I’m freelance designer, and I’ve done plenty of branding and logo work. Sign design is something I’m less familiar with. I have a question for you regarding a current project: On vertical signs, should the text read bottom-to-top, or top-to-bottom? Thanks for taking the time!
Hi Freelance Designer,
You’ve hit on a hot topic. I’ve seen this one discussed at length on forums such as Typophile. The quick answer is that there is no rule about text orientation on signage. It can go either up or down, so take your pick!
Having said that, I’ve noticed that most vertical signs and banners have the text running from bottom to top. I’m not sure if there’s any reason for that, besides that it looks better (to me, at least). When I’m standing on a busy city street, reading a banner that says ‘Sapphire City Festival’ (or any other message), I tilt my head to the left and run my eyes upwards. When I get to the end of the banner, I am looking at the sky and maybe a few trees. Generally, this is better than running my eyes downwards into the visual clutter of the street. Of course, for a smaller wall-mounted sign, the background would be consistent, so it wouldn’t matter either way.
I used to think that downwards was the correct direction, since the text on book spines runs downwards. That was before I visited Germany and noticed that all the book spine text ran bottom-to-top, except on volumes so thick that space allowed for horizontal text (the ones that I wouldn’t attempt to read). Americans justify running the text downwards because that way it’s readable when the book is lying flat with the cover up. Europeans would argue that when a book is lying flat, the cover is plainly visible, so it doesn’t matter that the text on the spine is upside-down.
But I digress. Signs aren’t books, and they don’t have covers or spines. What’s more, signs have traditionally followed a slightly different set of rules than printed matter. Many of the old theatre signs, especially in the United States, are vertical. This is for the simple reason that vertical signs are much more practical to build and install on towering urban facades. Traditionally, these signs don’t use vertical text at all, but rather vertically-stacked horizontal letters. Stacked letters have an art and a science of their own.
Roman letters are designed to sit side by side, not on top of one another. Stacks of lowercase letters are especially awkward because the ascenders and descenders make the vertical spacing appear uneven, and the varied width of the characters makes the stacks look precarious. (The letter I is a perennial problem.) Capital letters form more stable stacks than lowercase letters. Centering the column helps to even out the differences in width.
– Ellen Lupton, Thinking with Type
I’m not really sure why stacked text was so popular in days gone by. Possibly sign-makers simply couldn’t stand the thought of tipping text ninety degrees. Maybe they felt that rotating text was an affront to the dignity of respectable letterforms. Or they may have believed that stacked text is more readable. It’s not.
I would only consider stacking text on a sign that is designed to emulate the Art Deco style of the early twentieth century – or at least a sign with a bit of historic flavour. For anything else, it tends to look bad (unless it’s a skateboard deck that says ‘Gnarly’ in decorative circus-style lettering).
Now I’ll digress a little. Since we’ve talked so much about vertical text, I might as well touch on the topic of angled text too. If you ever consider using angled text on a sign design, make sure that it always angles ‘uphill’ (with the right side higher than the left). It just looks better, and ninety-nine percent of angled text angles upwards.
As sign designers, our challenge is to fit the appropriate text into the available space, in the most beautiful and effective way possible. Obviously, most signs use horizontal text, since it’s the most readable and the English language is designed to be written in horizontal lines. On the other hand, the world is overloaded with horizontal lines of text. Sometimes, an angled, curved or vertical typographic design can catch people’s attention simply because it’s different.
Hope that helps!