Carl H. Lindner College of BusinessCarl H. Lindner College of BusinessUniversity of Cincinnati

Carl H. Lindner College of Business

UC Research Examines What Makes Signs Hard to Read

Monday, December 19, 2016 6:24 PM
Lindner marketing professor to present findings at 5th Annual National Signage Research and Education Conference on October 10.

On-premises signage is an important form of communication for bricks and mortar businesses. Signs identify businesses, draw traffic, convey important information and signal the quality of stores.

Research conducted at the Carl H. Lindner College of Business with industry partner BrandSpark International shows that a significant portion of consumers have driven by and failed to find a business due to signage being too small or otherwise unclear.

“The research is trying to get to the roots of the drive-by communication failure that frustrate customers and hurt businesses, and it’s getting worse over time,” says James Kellaris, the James S. Womack / Gemini Corporation Professor of Signage and Visual Marketing.

Kellaris will present new research findings at the 5th Annual National Signage Research and Education Conference (NSREC) on October 10, 2013. The two-day annual conference (Oct. 9 and 10), jointly sponsored by the Sign Foundation, Inc, the Lindner College of Business and UC’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning (DAAP), attracts planners and sign industry professionals from across the country. New findings provide evidence regarding consumers’ preferences for signage communication and aesthetics, as well as what makes signs difficult to read.

Whereas planners and regulators often restrict the size of commercial signage and encourage uniformity for the sake of community aesthetics, research evidence shows that consumers do not think that small size or uniformity of design are desirable.

In fact, a national survey of American shoppers revealed that the No. 1 reason signs are hard to read is that the letters are simply too small. Placement of signs is also a contributing factor, as are insufficient lighting, insufficient contrast between letters and background color, and – in the case of digital signage – the message simply changes too fast.

At first glance Kellaris suspected the difficulty shoppers have reading signs might be related to the aging Americans. His analysis of national survey data, however, shows that the problem is common to young and old shoppers alike.

Signage is an emerging hot topic at the University of Cincinnati, in part because it is at the intersection free speech rights and regulation.

The 2013 NSREC will focus on the theme of Signage as Advertising and will address topical research on four key areas that impact signage: Science, Technology, Art/Advertising and Regulation (S.T.A.R. intiative).

In addition to Kellars’ presentation, the conference will also include two other UC presentations.

  • Jeff Rexhausen, associate director of research the UC Economics Center, will present a Business Makeover Case Study: Economic Impact of Electronic Message Centers (EMCs). Rexhausen analyzed the impact of sign changes in the Midwestern market of a national retail corporation over 12 months to determine if EMCs allow businesses to communicate more information at a lower cost is associated with better store performance.
  •  Chris Auffrey, associate professor of planning, and Henry Hildebrandt, professor, School of Architecture and Interior Design at DAAP, will present Road Signage/Contextual Communication Influence Along Historic Route US 50. The two will build upon the 2012 Economic Value of On-Premise Signage presentation to assess the relationship of the built and natural environment with observed signage along this intercontinental highway.

To register or see the full lineup of presenters, visit


Sign Survey Says

64% of American shoppers report that they have driven by and failed to find a business due to signage communication failure. This number is up from 49.7% in 2011 and 60.8% in 2012.

What makes signs difficult to read? This year’s survey provides answers from the consumer’s perspective.

Top Ten Things That Make Signs Difficult to Read

1 – The letters are too small. (83.3%)*

2 – The placement of the sign makes it hard to see. (71.4%)

3 – The sign is not sufficiently lit at night. (63.6%)

4 – The color of the letters does not stand out from the background. (60.3%)

5 – Digital signs change the message too fast. (52.6%)

6 – The letters use a fancy font. (47.8%)

7 – The letters are spaced too close together. (35.6%)

8 – The sign looks very similar to other signs nearby. (34.4%)

9 – There are distracting visuals on the sign. (31.7%)

10 – Miscellaneous “other.” (1.6%)

Source: Kellaris, J.J. (2013). “Additional Insights from the BrandSpark / Better Homes and Gardens American Shopper Study: A Three-year Longitudinal Update.” National Signage Research and Education Conference, Cincinnati, OH.

* Percentages represent the proportion of consumers citing each item in response to the prompt “when a sign is difficult to read, it is usually because...”




Who: Open to the public. Reservations required.

What: 5th Annual National Signage Research & Education Conference (NSREC)

Where: Kingsgate Marriott Conference Center at the University of Cincinnati

When: Wednesday and Thursday, October 9-10th  |  8AM-5:30PM

Cost: $225 (early registration by Sept. 23)

Registration: Visit The Signage Foundation