Signs—why wording is important

WARNING signs. Advisory signs. Interpretive signs. Direction signs. We are surrounded by signs. But why do some work while others are ignored? It often comes down to clarity, attractability, readability and conciseness.

When I came into town I was not looking for the Co-op because I didn’t know it existed. However, I was looking for somewhere to buy food to store in my van so I could continue my journey south. It was by chance that I looked down the side street where the Co-op is located and saw their sign on the footpath. The big, colourful lettering caught my attention.

On an A-board outside the food co-op in Bega, it is an example of a sign that works. Let’s think about why.

Placement, the retail business truism goes, is paramount. A business on a side street can be at a disadvantage because side streets are less-trafficked than main streets. This sign on the footpath seeks to overcome this by catching the eye of passers-by.

It is a wayfinding sign, so the main message in large text — ‘Candelo Bulk Whole Foods Coop’ — notifies the presence of the store both to the passer-by and to people who might be looking for it.

Specialist stores like the co-op become known to those who want their products and are prepared to seek them out. But without being able to attract attention, the Co-op could be easily overlooked by casual, passers-by customers like me that day.

The hierarchy of messaging

When planning a sign such as the Co-ops, we first decide what is our main message. Where there are several messages as on the Co-op’s A-board, we decide which is the next most important. This is the principle of message hierarchy. Simply put, the main message goes first in a bigger font followed by less-important messages in smaller but readable-from-a-distance-font size.

The sign carries three messages:

  • the presence of the Co-op
  • the availability of low-waste products
  • an appeal to support local, community-owned business.

The first is designed to attract people who might be looking for the Co-op or who might be interested in checking it out even if they are not looking for it. The second and third messages are value statements highlighting the virtues of the store. This is important in attracting shoppers who have affinity with those values.

Any of these could have been made the main message simply by repositioning them. Which would become the main message would depend on what the Co-op is promoting at the time. If the waste-free message was the most important at the time, it could be reworded something like this:

Reduce your waste by shopping with us

…or, combined with the message about supporting a locally-owned business:

Reduce your waste by shopping with us and support your community-owned business

A more graphic wording playing on the waste message could read:

Trash your waste by shopping with us and support your community-owned business

‘Your’ creates a sense of inclusiveness by directy addressing readers. It individualises and personalises the message.

In these examples the name of the Co-op would appear in a smaller font at the bottom of the sign, as it is a secondary message. The order of the alternative wording follows the hierarchy of importance.

When wording signs:

  • identify your main and subsidiary messages, if any; it often makes for clearer communication to have only a single message
  • use a plain, bold font large enough to be read from a distance; this is about readability as well as attracting attention among competition from other signs on the street
  • make the message catchy to make it memorable
  • for businesses with an environmental focus like the Co-op’s, avoid preachy or guilt-inducing wording so as not to turn away people repelled by such language
  • word the message concisely; brevity has clarity and memorability
  • if possible, relate the message to something topical that is the focus of public conversation or media attention.

An example of the last point might be highlighting the waste reduction message when waste is in the news. In early 2020, a timely wording relating the ‘shop here’ message could have been something like this:

Wayfinding message: Candelo Bulk Whole Foods Co-op

Value statement: Improving food security during coronavirus by providing locally grown fresh foods.

I encountered a negative example of the second point, about readability from a distance, on the walkway along the harbour in the Sydney coastal suburb of Manly. The council placed a small sign on a lamp post well above head height, so far above head height that were passers-by not to look up they would probably not notice it. Dull in colour, which only contributed to it being unnoticeable, the font used for the wording was so small that people with less acute vision might not have been able to read it even on the chance they actually noticed it. It was not exactly eye-catching.

Signs need to be:

  • placed so that they attract attention
  • be easily readable from a distance (that’s about font and size)
  • worded clearly to highlight the values of of the organisation.

The risks of ambiguity

Before encountering the Candelo Bulk Whole Foods Coop’s sign I was around 660 kilometres to the north, in the town of Wauchope on the NSW Mid-North Coast. Taking a walk through town I came across a sign which made me stop and read it again. Something wasn’t quite right.

The sign signified a change that started around 30 or so years ago when Australian institutions and citizens began to acknowledge the reality that people were already living on the continent when Europeans arrived to occupy it. At Wauchope, the local TAFE did this on their sign.

This is the sign. Read it carefully. Read it again.

You get the gist of what Wauchope TAFE is trying to say, right? That the TAFE occupies land once that of the local Biripi Aboriginal people, and they are proud to acknowledge that.

But did you stumble over how they say it? Probably not, because we know what the institution is saying. But, will everyone who encounters the sign? Maybe. But, maybe they might be a little confused. Why is this?

There is an unintended reading of the sign the result of an unfortunate juxtaposition of the words “sits” and “proudly”. It seems to say that Wauchope TAFE is proud to occupy those lands. The sign could be taken to support the dispossession of the Biripi of their ancestral lands. What the TAFE means is that it is proud to acknowledge the traditional owners. Most people will assume the intended meaning. However when wording signs it is best to make crystal clear what the sign means.

A simpler and less ambiguous wording would be this:

Wauchope campus acknowledges that it occupies the traditional land of the Biripi people.

That is simple and straight to the point as an acknowledgement of the traditional lands of the local indigenous tribe.

It is an open question as to whether the wording of the sign was proofread by anyone skilled in the application of English grammar. It should have been.

The sign does two things.

First, it highlights the danger of letting bureaucrats and the grammatically untrained word signs of political, cultural and social significance.

Second, it emphasises the importance of asking whether the wording of a sign is the simplest and unambiguously conveys the intended meaning.

A sign for the hungry

We can learn by exploring what not to do. Let’s continue our exploration of signage by negative example.

It was some years before the journey when I enountered the food co-ops sign in Bega. I was around 330km north of Wauchope and about to take the turnoff to the NSW North Coast town of Mullumbimby. Drivers on the old Pacific Highway might be feeling peckish when they reach this point, however they might be tempted to stop for a bite when they encounter the big green sign at the service station/cafe at the turnoff.

The sign beside the old highway at the Mullumbimby turnoff.

The sign offers a choice of pies. Now, Uncle Tom’s pies are probably as good as pies anywhere else, but it’s the sign which suggests a certain uniqueness. We know that the choice of ‘unleaded’ or ‘leaded’ refers to the petrol the service station sells—this was before leaded petrol was phased out of use—but, like the Wauchope TAFE sign, it is the juxtaposition of the words that is confusing and, in this example, ambiguously humorous.

Straight to the point

Citizen journalists will probably never be asked to word or design a sign. But, just in case, we’ve looked at how we can organise a hierarchy of messages when we are asked to do this. What is the intention of the sign? How do we word it with as few words as possible that clearly convey the message? We’ve looked at a couple examples of signs which could be worded better.

Ambiguity has no place in the wording of signs. They should be concise and clear statements of information or warning. Like this one…



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Russ Grayson

I'm an independent online and photojournalist living on the Tasmanian coast after nine months on the road in a minivan.