How to Print Signs That Work: 6 Design Guidelines
First off, don’t feel silly about asking how to print signs. The process is a little more involved than a layperson with no graphic design experience might realize.
Enterprises of all sizes, from small businesses and nonprofits to larger corporations, need signs, especially if an offline presence is crucial for their operational model. Signs are one of the most tangible parts of a brand, even if they’re often too far away to literally touch.
Apart from promoting specific brands, signs are also widely used to draw attention to other kinds of important information and events as well. If you need to grab attention in the real world, a business card or flyer can only do so much. Larger format print materials are absolutely crucial for catching attention and cultivating interest in your brand, or whatever else you need your audience to look at.
Printed signs offer a practical, low-cost way to display promotions, ads, and other types of information while offering a level of quality not typically possible with most DIY efforts. It’s usually far cheaper to print signs instead of investing in digital ones. Furthermore, digital signs have very particular maintenance issues and consume power even during the day. Printed signs on the other hand, only need to be illuminated with fairly simple lights at night, and are typically “set-and-forget”.
While the technology involved is similar, sign printing has a few practical challenges that make it somewhat different from printing smaller formats.
A few pointers on how to print signs that really work
6.) Use vectors for your images when possible
The print designs sent to us come in a wide variety of file types that use pixels (raster graphics), and they look fine printed. In fact, nearly all of them look great, so long as proper image size guidelines are observed.
Why use vectors then? Using vector images instead of pixels helps avoid dreaded fuzziness and pixelation issues that often result from using a raster image that isn’t the appropriate resolution for a large format print. Sure, you could send in a large image file in raster, but if you could avoid it, why take the risk?
5.) Use an appropriate image size for photos
If you have to use a raster image, here are a few image size guidelines:
If the image is to be viewed at a moderate distance (say across the street) you can get away with using lower resolutions and image sizes.
|75 ppi||Poor to Fair|
|100 ppi||Fair to Good|
|150 ppi||Good to Very Good (Recommended)|
In a less common scenario where a sign has to be within close quarters, higher resolutions are critical:
|100 ppi||Poor to Fair|
|150 ppi||Fair to Good|
|200 ppi||Good to Very Good (Recommended)|
The further you expect potential viewers to be, the lower you can set PPI values. This can be an important point in favor of a printing service versus home printing as most home digital printers cannot effectively create high resolution prints reliably, nor cost effectively.
4.) Use appropriate materials
UPrinting knows how to print signs that fit best in a number of different scenarios. Depending on where you’ll use them, you’re going to need different materials to help truly make use of a large format medium.
Resilience to weather conditions is an important factor. Yard signs for instance, are excellent for extended outdoor use, but poster signs make more sense indoors. Banners and feather flags can work well in both indoor and outdoor contexts, and may be far easier to store, which may or may not be important for your purpose.
Where and how you plan to display your sign also makes a difference. Do you need to affix it to a post? Do you need to combine more than one for exposure in different areas? Should you attach it to a stand or directly onto a window?
Window clings and window decals are great for small spaces. Because they adhere right to your window, they can be a large size to make your message seen without taking up room on the sidewalk or valuable wall space. Clings are removable and reusable since they are simply attached with static cling. With adhesive backs, vinyl decals must adhere to the outside of the glass, and are less easily re-positioned.
3.) Consider handling requirements
While all the types of stock we use for our are pretty durable and resist all kinds of wear and tear, you’ll also have to consider if you’ll be keeping the sign up more or less permanently, or need to move it around and store it regularly.
Something like a metal A-frame sign or its plastic counterpart will for instance, be more suited for more-or-less permanent outdoor use and fairly rough handling. Something like a window cling may not look as fresh when repeatedly handled. Those are best mounted and then left hanging.
2.) Set the correct color models and values on your design files
For more vibrant colors, deeper blacks, and a less complicated printing experience, send your design in CMYK color mode. The vast majority of printers use CMYK or at least some variant of it, and using the correct mode will help your printed signs appear in the precise color you designed them.
1.) Use a design and format appropriate for the expected viewing distance
If you’ve never printed a professional sign before, you’ll want someone with a graphic design background to help you with this one. To the point, designs that are intended for smaller prints like business cards or flyers should not be used on large format printing. Fonts, images, colors, patterns, and other individual design elements should all be optimized for the distance they will likely be viewed.
It’s unlikely that bumper stickers and car magnets for instance, will be viewed the same way, even if they are both sign products intended to be placed on a car. The standard sizes for those products, and the fact that car magnets are often seen while moving from the side of a vehicle, while bumper stickers – when actually used on bumpers- are often seen by tailgaters from the rear, mean that each has to be designed accordingly.
Even static signs viewed from similar distances can have different uses. Plastic and metal A-frames for example, can be placed directly in view of pedestrian traffic as a warning sign for the public.. This makes them theoretically more visible to foot traffic than most window clings, which in most cases will be off to the side instead. Window clings on the other hand, can offer a larger space and more potential for variety in their designs.
We’ve already covered why the images should be at a certain level of quality, but the actual design has to likewise make sense. For marketing copy, you rarely see entire paragraphs on a billboard,for example, but you’ll see them in brochures and booklets. The copy is different simply because the format is different. It’s disconcerting though how many entrepreneurs want to save money by reusing designs from a totally different format and they end up creating something that has no real utility. Don’t be like them — match your designs to your format!
One might think that everyone would know how to print signs that actually make sense in context, but it’s surprisingly more involved than a casual designer might expect. As always, if you have different opinions, corrections, or anything else to add, feel free to comment below.