Category Archives: Graphics

Tips to creating quality graphic design projects

ARTithmetic: Geometry Ordered My Artistic World

Fine artists and math aren’t usually friends. Math is a necessary evil at times, but visual and wordy creative types generally avoid it. (And for those of you who know my fanaticism concerning grammar and spelling, yes, the title above was intentional, and no, I do not have a fever. I do however suffer from a fascination with terrible puns. And no, there isn’t any other kind of pun.)

However, math skills are incredibly useful in many areas of drawing, painting, printmaking, sculpture and more. Linear perspective is based on mathematical relationships, lending realistic proportions to depictions. It translates into sculpture getting anatomy in proportion; into fashion design measuring for pattern sizing. Ancient cultures, Michelangelo, and modern artists alike utilized measuring and drawing grids for enlarging paintings. Mathematical volume ratios are important in timing and recipes, from acids for etching printing plates, to mixing paints, to formulating ceramic glazes and kiln temperatures and firing times.

I didn’t like math much, except geometry. It actually has saved my art projects on many occasions. It isn’t just figuring square footage for a rectilinear wall (length x width) before you buy too much paint. It can be handy to figure out the perimeter of various shapes depending on a project’s needs, and you may not be able to predict all the needs you’ll have in future projects, so it’s good to already have a working knowledge of math embedded in your grey matter before a problem crops up (especially if you’re under a deadline).

The point is, for example, at this particular juncture you don’t know how big the circle is or the radius or diameter from the info you have right in front of you. This is how you find out. Once I had a project into which I had to figure out how to fit a circle exactly between random elements that were not making it easy to just measure a diameter; the three places crowding into the space formed a triangle. Using my existing knowledge of geometry, I could figure out the precise point at which I needed to place my compass point, based on a principle that didn’t even require actual measuring. No measuring? Cool. I did have a couple of extra steps because the space was already halfway enclosed and I did have to take measurements to recreate a triangle from those three points to get the angles right, but I’ll start by the main concept, which, barring such constraints, really requires no measuring.

Figure 1

First, some basic vocabulary, like you need to know that straight line segments connect singular points. Simple enough. Then you must understand what perpendicular means: that would be a line that is exactly 90 degrees difference from another line. Then you should know that “bisect” means to cut in half. Also know that the center point of a circle is theoretically where one could put a compass point to adjust the business end to scribe a circle around it, and the distance between the circle’s edge to the center point is called a radius, and the distance across the widest part of a circle from edge to edge is a diameter. Sorry if that seems a little too elementary, but I’m trying not to assume too much (I haven’t limited who visits here other than spammers and other mischief makers).

Figure 2

That introduction should prepare anyone for the following rule: the center point of a circle that will pass through all three of any three points (in any orientation to each other) may be found by determining the respective perpendicular bisectors of two line segments connecting any two pairs of the three points, and locating the intersection of these two bisectors. For example, on Figure 2 one line segment paired with its perpendicular bisector is in purple, and the other pair is in green; where the green and purple bisectors intersect is where you put your compass point; adjust it to the span between that point (the center point) and any one of the random three points, and you will see that the circle drawn with that radius will pass through all three of those points.

Figure 3

Now, your three points can be in any proportional orientation to each other; they needn’t be lined up anywhere close to a regular sequence as they nearly are in Figure 2 above. Alternatively, as in Figure 3 here, two points can be rather close to each other, while the third is relatively distant, yet you will find that the principle of the intersection of perpendicular bisectors functions every bit as accurately with any configuration for finding that common radius at that intersection point. You’ll notice that the intersection seems to be more “between” some of the points in this second example; whereas before, it seemed more “outside” of the area of the more lined up points. And that’s okay, either way.

Figure 4
Figure 5
Figure 6

So…how does one determine that perpendicular bisector? Well, there’s always measuring it out, which is a fat pain in the neck, but the easy way is with any straightedge and the compass with its pencil. Even if all you have is a piece of scrap paper, you can fold it over a few times and the fold will make a nice straightedge if you don’t abuse it too much. You don’t need a ruler with measuring marks, and you don’t actually have to calculate anything; the laws of physics do the heavy lifting, and you’re just an apparatus. So let’s try it:

1. Draw a line segment between any two of the three points.

2. Draw a second segment between (either) end of the first segment (since you only have the two choices left), and the third point.

