Basic Principles of Layout

A crash course on balance, rhythm, unity and harmony

We all know that the primary purpose of a sign is to convey a message. To accomplish this, though, a sign artist must do more than paint "Look!" in red, ten-foot-high letters. The idea is to draw attention to the message, not the medium.

A sign is either well made or badly made, period. The well-made sign is a composition, possessing balance, rhythm, unity and harmony. No one aspect is more important than another, and they must each work together. Sound tricky? Take a look.


Balance is an equilibrium among various parts. To achieve it, we design the weight distribution in a way pleasing to the eye. This isn't always done symmetrically, but optically. A balanced sign composition will also have a certain stability. Letter spacing, word spacing and copy division should all be carefully considered.

Several other decisions influence layout: amount of copy, letter styles, illustation, and the job price. Additionally, we must consider what specifically the sign should do for the customer. Is it to identify or to advertise? Is it to sell an item or service? Will it be viewed up close or from a distance? Will it face slow- or fast-moving traffic? To provide the customer with a sign that works, all of these factors must be considered and dealt with functionally.

Different sign projects call for different solutions. Often enough we are handed a copy for a sign that, at first glance, appears to be a newspaper ad. Some customers allow us freedom to edit, but others refuse, believing every word to be integral to the message. For the latter group, a well-balanced layout is nearly impossible.

The Western eye reads words from left to right and top to bottom. Therefore, if the main message is at the bottom or the right side of the sign with no illustration, it must be larger and/or stronger in color than the secondary copy. The reader "sees" the primary copy first, even though it is out of the order in which the viewer would normally perceive the message. Every type of advertising sign has one element that is more important than everything else. If that primary copy grabs her attention, the reader will be interested enough to view the secondary copy.

Sometimes a sign meant only to identify a business won't have a tertiary copy: only primary and secondary, or maybe just primary. Of course, the less copy required, the more freedom we have for the sign design and layout.

A formal or symmetrical layout is almost always dull and devoid of life, but occasionally the customer finds it necessary. Some customers even require it, as, for example, the government in the case of construction site signs.


Never use more than two styles of lettering on one sign! This rule is for the sake of rhythm, a patterned recurrence of lines, forms and colors. Aesthetically speaking, a sign looks better with only one or two styles. Nonetheless, we're all probably guilty of violating this rule. At times we can introduce as a third style a slight variation of an alphabet already being used and succeed, but viewing many styles of lettering usually proves optically distressing.

Some directory signs are made with many different letter styles. This is acceptable if the sign artist needs to reproduce logos and registered trademarks, but not if he merely acts on a whim and puts each tenant's name in a different style.


People often mistake uniformity for unity, but the two are entirely different. Unity involves a balancing of unequal units of copy through the dominance of one, whereas uniformity involves representing unequal units of copy as equals. Contrasting line value can be an effective tool both in shoring up differences and in emphasizing similarities; and both effects are sometimes needed to achieve unity. If the sign is sufficiently unified, the eye should travel uninterrupted from the primary copy to the secondary and then on to the tertiary message.


Harmony is achieved by combining balance, rhythm and unity in a layout. A successful layout simply cannot be attained without the fusion of good copy division, appropriate colors and proper letter styles.

A sign artist can destroy an otherwise good layout by adding an obtrusive border to the sign, so a point should be made here in regard to borders on sign panels. Unless a border has a specific relationship to the overall design, or is needed to enhance a certain style of letter, it tends to take the eye away from the sign copy. This is especially true of strong colors or large proportions.

A harmonious border will relate to the shape, letter style and colors of the sign, accomplishing rhythm and unity necessary for a successful design. The border should be unobtrusive, never a distraction from the message.

A formal layout is, of course, sometimes necessary or even desirable, and its angularity has a stableness often lacking in designs. In good designing, there are also other such codes that should be observed. One is radiance, without which a layout lacks the "pull" of the viewer's interest. Black letters on a white field are not the greatest way of drawing attention from a potential viewer. A dynamic sign design demands the viewer's attention rather than soliciting it, and that design has radiance.

Curvature is another ingredient of intrinsic value. An arched line of copy on a sign can redeem an otherwise dull layout. Good sign designers of the past realized this, and it is still one of the foundations on which we build a good layout. Similarly, a diagonal line is easy to execute and achieves the same results.

There are many rules in sign design or layout. Some can be violated with artistic license, while others cannot regardless of the reason. After you acquire strong knowledge of the basics, you'll know when you can bend the rules and still retain a good sign layout.

A good reference for sign design includes Mastering Layout.

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