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Best Practices For School Sign Design: The ‘Complexity Conundrum’

Best Practices for School Sign Design: The ‘Complexity Conundrum’

Should you keep school sign designs simple, or pack them full of important information? Today’s post addresses the school sign complexity conundrum, explaining when to use different levels of complexity to get the best results.

Read on or call (314) 726-5500 to speak directly with a school sign specialist in St. Louis, MO.

Research Review: Should School Sign Designs Be Simple Or Complex?

Research by the Interdisciplinary Journal of Signage and Wayfinding has shown that visual complexity increases the amount of effort required to cognitively process the information presented, but this is not always a bad thing. In fact, new studies suggest that viewers actually like expending a certain amount of cognitive effort to read signs, and that in some cases, complex designs may even make your school signs more effective.

In Simple or Complex: Consumer Response to Display Signs, the research team describes the relationship of visual complexity and consumer response as an inverted U-shape. That is, there is a drop-off in appeal at the low and high-end of the complexity continuum, and an increase around the mid-range. In simpler terms, that means study participants found that signs with “moderately complex images” and messages were more appealing and engaging than those with extremely high or extremely low complexity.

This suggests that moderately complex signs are best, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. In reality, very simple signs have their place in a sign system, as do more complex designs.

Read on to learn when to use each, or call (314) 726-5500 to speak directly with our school sign design team.

When To Keep School Sign Designs Simple

Less is more; keep it short and simple; simple is the ultimate sophistication – we’ve all heard these mantras for minimalism. But do they apply to school sign design?

Of course, the answer depends on exactly the type of school sign in question.

In a 2014 study, researchers at the University of Rhode Island wondered whether library signage systems were leaving students “lost in the woods with no breadcrumbs to follow.” To improve the effectiveness of wayfinding systems in the school library environment, Mandel & Johnston (2014) recommended keeping signage simple.

“The remembrances of signs decrease when the number of contained words increases,” write Mandel & Johnston (2014). “Design elements such as font type and color schemes must also be optimized for contrast and readability.”

Less complex signs require less cognitive effort to process, which means they can be read and acted upon at-a-glance. With that in mind, using simpler designs with the following sign types will help make your institution safe, efficient, and discoverable:

When To Make School Sign Designs More Complex

Just like simple signs, complex school signs have their place. You just need to find the right display context.

For example, in that same study by the Interdisciplinary Journal of Signage and Wayfinding cited above, researchers Melinda Knuth, Bridget Behe, and Patrician Huddleston (2020) found that complex, information-rich signage produced longer total fixation duration and higher fixation, and was rated as more attractive and more useful by consumers at 105 garden centers. Though these complex signs took more cognitive effort to process, readers appreciated the additional information, since these signs were displayed next to products without packaging info to answer their questions.

Thus, in display contexts where viewers might want more information, whether it’s about unpackaged products or bookstore sales or summer semester registrations, complex signs are king!

Accordingly, you might want to use school signs with more complex, info-rich designs in the following contexts:

  • New student orientations, directing students and their families to check-in areas
  • Student pick-up/drop-off areas, detailing parking and idling policies, hours, and safety protocols
  • Sporting events, overviewing the event schedule
  • Library desks, explaining check-out policies and late charges
  • Move-in day at residences, directing arrivals to registration areas

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For more help with your school sign design, manufacturing, installation, or permitting, call (314) 726-5500 to speak with a member of our team in St. Louis, MO.

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