3. The same procedure for finding the perpendicular bisector (steps 4 through 7) will be applied to each segment, so choose just one to perform it on first.

4. Stretch your compass just a little farther than the length of line segment #1. A distance that could produce a nearly equilateral triangle would be sufficient distance to get a good bisector length.

5. Place your compass point on one end of the segment.

6. Estimate about where you think a perpendicular line would pass on both sides of the segment and mark an arc (just part of a circle) lightly but generously in that vicinity, to be sure it crosses it on both sides fully. Do not readjust your compass after making these lines. Figure 6 may help you see what I mean on placement.

7. Repeat the arc process from the point on the other end of segment #1. Again, don’t readjust your compass by mistake; these arcs must be equal from either side to stay centered. This will produce a little “X” on either side of segment #1. Drawing a line that passes right through those two X’s will be the perpendicular bisector of that segment.

8. Now repeat steps 4 through 7, only for (whichever your choice is for:) segment #2.

Now if you have a physical project that you needed a circle shape for, you can cut out the circle you just made, and use the circle itself (either it, or use the hole it left in the paper or cardboard you cut it from) as a drawing template. Cut it out of chipboard or whatever and it’ll be a little sturdier than just on paper, but a little harder to cut out. Or match a circle template to it if you can…you may not be able to, though, since available sizes of templates are so limited. If you’re an adult, I suggest cutting it out carefully by hand with and X-Acto knife instead of scissors if you can (but kids, DO get help from an adult; X-Acto type art knives are notorious for slicing even adults if one isn’t very careful and steady), or if you’re lucky enough to have a circle cutter, go for that if you’re working in wood. (It bears mentioning that in every school, furniture, design or model building shop I ever worked in, these art knives had way more accident reports than any of the power tools! Don’t be overly confident; be extra careful!!)

My project for which I first had to use this knowledge had a key area that was very difficult to access, because other elements were already in the way to just being able to measure easily. Knowing the (perhaps obscure) three-point rule about circles was already in my brain, patiently waiting for a use when I found I needed it. It paid off!

But sometimes you’ll need actual measurements for a triangle. The thing one has to remember is that any 3 points (that can locate a circle) also makes a triangle, and all triangles have 3 sides. Those sides (like the segments we made in the last exercise) have center points, (and therefore, they have perpendicular bisectors). Triangles also have 3 vertices (vertexes if you prefer), or corners, and no matter what proportion the triangle is in (right, obtuse, scalene, equilateral, isosceles; whatever), those 3 vertices always total 180 degrees when you add their angle measurements together. Always! And that means that there is always a way to figure any single unknown measurement, so long as you have the degree measurements of at least 2 vertices, or of at least 2 sides. This is why the Pythagorean theorem works for right triangles; but I’ll explain that later. Don’t worry: the formula is almost easier than the pronunciation.

What if you don’t have a right triangle? Well, how much info do we have? Is it enough? You pretty much need measurements of 2/3 of the sides or 2/3 of the vertices degrees to get that last third of either. There are ways to do combinations of a vertex and a couple of sides and things like that, but I have neither needed that combination nor have I any recollection of how to do it, and it’s late and I’m too tired to look any of this stuff up; I’m going purely on memory in this whole post…literally from decades past.

Practical Applications

You might wonder why we even want to know any stuff about sides. Well, if you’re edging a shape with some sort of trim, you’d need to figure out the perimeter measurement, or the distance around it, so you’d know how much yardage/board footage (or other type of length) of trim to buy. If you’re painting a big shape, you’d want to know how much paint you’ll need, and need to calculate the area of a shape. Most containers tell builders or DIY remodelers how many fluid ounces or gallons or whatever they contain; some will say how many square inches or feet or whatever that liquid volume will cover…but they may not. And having far too much or too little is often a problem if you fail to plan. Paint can get pricy, and it’s bad for the environment to waste it and many people don’t even bother to look at recycling. So waste not!

Area, a measure of the surface of a two-dimensional entity, is good knowledge for many things: ordering sod for your yard, or raw canvas to stretch z number of q sized stretched canvases plus their borders, or concrete for your patio, or to help calculate how much x number of cows will eat grazing a pasture in y amount of time before you have to rotate them to a different pasture and let the other pastures grow again for the next round. Cows? We’re talking about cows? Heck yeah! Math is super useful in almost any topic. So there are formulas to help us figure this stuff out for almost any shape, even if you have to take a big weird shape and break it up into smaller components that are easier to define and then add it all together.

