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Give it the squint test

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Many years ago, I asked the legendary Chicago sign designer Bob Seelander how to tell if a sign layout was going to work. He said that what mattered was “the legibility of the copy and the general appearance of the layout through half-closed eyes.”

In the May/June 2014 issue of SignCraft, Rob Cooper, whose outstanding sign designs fill Koh Tao, Thailand, says that if you squint at the sign and cannot easily read the essential message, the sign isn’t working.

The squint test has long been used by sign designers, graphic artists and fine artists as a way to test the

Rob Cooper, Koh Tah, Thailand

effectiveness of a layout. If you do a little homework, you’ll find it’s used by top website designers as well, because websites are often complex and they have to make sure the viewer gets the important stuff first.

It’s simple. Look at a sign, then squint your eyes as you would when looking outside on a very bright day. Whatever you can read easily is all that most viewers will get from the sign. If you’re not getting much in the first few seconds, they won’t either.

If the primary message isn’t readable, increase its contrast. You can do this by increasing its size, weight or its

Bob Stephens, Skywatch Signs, Zephyrhills, Florida. See more by Bob in the July/August issue of SignCraft magazine.

contrast in color with the background—or by a combination of these. You’ll probably have to reduce the size/weight/color contrasts of the secondary copy to do this, but that’s all right. The primary message is king.

Flip through any issue of SignCraft and put the squint test to work. You’ll quickly see how the designer made sure that the sign did its job. Try it on the signs in your own portfolio.

Rob Cooper

Squint at some labels and packaging. You’ll see that the good ones don’t mess around. They hit you hard with the central message.

Squint at billboards—you’ll see lots of them that just fall apart. It makes you feel sorry for the hospital paying $7000 a month for the board you can’t even read.

The squint test shows you the copy blocks and the relationships between them. Blurring our vision temporarily removes some of the visual clutter in the layout. It quickly lets you see if what you want to push to the background is really in the background.

Bob Stephens

When looking at a complex structure, like a sign layout with multiple messages, humans tend to look for a place to start and for order to lead them through it. As the designer, you’re in charge of making that happen.

Good designers know the tricks. They know how the eye and the brain work to make sense out of 

This before-and-after by Lisa Freshler, Cherry Hill, North Carolina makes a great comparison with the squint test.

something. Then they use that knowledge to make their designs more effective and more successful. And that gives them something much more to sell than just generic identification.

—Tom McIltrot

You’ll find more great ideas on how to set your work apart from the rest in SignCraft Magazine. Subscribe today—your satisfaction is guaranteed, and you’ll also get the 2014 Sign Pricing Guide and access to our online sign price calculator, too.

Bob Stephens


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