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DDI Magazine

Visual Perspectives
October 06, 2012

It is forever the retail store marketer’s preferred communication vehicle for branding, navigation, education, events, promotions, campaigns and the like. It is the source of hours of debate, finalizing the design, layout, content, colors, size, verbiage, font, purpose, value and intent. And, sometimes, it only stays in the store for three days. It is, in case you haven’t already guessed, the ever-popular “store sign.”

Cross-functional groups view, review and debate routinely on each and every sign, which live in the store anywhere from a few days to perhaps a lifetime (but on average, probably four to six weeks). Sometimes, I think more time is spent developing, debating, discussing and producing signs than the time they actually function in the store (that could be an interesting ROI study!).

The typical sign development process usually looks something like this: A marketer comes up with a creative brief to support the idea/need and hands it off to a graphic designer, who then in turn creates sign designs on a computer and presents them to merchants. Product merchants review design concept boards, maybe even a few mock-up signs to discuss, debate, etc. Rinse and repeat, and finally the approved sign designs are given to the visual team to incorporate into the store environment. It seems simple enough, right? So, what is wrong with this picture?

It’s a phenomenon I’ll call the “Flat Vacuum Syndrome”—and it has nothing to do with suction or cleaning.

I’ll explain. The graphic designer’s world is largely 2-D, with flat designs created for flat application—a magazine spread, billboard, postcard, flyer, piece of paper or other flat substrate intended to be used in the store. Perhaps even a box or bag, but still those designs start out flat. Hence, I lovingly refer to them as “flat people.” Once the designs are completed, they are then reviewed in the vacuum—most likely a barren conference room with bright florescent lights—pasted up on boards, all grouped closely together and featured as heroes. The approvers happily sign off on their signs—box checked, signs created and, in the flat vacuum, all is well. Sadly, the reality of the 3-D store environment is all but forgotten with Flat Vacuum Syndrome.

Store signs are very valuable tools when used within a thoughtful framework of an overarching signage strategy—one that includes strong consideration of the retail environment, along with how and when the consumer wants, needs or is open to a given type of communication.

A sign is simply a communication vehicle that lives in harmony with all the other visual stimuli in the store environment. While still doing it’s job, of course. It does not, in any circumstance, stand alone. The retail environment and all of its contents must be considered in the development of any sign, be it long-lived or short-term. Consider the following:

1) Physical size, shape and placement. Where is it intended to live, and what is surrounding it? How big should it be, and will it fit in the space desired?

2) Content and message. Is it clear, intuitive, logical and relevant to its placement and point of customer interaction? Is it legible with an appropriate decibel level for the message and location? A sign can shout, whisper or be something in-between. However, it needs to be right for the message intent and location in the store.

3) Composition and style.
How does it fit in with the overall environment? Effective and clear? Or just adding visual clutter? Most often, retail
spaces have a lot going on visually, and a sign actually can be more
effective when simple—allowing a place for the eye to rest, and in this case, more likely to be seen and read. Signs designed to create a mood, such as large four-color graphics or photography-style banners and posters, should be considered more a part of store display, where the composition of the graphic should be integral to the composition of the overarching display/store environment it is in.

4) Operationally efficient. Can it be implemented at the store level? How often will it be changed? Do I need to store it? Is the sign design and material appropriate for the expected life of the sign?

Answering these questions is critical to the success of in-store implementation.

In the world of store signs, visual merchandisers are much more than implementers. Intimately close to and aware of the store environment, these experts can help be the key to successful in-store signage. They will be able to respond to the list of questions above, surface potential challenges, and help to find appropriate solutions. I highly encourage leveraging visual merchandising experts upstream in the sign development process early in the creative briefing process, so as to best provide input for success at the store level. They will incorporate the 3-D thinking of the store environment and will help to avoid Flat Vacuum Syndrome.

People in general don’t really spend much time looking at or intentionally looking for signs. I am sure our resident shopping science expert Paco Underhill would have a variety of facts on just when and how long people do look at signs, but the old rule of thumb is 3 seconds—and even that might be overstated. Between you and me, the only time I think people actually look for a sign is when they are on a mission to find the bathroom, and even then they don’t usually see the sign with the giant arrows and end up asking a handy human wearing a vest or a name badge.

There is limited time to capture the customer’s attention as it is, and signs need to work hard and do their specific jobs effectively. That makes it imperative to get it right out of the gate. Leveraging visual merchandising expertise up front and throughout the sign creation and development process helps to maximize this tool. That way, perhaps the customer might not only see the sign to the bathroom, she might stop to shop—and read—on the way out.

Ann Fine Patterson, principal of Ann Fine Patterson LLC, is a 20-plus-year career professional in visual merchandising. She shares her insights in this bi-issue column. Email her at