Quadrilaterals, Triangles and Circles

I guess I’ll start with quadrilaterals, or four-sided figures; they’re the easiest. Perimeter for a square would be S x 4, where S is for Side. For a rectangle it would be (length x 2) plus (width x 2), or L2+W2. For a parallelogram it would be the same as for a rectangle, and for a rhombus, perimeter formula would be the same as for a square…but not so for area.

Figure 7

The area (A) of a square or rectangle is simply A=L x W. For a rhombus, you measure the lines connecting the opposing corners and multiply those: A=D1 x D2 (D stands for diagonal). For a parallelogram it’s a liiiittle more complicated, because you kind of break it up into components, one of which is a triangle, so I’ll shelf the parallelogram and teach you about triangles first, with a quick detour to trapezoids in between.

Triangles are nearly their own field of study and I do believe that relates to the term “trigonometry”. All I remember from trig is how to figure the sine, cosine, and tangent, and I’ve not yet had practical cause to use it, so I’ll skip that for my audience. We’ll concentrate on perimeter and area.

Figure 8

The perimeter of any triangle is just derived by adding the sides’ values to each other. The area, however, is obtained by using the formula A=½ h(b); in other words, area equals ½ times the height, times the base (when you see parentheses in a formula, it means to multiply the value within and the values outside the parentheses…it saves confusion using the old-school multiplication symbol x alongside variables which also may look like x). It makes more sense when you look at a right triangle and notice that it’s like someone sliced a square (or a rectangle, or a rhombus) in half diagonally…base times height is a whole lot like length times width for a square…then you divide it in half, because it’s only half of the area of the quadrilateral it would fit in. ½ h(b). Picture that while looking at the different triangle types in Figure 8 above. So…what are height and base?

Well, you can take any triangle and assign one side (generally the bottom) as the base. From there, the top corner opposite that base is what determines height, but only if you measure on the perpendicular. It doesn’t matter if the height is directly over the base or hanging out in the “air”, as it might with an obtuse triangle. The height is always completely perpendicular to the base (see Figure 8 above, on far right; the obtuse triangle with the dotted lines; note how that also translates to the acute triangle in center).

Now I’m just going to give formulas for shapes, and if you have questions on how to execute them, please email me…or contact your local math teacher, who is probably (hopefully) far better at explaining this than I am.

Figure 9

A trapezoid at first seems like a Frankenstein’s monster of shapes, but its formula is pretty easy, kind of ripped off from the triangle, but it acknowledges measurements for a top AND a bottom base: A=1/2 h(b1+b2). You don’t double the height, because it’s still just one height. Note that the formula below the parallelogram in Figure 9 says “either base”, not “both”, because you only need ONE. Since they’re the same (they’re parallel and so are the sides that connect them), you can choose either one of them.

Figure 10

Right triangles of course have special rules all their own. In geometry they always have a little square in the corner reminding you that their angle is 90 degrees. The single side exactly opposite that right angle is called the hypotenuse. The example shown on the far left is actually an isosceles triangle (two 45-degree angles plus one 90-degree angle equals 180 degrees), but sides a and b could also be different lengths, and the other two angles can be different measurements as well (as they would necessarily be, what with having different length sides). For example, the triangle on the right has one 30-degree angle, one 60-degree angle, and the (right) 90-degree angle, again adding up to 180 degrees.

Right triangles are where the Pythagorean theorem comes in: a2 x b2 = c2. If a triangle with sides abc is a right triangle with c being the hypotenuse (the side opposite the right angle), where the number of length units a=3 and of b=4, and you don’t know c, you can calculate that using the theorem: a2 + b2 = c2,  and a=3 so 3×3=9, and b=4 so 4×4=16, so 32 + 42 = c2, then 9 +16 = c2, then c2 is obviously 25, and the square root of 25 is 5. So 5 is the measurement of that hypotenuse. Obviously, the measurements rarely calculate so they fall into such neat round numbers; this is just an easy example. You can figure other square roots manually, but it is admittedly tedious; I highly recommend using a calculator for this component. Similarly, if you change the same proportion around so that b is the value missing instead of c, you can just subtract a from c to get b, or: c2a2=b2, instead of adding like we just did.

