The danger of getting too creative with type

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.)

example of poor legibility

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.

example of good legibility

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.)

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9 Responses to “The danger of getting too creative with type”

  1. Arun on January 8th, 2008 3:00 pm

    “…But it takes a second for your brain to make it out, doesn’t it?…”

    That’s the point. All good advertisements are small puzzles. Take any of the award winning ads; they engage the reader into figuring out what the ads really says. Normally you cannot say it in the first look. Typical twists are employing metaphors, abstraction or cause-&-effect types.

    You can see the same thing in news headlines.
    1) Hillary poll figures are going down
    2) Down’Hill’

    The employment of a pun (twist) in the second headline will make people interested in it (click it online) more than the normal headline.

    Normally these types of ads have high recollection value than direct ads.
    Are they effective? That depends on how the ad is constructed with a twist. If the twist is too difficult to untangle, then the ad is a wasted one.

    The current sale ad in question can be easily figured out and conveys the message. It serves its purpose.

  2. Dean Rieck on January 8th, 2008 3:16 pm

    Respectfully, I could not disagree more.

    Ads should NEVER be puzzles. Ads are meant to sell things. The harder you make it for people to understand the point, the less you sell.

    I’d like to see how clever you’d be if you had a million dollars of your own money riding on an ad.

  3. Chad on January 9th, 2008 3:36 am

    That first ad is truly horrible. I agree with the idea that ads should be direct, to the point, yet catchy.

    The first ad is none of the above.

  4. Ted Grigg on January 14th, 2008 9:32 pm

    I agree with you Dean. Inspiring curiosity about the advertisement itself only serves to detract from the message.

    What’s worse is that such advertisements actually make people skip it altogether. They have better things to do with their busy lives than to figure out puzzles. It is important to remember that the average person must filter over 3,000 such messages every day to find something pertinent to their needs.

    Make the product the star, not the advertisement itself. What a total waste of money.

  5. Paintworkz Web Design on April 29th, 2008 8:43 am

    The first ad is truly a mess. rather than being catchy which the designer might have expected it to be it has spoiled the piece itself.

  6. Marcello on January 14th, 2009 2:47 pm

    I have to agree with Arun. This is not an ad, this is a sign and the simple content on the sign allows the creative to take typographic risks. You could switch a letter or two around and your brain will still register sale. And the fact that there’s “up to 40% Off” underneath the scrambled text, its self explanatory. Keep in mind people this is in a display case outside a store! Use your brain stop dumbing down things for people.

  7. Dean Rieck on January 14th, 2009 3:05 pm

    Marcello: Problem is, people do NOT use their brain. It’s not a matter of dumbing down. It’s a matter of making type instantly understandable. When you have advertising all around you, you shouldn’t set up visual road blocks to put your ad at a disadvantage.

    Besides, legibility tests prove that people don’t read letters, they read entire words, so anything that destroys the natural shape of the word hurts legibility. This is design 101.

  8. jerry lehman on August 7th, 2009 10:26 am

    “Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.”
    “According to a researcher (sic) at Cambridge University, it doesn’t matter in what order the letters in a word are, the only important thing is that the first and last letter be at the right place. The rest can be a total mess and you can still read it without problem. This is because the human mind does not read every letter by itself but the word as a whole.”

  9. Neil on July 28th, 2012 1:13 pm

    Up to 40% off is a sale – this is legible enough, and the cascade of letters serves a function: to draw your attention down to that statement. The fact the sign is creative implies creativity is in the nature of the brand. ‘Wow, cool sign, cool brand…bet their clothes are cool too.’ That’s how brand identity works.

    You hated the sign but – and here’s the important bit – you snapped it with your cell phone. What is it they say about ‘all publicity’? The real losers were probably the ones that struck the middle ground between these two polar opposites.

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