I Saw the Sign: Lessons in Creating Compelling Signage

About five days a week, I walk or drive through Capitola Village, a small town/tourist trap in Santa Cruz, CA that has attracted visitors for 200 years or so. Maybe more. And as summer grows closer, the number of tourists also grows. Getting through the area becomes a longer, slower trip.

A slower trip means I have more time to really observe my surroundings, and I have started to take notice of the variety of signs businesses use to represent themselves.

How do signs speak to people and draw them in? What says CHOOSE ME! over the other five ice cream shops, cafes, restaurants, boutiques, or even the beaches themselves? Here’s a closer look at a few of the signs that caught my eye on those slow drives, and how they might inspire us (or not) in the digital marketing arena.


Capitola Venetian

Here we have an old-timey, cottage-style painted wood sign that appears warm, welcoming, and unassuming. That, combined with the 1950s film noir “motel” sign behind it in black and white neon. I kind of love the juxtaposition of these two different styles, but we’re definitely getting some mixed messages here.

Lesson: Stay consistent with your presentation so you don’t throw people off. Or not. If you have an awesome location, a crazy fun paint job and a historical element you can milk, the sign doesn’t matter as much — you can get away with more. You’ll still attract visitors, because what you offer is already a compelling destination. In other words, consistent presentation would be Capitola Venetian’s best bet, but if your product or service is popular, packaging doesn’t necessarily have to do as much heavy lifting.



Super modern typeface, reading bottom to top. This says to me: We’re modern, and maybe a little bit edgy. The danger here is that the awkwardness of reading bottom to top may annoy or confuse —  and some might miss it all together, especially while in a moving car. However, in this particular case, using just one word in a large, clean typeface? I say it works.

Lesson: Take care when placing your navigation on the right, or your logo in some unexpected spot. People are comfortable with their conventions and the eye often goes right where it expects to see something. You can go the unconventional route, but keep it simple and clear (the way Lumen does). And consider your clientele; a predominantly conservative customer base probably won’t appreciate that quirk the way you do.

psychicPsychic Mermaid

Guys, don’t feel bad. Psychic Mermaid has a leg up on the rest of us marketers, because they were just born knowing how to create a sign that will draw you in. All part of the job, you know?

Lesson: Hire a psychic and skip the marketing guesswork. If all else fails, throw a mermaid in the mix. #putamermaidonit

eltoroEl Toro Bravo

All they needed here was a ladder, some paint and a skilled (sturdy) hand! While simple in execution, I like how they captured classic, down-to-earth California-Mexican style. Just looking at it takes me back to Ensenada on a summertime surf trip, eating tacos from a street cart…There is no incongruity between the sign and the restaurant. You can guess it’s not four-star but it’s obviously not a chain either. It’s been there a while, and there’s a good chance it’s a local favorite.

Lesson: Does the carpet match the drapes? Again, you don’t want to mislead passers-by. And out-of-towners tend to know a comfortable “locals” spot when they see one, especially if it makes them nostalgic for their old haunts.

margaritaville signage old and new


This restaurant put up a newer sign and left the old sign up, so we get the added bonus of comparing the two. The newer sign (right) combines lots of natural sand texture with a 3D effect. Its brown-over-used-chewing-gum color scheme might be more subdued than intended, or maybe they were going for a more casual effect. The old sign (left) is dated with a drop shadow and parrot, but it definitely evokes that well-known tropical Jimmy Buffet brand. The newer sign seems to be going for more of a… Sedona Arizona vibe(?)

Lesson: Has your brand voice shifted over the years? Does your current look reflect who you are now? If not, revise! We’ve built websites that looked great in mockups, but a client shift in brand voice during the process meant the site design no longer fully met expectations once tested. We made changes and re-launched, and we got the results we wanted. Perhaps Margaritaville had the same idea — or an identity crisis. Someone should remind them to take the old sign down.


Gas Room

We kind of don’t want to know what’s behind these doors…


Harbor Lights Motel

Wow. It looks like someone took out their vintage 1950s stencils and compass to carefully paint this sign. In a break from convention, visitors to this motel will soon discover that its incredible plainness is slightly at odds with the co$t to stay here. Also, the color palette is… unique. They get points for neatness, clarity and readability though.