Figure 11

Hmm…we’ve done quadrilaterals and triangles quite enough. So back to circles – let’s do some actual math. One of the most “famous” formulas in geometry is “Pi R squared“, or πr2. In truth, that’s not a complete formula; it’s only half! You need to know what that combination yields. In this case, it’s the Area, so A=πr2 is the whole (balanced) formula. The A again represents Area; the r represents the radius, or the distance from the center point to any edge of a circle (and it’s the same distance to any edge of the same circle). Another useful formula for circles is for the Circumference, or the distance around the outside – and yes, basically it’s the same thing as perimeter for other shapes; “circumference” is just a specialized term for the perimeter of a circle. The formula looks a tiny bit like the one for Area, but don’t confuse the two: C=2πr or in longhand: Circumference = 2 times pi times the radius. (It really is quite different in function.) Now, anyone who’s paying attention will notice that 2 times radius is the same thing as (one times) the diameter, since the diameter is the distance across a circle at its widest, which necessarily runs through the center point…essentially, 2 radiuses. So you could alternately say π(d) and be done with it. Except, of course, until you need to plug in a definition for π (pronounced pi like the Greek letter). Pi is a “magical” circle-specific value represented by 22/7 – which, since those numbers don’t ever make human sense together, have a decimal equivalent something like:

3.14159265358979323846264338327950288419716939937510582097494459230781640628620899862803482534211706798214808651328230646…blah blah, random constant ad infinitum…but for most practical purposes, 3.14 is adequate. If you don’t dig doing immortal arithmetic using top-heavy improper fractions with anemic prime denominators, go for the decimal shorthand instead. I think I’ve done more with circles than with any other shape, save for squares…obviously.

Formulas For Forms

Artists also work with 3-D geometric forms as well as simply 2-D shapes. Remember from our art lessons on Forms that forms are essentially mere spatial extrusions or rotations of shapes, expanding 2-D to 3-D. Formulas abound for forms as well, but instead of needing formulas for area and circumference or perimeter, they need formulas for things like volume and surface area…things like for the sphere: V=4/3(π)r3. Prisms are easy; calculate the shape on the end and multiply by the height of the prism to get the volume of it. Surface area of those, you just calculate the areas of rectangular sides and add them all to the areas of each of the ends. Pyramids are 4 equilateral or isosceles triangles plus a square base for surface area. Volume for those is a little weirder. Cubes are made of 6 squares, so their surface area would be the area of one square times 6; its volume would be Length times Width times Height (LxWxH). Tetrahedrons are 4-sided forms with all equilateral sides. When you get into dodecahedrons, icosahedrons and the like, you’ve gone beyond what I’ve ever had use for personally, but there are mathematic resources on the web you can search for with any question.

Grow Further from the Foundations

Of course, shapes and forms may not always conform to geometric proportions; sometimes they are organic shapes or forms (see lesson on Shape). But usually you can guesstimate parts based on similarity to a geometric counterpart…or five.

Now, you may be wondering…how on earth again can any of this be useful to an artist? I’m certainly not saying it comes up with every project. But when it does come up, it is good to be prepared, and know what you’re doing. I had to figure out how to draw proper gothic arches for my 3-tree triptych. I had to figure out perspective for Catreedral. I had to stay aware of paint to medium to water ratios in all of my acrylic mixtures so my paint didn’t lose adhesion viscosity effective in relation to the canvas or other substrates. I do commission work to fit certain spaces in situ.

A lot of times it’s like my first example: you’re trying to fit an element into a composition with only part of the information you need to execute it, and you should know how to generate that missing information from what you do have. It can help you assemble 3-dimensional forms; it can help you understand proportion when drawing things either freehand or by perspective. It can help you organize radial or concentric arrays or grids in regular intervals to make patterns. It can be used in symbolic capacities. It can help you distribute elements on a certain shape and size of substrate. Perimeter and circumference are good for figuring minimum linear measurements for physical materials to wrap around the outside of a shape. Volume is good for figuring out how much resin you can fill a hollow form with, or how much airspace a solid one will take up, or how much water or glycerin it would displace if submerged; while area and surface area would let you know how much paint or flocking or whatever you would need to color or coat the thing with. When you get into large shapes or forms this sort of calculation takes on a more significant importance with budgeting supplies, as well as figuring sale price from a root of cost of materials, times your hourly rate, differentials, incidentals and whatever is relevant for your medium and project. It’s not always formulas; sometimes it’s understanding the theory and relationships behind the formula and applying it in a custom situation. I’ve gotten to the place where I know some of this stuff so well, I can visualize it accurately without doing computations, which saves lots of time with sometimes impatient or unrealistic clients.

