The Topmade Blog

How to Choose a Colour Palette for Your Sign

In our last blog, we talked about typography and how your font choice can impact your sign’s legibility, as well as its visual appeal. Today we’re going to explore an equally important design element – colour.

Artists can spend years exploring how to expertly manipulate the power of colour. But if a career in the fine arts isn’t part of your life plan, don’t worry. By reviewing a few key concepts of basic colour theory, you will be able to make more informed decisions about an integral aspect of your sign’s design. And, if you’re working with a graphic designer, having a good grasp on design vocabulary can work wonders to reduce the revision process.

The Power of Colour

When we appreciate great signs, we tend to focus on the clever wording or the neat imagery. In comparison, as long as the sign isn’t hurting our eyes, we might not actively pay much attention to the colour choices. However, that does not mean colour should be underestimated. Its true power rests in how it subconsciously makes us feel.

Due to cultural, historical, or personal associations, colours have multiple meanings and can elicit strong responses. For example, in Europe and North America, purple represents royalty and riches. But why is that? Until 1856, purple dye was very difficult and costly to make. Soon, purple fabric became a symbol of the wealthiest class. When Cadbury, a chocolate company located in the UK, uses purple as a packaging colour, they’re sending a clear message to their consumers: Cadbury chocolate is rich, high quality, and decadent.

At the same time, purple can mean something very different in other parts of the world. In Brazil, for instance, purple is worn with black when mourning. So if you’re planning to expand your business globally, it might be worthwhile to investigate the various meanings of your chosen colours thoroughly before using them.

For a comprehensive guide to the meaning of colours in different cultures, check out this infographic by Information is Beautiful.

In short, colours are imbued with meaning. They are also a useful tool when planning your design’s composition. A carefully chosen colour, like a bright yellow against a backdrop of greys, can balance an asymmetrical design or guide the viewers eyes along a predetermined path.

Basic Colour Terminology

  • Hue is the name of a colour.
  • Saturation is the intensity of a colour. A vivid colour has a high saturation, while a dull colour is desaturated.
  • Brightness is how light or dark a colour is.
  • In addition to portraying specific meanings, colours can also feel warm, neutral and cool. Warm colours, like red, appear to pop in a composition whereas cool colours, like blue, recede.

The Colour Wheel and Colour Harmonies

Choosing one colour might not seem intimidating, but how do you decide on an appealing palette of two or three? In general, it’s best to keep colour combinations simple. This means there should be a primary colour – think Home Depot’s orange or Snapchat’s yellow – followed by a few, less dominant, accent colours.

For these difficult decisions, we often rely on a colour wheel. Using the colour wheel, you can easily identify sets of colours that work well together. These successful colour relationships are referred to as “colour harmonies.”

six colour wheel diagrams of the different colour harmonies

  • Complementary: Two colours that are opposites on the colour wheel. These colours will have a strong contrast with each other and the result is dramatic.
  • Split Complementary: Like complementary but a little subtler. A primary colour is picked and the two supporting colours will be adjacent to the complementary colour of the primary.
  • Double Complementary/Rectangle: 4-colour combination that consists of two complementary pairs. Because this colour scheme features a lot of contrasts, set one colour as the primary, and use the secondary colours sparingly.
  • Analogous: Two or more colours that are beside each other on the colour wheel. The colours are similar; so, it creates a soothing and natural combination.
  • Triadic: Three colours that are spaced evenly around a colour wheel. This variety in colour leads to a vibrant colour combination. To tame the results, two of the colours should be used sparingly.
  • Monochromatic: Varieties of saturation and lightness of a single hue are used to create a colour scheme.

Colour harmonies are a great way to form a pleasing visual but don’t be afraid to break the “rules” when it suits the goal of the design. For example, if you’re hoping to disrupt the status quo with your sign, deliberately choosing discordant colours can shock and excite the viewer.

If you’re not sure where to start, is a great online resource. You can browse their large library of community-made colour palettes for inspiration.