Lesson: Who needs a flashy sign when you’ve got tins of blue and red paint and a stencil? I secretly kind of like how simple the sign is, and it gives you a hint up front of what you’re in for: out-of-date, but well-kept accommodations, somewhere in the vicinity of a harbor!

Hot Feethotfeet

This shoe boutique’s sign must be from the 60s or 70s. It’s very much on the hippie dippy side, but somehow it seems appropriate set against this laid back groovy beach town. And why change what works?

Lesson: Don’t change just because the decade has. If it ain’t broke…


Paradise Beach Grille

I like their choice in typeface and the sign’s design scheme. Being raised from the building’s wall, the clean and sans serif creates real drop shadows in the sun. And the lights for nighttime shadows are a useful touch. This signage is a little less unique than some of its neighbors, but it’s thoughtfully executed and elegant. And in this case, having more whimsical and unique signs around it allows this one to stand out in its own right.

Lesson: Don’t let other companies in your niche define your brand, but do consider them all the same. Sometimes a good idea cis born of antithesis. (Do be careful with 3D lettering, though. A more ornate typeface would have ruined this sign’s clever effect.)



This skin care boutique’s window sign is another example of vertical lettering; plain and simple, and unlike Lumen, it reads in a more traditional top to bottom style. I appreciate that the sign sits unobtrusively on the side to make the most of the store’s window space.

Lesson: An elaborate logo isn’t necessary to command attention, if you have a bunch of cool rubber ducks to display.


Pizza My Heart

Old business, new sign. The cutout technique on the surfboard shape is cute and fits in its location very well. It’s rusty metal look is uncluttered, low maintenance, and tough looking. It imparts a sense of “I’m keeping up with the times, but I’m not going to be too hyper modern and trendy about it. Nor am I too old fashioned. I’m timeless.”

Lesson: Don’t underestimate the power of a classic look, for a sign that will keep people eating pizza for many years to come. (Ok, they would come sign or no sign — the open storefront with cheesy garlicky odors wafting out is totally cheating!) Optional Lesson #2: Use the power of pungency when possible… but only for good!


Armida Winery

I like this sign. I think the rustic metal background with a clean, white serif font works really well. The live grape vines are an obvious, but understated way to emphasis the winery-ness.

Lesson: This is another example of a fairly simple, but well designed sign that’s nicely enhanced by its surrounding elements, to really create an attractive, quality presentation.


Quality Market

I had to include this sign because, while not unique or cool, its message is so clear. One split second flash on this sign, and you know exactly what you’ll find inside: cigarettes, booze, and lottery tickets. (This particular convenience store also happens to have some decent wine, but that’s another story.)

Lesson: This sign is a great example of how we form patterns in our brain and associate familiar things; skinny jeans and plaid shirt = 90% chance it’s a hipster. These fonts and associated iconography tell us exactly what’s happening here, no matter what the words spell out. That said — putting the word “quality” in your name doesn’t make it so. Just like how you know they’re probably overcharging you at Honest Abe’s Car Repair… if  you have to broadcast you’re doing it right, we’re gonna start to suspect you’re not.


Dogmatic Arts

For a newish sign, this is well done. The choice of typeface (all lowercase), the layout, and the care in the execution all tell me this is a hip, modern place that values quality. This gift shop could very well be full of cheap made-in-China junk once you walk inside, but higher expectations have been set.

Lesson: First impressions are important, even if people are just passing by. You never know if or how they’ll describe you to others — or when they’ll be back. And if you’ve make the right first impression, they will be back. And maybe they’ll come in this time.


Tsunami Zone

You are now leaving it. Which is always a good sign. However, while the basic blue/white color scheme is vibrant, my backwards brain’s first thought was what’s that blue blobby octopus thing doing?

Lesson: During a tsunami, always be sure to stand at least a few feet up the street from this sign. And avoid the blue octopus at all costs.


Okay, we had some fun here. However, despite the old never judge a book by its cover adage, we all do it. It’s just part of how we experience and process information around us. Yes, what you say matters a lot, but so does how you say it. A good enough book with a lousy cover may get read, but the thoughtfully covered one gets collected.

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