Model of Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Symphony Park (formerly called Union Park as a project) in downtown Las Vegas NV; deduced from old 3D files that couldn’t translate to my laser cutting equipment; I utilized geometry and a torch to make it happen. Finished model for RNL (lower left) is less than 3″ in any dimension.

When I was an architectural model builder, I was given a rather challenging project: to produce a very quick small-scale context model of a building designed by a visionary architect named Frank Gehry…without any plans or elevations. I was to fabricate it from rigid, flat clear acrylic sheet, and manipulate it to match the feel of an existing context model. I had no access at the time to 3D printers, and clear media on those had not yet been developed. I had to figure out how to make a flat pattern, cut it on the laser cutter out of clear acrylic, and then carefully melt it into shape with a propane torch and tweezers to bend it into shape, but I needed a starting point that was viable, in a flat pattern I could cut out first on the laser cutter. I scrutinized a digital virtual model of this building, which looked, as some say, like a crumpled piece of paper, and then I noticed that the (thankfully ubiquitous) windows were of a certain ratio of proportion to themselves and between each other, and were laid out on a sort of grid, and I started twirling the camera angle in the file all around, (no idea who drafted it or how; stellar job though), counting in all the relevant directions, taking notes and creating a schematic. I ended up, using synthesized knowledge from my foundations in geometry, making a very faithful yet tiny model of that building that satisfied all requirements from my superiors and from the client. Geometry prowess made my deducing the pattern for it possible, and my job very well may have depended on it…I was after all running the model shop, and there was no one else to figure it out for me, or so I assumed; it was my job to do it. Math saved my proverbial posterior. Never underestimate the income value of the ability to analyze and solve.

If you prepare and have these geometric principles in your head already, you will be able to spontaneously formulate solutions to many future problems on the fly, without ever having anticipated this or that particular challenge prior to its presenting itself. A well-rounded artist is versatile – and by nature, a problem solver. Math, and particularly the user-friendly concrete geometry, is another essential tool in your utility belt.

It must be said that art should not be funneled down to graphic design applications, any more than math should be limited to what a calculator can do for you. What I mean is, get down in the muck (or paint or clay or hand ciphering) and do it manually; figure it out on your own, without a machine, because that is what it takes to get your brain to be really agile and useful in unpredictable situations. And hey, if an anti-tech dystopian society befalls us, you’ll have marketable skills that will fast earn your reputation as a person in great demand and of great success by default, since most dullards won’t be able to add two and two and come up with four without some microchip telling them so, or be able figure out how big a barrel to make to fit that low-tech washbasin in the corner of his hovel, let alone how much pitch to coat it with so it doesn’t turn his dirt floor to mud.

If you are frustrated with other academic subjects, and struggling to find relevance for them in your life, I do hope you take this post to heart as the first of many examples of how things are connected, and how they can be made useful. Aspects and underlying concepts in different areas of knowledge can be synthesized quite usefully into other areas, informing your vocation in ways that are rich and multilayered, and propelling you (and your career) into deeper realms of excellence in your craft.

This sort of outside-the-box thinking is actually cultivated in studying the arts themselves, more than in other more common school subjects alone. This is also why I am more a proponent of STEAM schools over STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math schools)…the “A” standing for “Arts”, of course…and that’s not just visual arts, but all arts, for they all stimulate and stretch the brain in unique ways: analysis, synthesis and evaluation over mere memorization, comprehension and simple applications. It’s the type of creative, often unstructured yet free and communicative thinking that generates entrepreneurs, and that’s a pretty important bundle of skills these days. On that note, I encourage everyone to support arts education in all schools, because it enhances technology training in crucial ways that cannot be taught without the arts. Arts and the way they challenge our brain development will always be just as valuable to our culture as math, sciences and history, and as important as communication and social skills will always be, which we are relearning as a society, through recent backsliding and failures, that we still very much need to retain and sustain. Arts, in concert with technology and other sectors, will help us to preserve, portray and propel our culture.