Colour and Your Brand

Designing your company’s sign is a great opportunity to really consider how colour can play a major role in your brand strategy. Once you’ve decided on a colour palette that supports your company’s message and tone, why not set down some brand guidelines? Ensuring colour consistency across the rest of your print materials will speed up future design projects and project a professional image.

We hope that this discussion in colour theory has been helpful and, if you’d like further guidance, Topmade offers expert signage consulting to help you decide what kind of sign is right for you.

Additional Sources:

  • Stone, T. L., Adams, S., & Morioka, N. (2006). Color design workbook: A real-world guide to using color in graphic design. Gloucester, Mass: Rockport Publishers.

Typography and Your Signage

Cast metal type pieces of the alphabet in a variety of font styles

Driving around town we see all kinds of signs, good and bad. Sometimes you’ll see some really questionable typographical choices clouding the whole point of a sign: to convey information. A little knowledge of basic typography can go a long way toward improving your signage.

Legibility is the first consideration in designing a sign or graphic, particularly if your goal is to direct customers or employees around your place of business. When time is of the essence– like finding an emergency exit, or maybe the washroom—elaborate, difficult-to-read fonts will be a negative experience for your visitors and can reflect poorly on your organization. Fancy type can be hard on the eyes, especially from a distance. Typographical choices should complement the purpose of the sign (informing, directing or attracting) and allow for being readable at a reasonable distance.

A building sign that reads "Private Property - No Trespassing" in a hard-to-read script font

When not properly used, font, size and colour can confuse the message. Random changes in style can be confusing as well. It is important to find a consistent typeface to use throughout your business; this should be part of your brand identity. Select a font that effectively communicates your message, image and design needs. A nice clean type style choice will get your message across, not just more rapidly, but more memorably.

There are three main categories of typeface: Serif, Sans Serif, and Script. Serifs are short finishing strokes at the end of each stroke in a letterform. They are sometimes called “feet.” A large body of text is easier to read if it is in a serif font because these little ornamental effects help guide the eye from one letter to the next. This is why the publishers of books, magazines and newspapers use them almost exclusively. As for Sans Serif, obviously, sans means “without.” Sans Serif fonts are commonly used for headlines or titles. Their clean, simple appearance helps them stand out.

Script refers to typeface that mimics hand-lettered writing by pen, brush or pencil. It can add a touch of elegance in small doses, but can quickly destroy a design if overused. Script fonts are not intended for body copy or heavy usage; using them that way will detract from your message. Think of it as decoration; it’s meant to attract the eye, but too much decoration and you won’t know where to look! In other words, you may have a large box of jewelry, but you wouldn’t wear it all at once… would you?

When wanting to emphasize your message, sometimes the first impulse is to put it in all-capital letters. This is the print equivalent of shouting. While it might be effective for something short and urgent (think ATTENTION or DANGER), for longer messages it can actually make the message harder to take in. This is because of the way our brains process visual information; we don’t just read a stream of letters, we read words at a time– phrases, too– and these have “coastlines”. Putting a word in all-caps takes away its distinctive shape, making it just a rectangular letter stream. The longer your message is, the more important it is to utilize lowercase letters.

Kerning refers to the space between letters. This usually requires some tweaking in titles, headlines and signage. Letters that have verticals next to each other (e.g. N, H) require more space between them to appear balanced, while neighbouring curves (e.g. O, C) require less space. The least space is needed between letters with lots of white space on their side edges (e.g. A, T, V). Getting the right kerning to achieve visual balance is really an art form, but even more important than visual balance is just being understood! If you’re not careful, “L I” can be seen as “U”, “c l” can be seen as “d” and so on, leading to endless embarrassing possibilities.

A sign in a grocery store that uses all capital letters and incorrect spacing, so the words are difficult to read


  •  If you’re using more than one font, make sure the types contrast. For instance, you could use a sans serif caption over a body of text in a serif font, but you’ll want to avoid mixing two slightly different serif fonts.
  • Use script fonts sparingly, and never ever use all-caps in a script font.
  • Stick to a unified font style as part of your brand.
  • Don’t use more than two to three fonts in a sign design.
  • Be clear, be concise and resist the urge to use a fancy but hard to read font. When in doubt, keep it simple and remember that less is more.
  • Try to be mindful of how your sign might appear at a glance. Squinting helps.

