Four design principles for better digital signage

by | Jan 20, 2020 | Digital Signage | 0 comments

In this blog I’m going to share four fundamental design principles to help you produce better digital signage. We use digital signage a lot in the Library, and it’s a fantastically flexible medium to design for.

I’m going to focus on designing for static signs that play in a playlist, with each sign only getting 10 or 15 seconds to get its message across. However, all of these principles are basic enough to be applied to any other design project you’re working on.

Get rid of what you don’t need

A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery

For digital signage, this is my absolute number one takeaway (pardon the pun).

You’ve got a limited time window in which to get your message across, so ditch anything your audience doesn’t need to know right there and then. 

3x5 rule

A good way to get down to the bare essentials is to try and limit yourself to either 3 lines of 5 words or 5 lines of 3 words. This is commonly referred to as the ‘3x5 rule’. Anything more than this and it’s unlikely that your message will be absorbed.

You should retain some flexibility when adopting this approach. For example, you may want to put in more words in one line, and less in another to fit the space or emphasise part of the wording (such as in the upcoming example). You may want to use less words than this and make your message even more succinct.

Either way the 3x5 rule gives you something to aim for which can be particularly useful if you’re starting with a lot of words.

Call to action

Where appropriate, establishing a simple call to action early on will really help strip down the rest of the content. Ask “what is it you want the audience to do?” and go from there.

You’re unlikely to be able to deliver a nuanced message, so it helps to signpost someone to where they can find more information. If you’re confident in your website, direct them to visit it for more information. If you’re running a social media campaign, include the hashtag if you want them to find out more there.

Order a book signage example. 'Order a book. If we don't hold what you need, we'll get it for you. Visit the Library website'.This ‘Order a book’ signage is a good example of less is more. The message is straightforward, the call to action is simple and the largest element is the thing we want people to remember.

Note that the main message here is a ‘perfect’ 15 words but it’s been tweaked to fit the space dictated by the artwork, so not strictly adhering to the 3x5 rule.

It’s important to note that sometimes you won’t want a call to action (some of the examples in this article don’t have them). This is usually when a sign is part of a wider, awareness-raising marketing piece. Having a clear idea of what you want your audience to do will help you to decide whether a call to action is required or not.


Hierarchy helps the viewer decide what order they should process the elements of your design. It helps with the flow of the eye, and ensures that the most important information is prioritised by the viewer.

The most important element of the design should be first in the hierarchy.

One of the most concise summaries I found was on the wpmudev blog:

How to achieve visual hierarchy infographic from wpmudev blog. Includes visual examples for 1. Size 2. Colour 3. Contrast 4. Element Style 5. Symmetry 6. GRouping and Similarity 7. Don't mix everything

The most important thing here is not to use all the techniques at once, or you’ll end up in a mess. If you choose one or two, it should really improve your design.

There’s lots of reading you can do around design hierarchy, I’ll just pick a couple of things that work particularly well for digital signage: size and contrast.


The easiest of these to implement is size, because we use size to create a hierarchy whenever we write. This blog article, for example, uses larger fonts for the headings, then subheadings, then the text. It’s really simple but really effective.


AGLC signage example: 'Welcome to the Alan Gilbert Learning Commons'.AGLC opening hours signage example. 'The Learning Commons is open 24/7 during term time - visit the Library website for full details'. Contrast is another important one to pick out because digital signage tends to be read at a distance, so making sure any text on there is legible is essential.

This also has the benefit of being more accessible to viewers who have poor eyesight.

This is especially true of putting text on top of image-based signage. Try to put text over an area of the image where there’s not much going on. The sky is usually a good bet, but any large area of a single colour works well.


Colour is something that may be defined by the brand guidance of the institution you work for. If so, this may take some of the decision making out of your hands, however colour can be an important part of contrast. For example, make sure that your text isn’t too similar in colour to whatever it’s sat on.

Colour is important when you’re picking an image to use as a background. If you’re putting text onto a background image, make sure you’re using a colour that stands out.

White space

White space (sometimes called negative space) in some ways is the absence of design. It deals with the spaces in between design elements, and helps all other elements of hierarchy work.

Give each of your design elements space to breathe and ensure that one isn’t crowding out another. It syncopates with design hierarchy.