Lines based on numerical proportions in space show off Vermeer’s linear onepoint perspective in “The Music Lesson”.
Look how real that space feels! Math is good, y’all.

Image (prior to my editing) courtesy of Google Art Project. Please email using contact form if issues with image.

All content on this site © 2013-2019/present L. Eilee S. George; all rights reserved.

How to Make a Legible Garage Sale Sign

Ah, it’s spring…time to clean out that house so you can bring more stuff into it…time for people to trade each other’s junk via garage sales. It’s time to drive around squinting and nearly killing everyone on the road while trying to read the tiny, light, thin scrawling on a sad poster board that’s flapping in the wind….

Oh, honey. You don’t have to die this way.

So time for the public service announcement: if you’re throwing a yard sale, be kind and use your mind. People driving by are supposed to keep their eyes on the road as much as possible. Your job is to make that sign as succinct and legible as possible, so that a glance or maybe two – not scrutiny – is all it takes to get folks to turn that wheel – safely.

I understand there are store-bought garage sale signs but you still have to fill out the day/time and the address on those – and a lot of folks rush it and it’s awful. Still, many choose to make their own, because the pre-made signs are small, but not cheap.

There are several factors that go into a winning yard sale sign:

  • Substrate (the sign itself) size
  • Substrate strength
  • Contrast between lettering and background
  • Lettering/type/font height
  • Type thickness
  • Type clarity
  • Content pertinence/relevance

I’ve seen little flaps off cardboard boxes with ballpoint pen scrawled on them, taped to a signpost before. I don’t know what they said, because I wasn’t willing to park my car, walk over to it, and use my Dick Tracy decoder ring to figure out what was written. I can’t be alone in that.

It’s best to consult your local ordinances before planning your signs!

Some cities have ordinances that you cannot affix signs to telephone poles or street sign poles (mostly because people are lazy and forget to remove them when the event is over – don’t be that guy). In that case, you may have to prop your signs up on something, and you’ll have to be prepared for that before the time comes for your sale. You could go to the office supply or hardware store and get one of those wire-frame sign holders like realtors use, but you can achieve the result cheaper with a simple cardboard box with some bricks or stones inside so it stays put – roll some duct tape backward over itself in a loop and firmly attach the back of the sign’s corners to the outside of the box – and this is great for two- or even four-sided signs as well. Ideally, you’re posting at or near one or more intersections, so you want people to know about your sale no matter what direction they’re traveling. Also know that cities may require that your sign be back from the intersection a given distance, which could increase the number of signs necessary. Some municipalities even limit the number of sales you can have a year without having to obtain a permit or even a business license, so make this sale count! Some cities are even more restrictive, and some less. Do your homework and avoid pesky charges for breaking ordinances.

I’ll describe how to make the signs (and why to do it that way) first, but if you need a visual while you’re reading, scroll down a little bit and you’ll see that I provided you some examples to illustrate what I mean. Pay attention to the following CONSIDERATIONS:

AUDIENCE: Keep in mind that drivers are already busy going somewhere, and you need to make it as easy as possible for them to spontaneously come to you. Also remember that many people have impaired vision – some of them don’t even know it. They still have money, though, and they just might want to buy your stuff – if they can see your sign.

SIZE: Even on a two-lane road, your sign needs to be at least 22”x28”, in order to allow enough room for letters large enough to be legible while driving from any direction. This is a standard size for both neon poster board and for foam core, which you will want to glue your neon poster board to for strength, if you’re not already going to stick it firmly to a box. Unless you can find neon foam core, you’ll have to combine them this way. On windy days, flimsy poster board alone will flap and fold, and possibly even blow away. That won’t help you (or those trying to find you) at all. If there’s going to be precipitation, you ought to re-schedule your sale, because even if you protect your signs (and your merchandise), your possible customers will likely not want to get out and shop in the rain, no matter how good your deals are. If inclement weather forces a reschedule, update any of your online/newspaper ads if at all possible.

