Can You Make My Sign Look More Like This?

Hi Danthonia,

As a sign-maker, I’m wondering how I should deal with customers who take my designs and make them look ugly (usually in Photoshop) and then send them back to me, asking if I can ‘make it like this’.  Maybe that never happens to you?

Any advice would be appreciated!

[ A Sign-Maker]

Dear Sign-Maker,

Probably everyone involved in graphic design, commission art or sign design runs into the same problem. So the good news is that you’re not alone! Since the advent of the computer, it’s a fact that clients have had the ability to be more involved in the design process. Sometimes this can be frustrating to the designer, but  more customer involvement can also push us to a better result.

When a client decides to take things into their own hands and ‘have a crack at it’, there are several courses that you, as the designer, can take:

1. You can take offense at the lack of respect for your work, and ask your client why they even hired you in the first place, since they obviously feel able to design it themselves.

2. You can follow the old adage ‘The customer is always right’. Just swallow hard and make the thing exactly how they want it.

3. You can take it in stride and realise that the client enjoys the process of getting a logo or sign designed and wants to ‘be involved’. Motorbike mechanics also have customers who like to hang around the garage and ‘help’. Some get annoyed, others have a blast.

The first option is a good one if you have more work than you can deal with. If the whole world is beating down your door, why waste time with a client that doesn’t appreciate your style? There are ten others that do, so save yourself the heartache!

The second option is what many cheap-and-cheerful vinyl shops do all day every day. After all, it’s certainly the quickest and easiest option. Hence the visual blight of poorly designed signage, squashed and poorly-aligned text, bad kerning, and hideous colour combinations that can be seen in cities around the world.

In regards to Option Three, I’ve heard it said that amateurs complain about their customers, while professionals educate them. To continue my earlier analogy: Like a mechanic, you can take the client’s suggestions into account while steering the project in a direction you’re happy with. “Sorry sir, I can’t put a ball-hitch on the back of your Harley-Davidson. It won’t work. What about a sidecar?” Remember that although you know more about design, they know their business better than you do. The challenge is to come up with a solution that doesn’t just look good, but works.

Educate them as to why Old English, set in all caps, isn’t readable and why clip art around the edges of the design doesn’t lend an air of artisanal quality to their distressed yoghurt shop shingle sign. In the end, most clients will understand that you know what you’re talking about and will go along with it. When Michelangelo was commissioned by Pope Julius II to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling, he was unimpressed with the pontiff’s planned design and negotiated until he was allowed to paint his own. In the end, everyone was happy. In other words, learn how to sell your idea to the client and everyone’s a winner.

So, what do you do if the client won’t see reason, and insists on the all caps Old English/clip-art design? You can’t possibly make the ugly thing, can you? We mostly write an email something like this:

Dear Client,

Here is the latest sign design for your yoghurt shop. As you strongly suggested, we’ve used uppercase Old English with clip-art decorations around the edge. From a design point of view, this particular piece won’t be very readable, and may not convey the rustic vintage feel of the yoghurt shop itself. Aside from the readability issue, it is also a fact that when Old English fonts like this one are set in all caps, it calls to mind a tattoo studio or motorbike clubroom rather than a family-friendly yoghurt shop. For all of these reasons, I have also attached an alternate design for you to consider.

All the best!

Don McKernan

You would be amazed how many clients will follow your advice when you give clear reasons for your decisions. It is true that a small minority will doggedly insist on the ugly design. At that point, we would go ahead and make it for them, making a mental note not to post the sign on our website portfolio.

On the topic of portfolios – make sure that you’re proud of every piece of work that you post online, whether on your own site or on social media. As you continue to upload pictures of stunning designs, you’ll get more enquiries from people who have already seen a lot of your work and trust you to make something equally stunning for them. Don’t promote the signs you aren’t proud of, and it’s as if they never existed!

For the record, the vast majority of our clients have a great appreciation for well-designed signs. Often, their branding is very professional and looks classy when rendered as a dimensional sign. And, as I wrote at the beginning, sometimes a picky/discerning client can push you, as a designer, out of your ruts to try something new and better. Meet the challenge!

Hope that helps!

Funny Sign by Ken Davis | Danthonia Designs Blog

A hand-painted sign by Ken Davis

6 thoughts on “Can You Make My Sign Look More Like This?

  1. Hi Don,
    well put, into words what we all have to deal with on usually a week or monthly basis, also loving the signs at the bottom of the page.

  2. Hello Don,
    Replies #1 and #2 would imply that the signmaker is actually qualified to make a design judgement. I’d always go with #3, even disregarding the dozens of years of graphic design and typography that might qualify one to make aesthetic decisions responsibly. Far too many sign shops ought stick to what they do best, and that’s often painting or fabrication.
    One of my pet peeves is when architects attempt sign design. Not always, but very often it ends up looking like airport wayfinding, with Helvetica in heavy rotation (and those are usually the better ones). There were also old jokes and anecdotes about printers making design changes that graphic designers used to snicker at.

  3. Hi Jim,

    I agree that Helvetica isn’t an automatic design cure-all. For certain things (like airport wayfinding & such), it works well. But it has been overused for sure. I like this sign, by Ken Davis: /blog/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/9.jpg

    Personally, I enjoy making use of the more creative fonts, and even better is custom lettering!

  4. Great post and answers to a common problem that occurs in every design firm. The only other thing I can add to this experience, is that often when we present our design in addition to the client’s request, they are amazed that their design doesn’t work, and think you did something wrong because you obviously didn’t catch their “vision”. They may go round and round trying to get you to improve their design before eventually admitting yours is better. (They honestly think it should be better than yours, because it is their idea, and their ideas are always great!) It’s best to anticipate this issue. You must get paid for that ‘tweek time’. I always put a disclaimer in our bids that lets the buyer know that they have purchased this design and the cost includes one minor revision. All additional revisions are billed by the hour. This causes the client to make up their minds a bit faster, and they usually decide to trust you sooner rather than later. Then if they STILL decide to use their design? You get covered for it, and you don’t have to put your name on it or put it on your website.

  5. Thanks Geri,

    We’ve definitely had experiences like you describe.

    On the other hand, sometimes the weirdest idea can make a great design if treated right.

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