the CVS sign or any other number of signs in your very own local mall. They identify the business and brand it, presumably for multiple thousands of dollars.

So readability is vital.

A Description of the Sign

The sign contained two words. The first I don’t remember—although I do remember the eerie blue glow of the letters. The second was either “Physicians” or “Doctors.”

Granted, the fact that the second word was the more important, and the fact that it identified the service provided, was a blessing. Probably this was because the lighting was bright white and the typeface was simple and readable.

However, the fact that the blue, lit-up channel letters were not as legible actually detracted from the branding. In the middle of the night, if you were ill, you might drive up to this store-front doctor because you could see the reference to “doctor” in the sign, but it would have been in spite of the signage.

What You Can Learn

A lot of things you design in the course of your career will be seen under different physical conditions. This might include different sizes, or different lighting conditions based on the time of day. There might be a whole host of variables that will change the impression your viewer walks away with, from one exposure to your design work to another.

For instance, if my fiancee and I had arrived at the mall in daylight, the channel lettering of the doctor’s sign would not have been lit. We would have seen the sign and its surroundings more clearly, and the intense blue light would not have distracted us.

What this means is that a design project needs to be viable not only on the computer screen but also, perhaps, in a physical mock-up. Maybe a small version of this doctor’s sign would have helped identify the legibility problem before thousands of dollars had been spent to fabricate the channel letters and install fluorescent lights.

How this Relates to Custom Printing Projects

You can, and should, apply the same principles of legibility to design projects for commercial printing, such as a logo. For example, you may craft a beautiful logo mark that looks great on your computer monitor (a huge rendition on a back-lit screen) in Adobe Illustrator. But then when you reduce the size significantly to place it on the company business card, it may just look like a blob of ink.

If you have used a typeface with thin letterforms (perhaps a Modern face with a lot of contrast between thin and thick strokes), portions of the letters might even disappear altogether when the logo is shrunk down for the business card.

Conversely, if you have just designed a logo and then applied the mark to business cards, letterhead, and such, you may be disappointed by its appearance on large magnets for the doors of company cars or by its appearance on large format print signage.

The Solution

    1. Design all the components of the identity system at one time, if you possibly can. Print them out at 100 percent of the final size, and then look at them as a group. Consider whether they all go together. Consider how both the large and small versions look.


    1. See how the components of the identity system will look in black and white, as well as the colors you have chosen.


  1. If you’ll be producing channel letter signage, consider making a small version first. Then see how it will look in daylight (un-lit) and night lighting (fully illuminated). I’d even suggest starting with photos of the store’s environment and then inserting the signage virtually (using Photoshop) to get an idea of how the overall finished product will look in the physical environment itself.

The more thoroughly and successfully you can simulate the ambient conditions (lighting, surrounding signage, and foliage) before committing thousands of dollars to actual sign production, the more effective your final result will be.

2 Responses to “Custom Printing: Yes, It’s Cool; But Is It Readable?”

  1. Ҡeep оn writing, grеat job!


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