COLORS: Neon poster boards are not necessarily a bad thing. It’s just that some colors lend more visibility than others. Your hot pinks, reds, and neon oranges and blues are in the middle of the value scale (to read about value, check out this post and scroll almost half way down to the heading “Value and Intensity – In Theory“). Reds, blues and purples are the worst for this. Don’t even think about black with white lettering – it’s a black hole no one will see. Also do not do happy little colors on a white or colored background; there’s not enough contrast. If the background is in the middle value range – not really light and not really dark – there’s nothing that you can write on it with that will really stand out in contrast. Electric yellow is the lightest, most visible and highest-contrast background you can get, with bold black ink writing on it. White is technically lighter, but it’s more common and people may overlook it because it looks like other elements in the landscape (e.g., street signs, trash, etc.), whereas fluorescent yellow is not that normal, and draws the eye. Get neon yellow, or if the neon orange you find is as light as the yellow (rare), you can get that if you prefer.

CONTENT: Now, you have a limited amount of space to work on, and you need to make that space count. This means telling only what is necessary – but all that is necessary. Think of making the sign the way reporters used to be trained to get the whole story, by using the W’s to consider what questions your readers may ask to get enough about the story to follow it. Who isn’t really important to tell them, (yes, you’re awesome, and they’ll learn that when they get to you), but Where, What and When are essential to bring them in. How comes into play when you’re trying to lure your quarry back into one of those rat mazes that builders call subdivisions, and to do so may require subsequent directional signs. But your initial invitation, out on a well-traveled road, must have all your W’s: What – SALE…When (both day and time) – FRIDAY-SUNDAY 9AM-2:30PM…Where1790 THISISA ROAD. If you put nothing else down, put down these vital bits of information, or no one will come, or they’ll come at the wrong time and get mad. Below these things you might write a word or two about the main content of the sale, which is more What: BABY STUFF or FURNITURE. This will pique the interest of those looking for just that, and if that’s all you’re selling, it may weed out those who aren’t interested in your wares. However, if you, like most people, have an even variety of items, then I do not recommend highlighting one thing for just that reason – people will assume you have nothing except what you mentioned – so in that case just leave it off – and then you’ll have plenty of room for 3 lines of text announcing the vital info above (the sale, day/time, address). You have to decide if your sale is the “yard” type or the “garage” sale (and “moving sale” excites buyers who will think your desperation will mean better deals), but I’ve always hated the term “rummage”; it sounds like people ransacking your undesirable castoffs and making a general mell-of-a-hess. It’s just not the image either party wants.

PREPARATION: Lay out on some scrap paper, roughly to scale, how you’re arranging the letters and spaces and count how many there are. Spaces between words should be a full space that a real letter would have taken up. I know it seems like more work to do a mock-up, but it saves you driving to buy more materials because of poor planning. Once you’ve worked out your mock-up on scrap paper, it’s time to lay it out on your neon board.

LAYOUT: So if you have 3 lines of text to draw on something 22” tall, you can use approximately 6” tall letters with enough breathing room between the lines and around the edges (it’ll be about an inch between lines, and between lines and edges). If they’re touching from line to line, it hurts legibility – space is important. If you’re caught without a ruler, you can use a dollar bill for a guide as letter height, since it’s 6” long – and a quarter is about an inch wide – everyone has these available. Measure out along edges where lines should be for top and bottom of letters, and then find something to use as a straight edge (even another piece of poster board) and lightly pencil in some lines on which (and between which) to letter.

Yard sale sign layoutTIPS: Note that this is based on a standard 22″ height. If your material is a different size than this, try to apply the same spacing principles as best you can. In the next step, you will need to find the center between left and right. If you don’t have a yardstick or tape measure, but merely a straightedge, you can locate center by finding the intersection of lines connecting opposite corners of your board in an “X” – you don’t have to draw the entire line, just make a little hint of each toward the middle. That’s how you find the center of any four-sided shape.

CENTERING AND LETTERING: Count your letters and spaces to figure out where center would be on each line of text, and lay out your letters one by one, on each side of it accordingly, from the middle outward. When you sketch out each letter, use clear all caps…and lightly pencil where they fit in, either by making evenly-sized boxes for them to fit into first (don’t forget a little space between), or if you’re more confident, by directly (but still lightly) drawing the actual letters to trace over with a marker – but remember you’re going to use a fat marker, so loops on letters like “P” and “D” should not be wimpy, or they’ll look filled-in, or like fat lines instead (and don’t over-exaggerate the loops either, or letters start looking like different letters). Also remember to allow for ample spaces between words and enough between letters; having either run into each other also makes it very hard to read.

