My wife dragged me to a mall recently and I ran across a good example of why getting super creative with type endangers legibility.
Take a look. (Forgive the poor quality of the photo. I snapped this with my cell phone.)
Sure, you can tell that it reads “SALE.” But it takes a second for your brain to make it out, doesn’t it?
This sign violates two basic principles of legibility. It spells a word vertically rather than left to right, which is the standard in English. And it crams the letters together so that the familiar configuration of the word is damaged.
Now take a look at an example of good legibility just a few stores down in the same mall.
Same word, but it reads left to right and uses the natural shape of the word to make it instantly recognizable. The brain doesn’t need to read this sign, it recognizes and understands the word “sale” instantly.
From a designer’s perspective, the creative sign is more interesting. But that’s irrelevant, since the purpose of the sign is to announce a sale and bring people into the store. All things being equal, the less creative sign is more interesting to customers since they’re interested in the sale, not the sign.
By the way, you should also note that the less creative sign uses the colors red and yellow, which are more dramatic than the soft blue of the other sign. Plus it adds some copywriting savvy by calling the sale an “ultimate sale” and providing some detail on the number of styles marked down.
I recently referred to an article that provides a primer on reading and legibility in design. If you didn’t read it then, read it now. Even if you’re not a designer, you need to understand these ideas since most direct response advertising is about reading.
(Oh, and for the people out there who hate shopping but get suckered into malling anyway, this illustrates a great way to eat up time when a mall is about to close. Announce that you have an idea for your blog and take photos. Don’t take the pictures when you first see a good subject. Walk way past it, then say you have to go back. Then fiddle with your camera for a while. If you’re good, you should be able to reduce your shop time by 10 minutes or more.)