Sometimes typography seems to be an afterthought, but at Topmade we use it to help make your message clear and memorable. Give us a call to find out how we can improve on yours.

Retail Signage List

If you’re starting a new retail business this year, you may be wondering, “What kinds of signs do I really need to budget for?”   We thought we’d supply a handy list of must-have signs for a typical retail environment.

1.  Exterior fascia – This is the main sign with your business name or The Italian Centre Shop Sign lit up at night.logo on it.  Hopefully your name gives people an inkling of what you do, but if not, make sure it is somehow clear by using a few descriptive words or a tagline that also become part of the sign.  You should have one or more of these signs to face each main direction of traffic flow.

2.  Open for Business  This may not be applicable if you’re locating inside a shopping mall, but in almost any other environment, a prominent “OPEN” (or “VACANCY” sign if you’re a hotel/motel) is extremely helpful and will attract business.  Many stores use neon or lit LED signs to attract attention to OPEN signs as they are the most visible.

3. Business Hours – This should be posted visibly to the exterior doors.    If this can be lit, even better, since when you are closed with lights off, it may be hard to read by a person from within a car.   It’s also a great idea to have the sign data changeable, for holiday or seasonal hours, or if you decide you need to change your hours from time to time.   

4. Product Category Signs – Use signs inside your store to tell people what is in the store – for example “bicycles”, “helmets”,  “menswear” etc.  These interior signs ensure people will get a faster understanding of what your offerings are, and they will be more likely to investigate multiple areas instead of simply coming for the one product that spurred them to visit.

5. Directional Signs – These include instructional signs such as “Place Orders” and “Pick Up Orders”, or “Customer Service” and “Washrooms” signs.  Map out your business and ensure you have enough directional signs.   

6.  Safety Signs – Signs marking exits, fire escape/stairwells, push/pull doorways, fire extinguishers, “slippery when wet” and other areas should be properly placed.   If you’re concerned about safety or access around display racks, we do encourage you to have your site inspected by City Fire Inspectors.

7.  Parking Signs – Clearly mark where customers of your business are permitted to park, and for what duration.   This will ensure your parking spaces are maximizing their benefit to your business.

Pylon Sign8.  Pylon Signs – If you can get a panel for your business within a multi-tenant pylon sign, or even get a dedicated pylon sign that attracts vehicle traffic, this will be a great benefit to your business, as it is very much like having your own billboard.   It is also a good idea to refresh a pylon sign with a new design every few years, passers-by will often take notice of something new in their visual spectrum.  Also, design of multi-tenant panels is tricky (since your business name and logo must compete with others in the sign) so do ask us for assistance in design if you do not already have a graphic designer on deck.

9. Decorative Signs  Beautiful lifestyle graphics are superior silent “salespeople” that help your merchandise create a compelling image and appeal to various categories of customers.   If you’ve got some wonderful photography, or can access it through brands you might carry, we encourage you to create large, photographic imagery that creates a lifestyle to appeal to your customers.  Screens to display product videos are also an excellent idea.

10. Philosophy and Policy Signs – Your mission, your history, your customer service guarantee, your environmental philosophy – these are all messages that will set you apart from the competition.  Consider making signs containing these messages and placing them proudly for all to see. Philosophy Sign

11. Sandwich board signs –   If walk-by traffic is a priority, consider some sandwich boards.  These are free-standing A-frame signs that can be easily moved outside set up to direct traffic.  If you use “chalk paint” you can also rub off and change the messaging using colourful chalk!

12. Directory Signs – If you’ve got a big, multi-departmental store, consider a floor map or layout near the entryways, allowing people to easily locate key product categories in your store.    This will enhance the customer experience and once again give people a better understanding of the full range of merchandise you offer.

With these in mind, we at Topmade would be very happy to help you build a budget, and produce signage for your entire retail environment.  Please contact us today to start planning.