This principle often doesn’t get thought about enough, but it can help reinforce the idea of removing content until there’s nothing left to remove. If everything looks squashed together, you might need to remove something to make space, or play with the size of some elements.

Google homepageThe example I’m going to use to illustrate good use of white space isn’t from digital signage, but it’s so perfect and it’s so instantly recognisable I hope you’ll forgive me.

You should see examples of white space in all the examples I’ve given, but the Google home page is really a homage to the beauty of negative space in design.

The simplest, most common and easiest to understand form of white space is a margin around the edge of a page. Each design element should have its own margins to stop one thing running into another.


The flow (sometimes called rhythm) of the design is especially important with digital signage, because you want to encourage an efficient flow of the viewer’s eye to help them digest all your information quite quickly.

In English, our natural inclination is to read top to bottom, left to right.

The common reading patterns (in languages that read left to right) are the Gutenberg Pattern, the F pattern and the Z pattern.

Diagram illustrating design flow 1Diagram illustrating design flow 2

We can manipulate the flow of our design by using Hierarchy. The eye will be drawn to something that’s a contrast to the majority of the other elements (larger, a different colour).

The less text within the design, the more we can influence the flow. If you look at the previous example of the “welcome” sign, the text was positioned in the bottom left corner out of necessity (it was the best place within the chosen image for contrast) but there’s no other text on the sign that’s competing for attention.

If your sign consists mainly of text, and the text is the most important part of the sign, then I’d recommend taking these reading habits into account.

I covered some of this in my previous blog on writing for the web. There’s a lot of overlap in design principles for web and for text-heavy digital signage.

Let’s take the following two signs as an example of how we can influence flow.

Open Access signage example 1. 'You need to know about Open Access. Open Access Week. 21 - 27 October 2019'.In this first example, the eye is pulled away from the text to the logo on the right, it’s big and it’s a contrasting colour to the orange of the background.

It sits right across the Strong Fallow Area and the Terminal Area in the Gutenberg Diagram, meaning the eye wants to stop when it gets to the bottom right.

This leaves the date of Open Access Week in the weakest part of the hierarchy, and it’s an awkward, unnatural flow for the reader to go back left.

Open Access signage example 2. 'You need to know about Open Access. Open Access Week. 21 - 27 October 2019'.In this second example, the only thing we’ve changed is the opacity of the logo. It’s now blending in with the background more, and therefore isn’t pulling the eye over to the right-hand side of the design as much.

This encourages a more natural F pattern of reading down the left hand side of the sign. It may lose some of the visual impact, but it creates a better hierarchy, prioritising the text.

A good design will have a harmonious relationship between the text elements and the non-text elements of the design. A good digital sign might aim to make the flow as efficient as possible for the viewer.


In conclusion, there’s a lot of little tricks you can use to help get your point across in an efficient way, and efficiency is key for digital signage.

Here’s a few questions you might want to consider when you’re done with a first draft:

  • Can you get the message down to 15(ish) words?
  • Is it going to legible from a distance?
  • Does your signage need a call to action? Is it clear, and is it reasonable to assume the person reading it can take this action?
  • Is the most important thing the most prominent thing?
  • Have you given your design enough space to breathe, or does it look crowded?
  • How will the user’s eye make its journey across your design? Is it flowing nicely or is it jumping around a lot?
  • If there’s a lot of text, is it arranged in a natural reading pattern?
  • Is there anything more you can take away without losing the purpose of the sign?

You might need to compromise on one of these elements to reinforce another, think about what’s important to the purpose of the sign and prioritise getting that right.

If you’re unsure whether or not your sign is working you should perhaps blind test it on someone. If you know your signage only displays each item for 10 seconds at a time, show it to someone for 10 seconds, then hide it and ask if they got the message.

I’ve only really covered static signage here, but that can be the easiest type of signage to produce, so hopefully it will be of use even if you’re just starting out.

I’m shortly going to be taking an Adobe Certified Associate qualification in Adobe After Effects. Stay tuned for a follow up article where I’ll be delving into some more basic design tips, but with an emphasis on motion graphics.

Jonathan Hogg, Digital Marketing Coordinator


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