Is everything spaced nicely and visually centered? Now you’re ready to ink it in. Use the fattest black marker you can find.

INKING: Draw your letters carefully, smoothly and clearly. Don’t get overly frilly: it’s not an art object; it’s a form of communication that only works if it has clarity. Use letters that are like the ones on charts from which you first learned to print – very clear, with no serifs (those funny little lines clinging to the ends of some kinds of letters). If your marker tip/surface is longer one direction than another, angle it so that your “down” strokes are thicker – and hold it consistently. If there are “skips”, you can fill them in using a small edge of the tip later. Don’t rush this. If your hand printing is abysmal, ask someone with decent writing to help you, or get some stencils (make sure they’re the right size). Follow all the above instructions for each main-road sign you need to make (perhaps you even have two main roads nearby, lucky). You know your area.

ADDITIONAL SIGNS: Unless you live right on the main road, you’re going to need secondary signs to direct traffic to your house. Map out your neighborhood and all the ways that the most people are likely to come in to your address. Take note of how many left turns and right turns there are for each, and make arrow signs accordingly, to place along each route. You could use ½ sheets of the board instead of the full 22×28, say 14×22 (a little bigger than necessary), or even make 4 to a sheet of 14x11s if your arrows are nice and crisp. You might put the address below the arrow, as many people will forget it, but they already know now that it’s a sale today, so you really don’t need anything more. You could even just print out or (since ink is “spendy”), draw and color in arrows on coordinating neon sheets of printer paper if you’re just doing arrows (if you’ve placed arrows well, you won’t need the address with arrows, and once they see your set-up they’ll know they found the sale). Any of these you can affix to smaller boxes with their respective bricks, and once they’re all out, you’re in business – so put the main road one out there last, right before you open for commerce, or you’ll be inundated with early birds low-balling your already reasonable prices before the rush. For this reason also, if you’re posting your sale in advance on your local page or in the local paper, do NOT put your actual address, but instead just put what-hundred block of your street the sale is to be on, and they can find the address when they drive there – when you’re ready. Otherwise, you may get precocious or even creepy strangers ringing your bell in the wee hours of the morning or the night before, looking for a bargain (or casing the joint). Such inconsiderate vultures are not to be borne; do not enable them.

COMPETITION: It may so happen that yours is not the only garage sale in the neighborhood that weekend. If your competitors happen to use the same colors as you, it could confuse folks, but don’t fret! You can differentiate your sign by putting something of a little unofficial logo in the same corner of every directional sign that you put on the main signs. It could be a trio of stars or some scrollwork or a square with a monogram letter in it. Whatever it is, it should be simple, and consistently used on every sign between the beginning of each route in to the house itself, and always in the same corner (top right figures well, if your type isn’t crowding it). Or you could do a shallow border, of a line or dotted line, or zigzags or scallops, or just do something little on the corners if the border is too shallow and you’re crowding letters. Or you could affix something unique to the whole assembly, like a blue balloon or a large hot pink feather, or anything else, as long as it’s consistent through all of your signs.

3 samples: bad, better, good


Now, which one of these three examples above is easier for you to read from across the room? Which one impresses you more? On the left, the red doesn’t allow for much contrast to help reading from a distance. The border is hurriedly applied and would best be left off. The smiley face is too dominant and looks a little creepy. Most importantly, all the words are too small, thin, and poorly written to read except right up against the sign. There’s no prioritization through sizing of text to differentiate vital information from extra unnecessary details thrown in as an afterthought. This one is a fail. The one in the middle is a sad off-white; it looks a tad dirty. Is that what you want people to think of the things you’re selling – or of you? Your advertisement reflects you and your product. Make it look good. It’s barely legible but not impressive at all. The one on the right looks crisp, clear, it pops, it says all it has to and it has a unique mark on it to distinguish it from others.

ARROWS: Now for your auxiliary signs to direct traffic through the ‘hood. We’ve decided the color and marker, and you’ve decided your size and picked boxes or stands, but how are you doing your arrows?

Arrow Signs…Do I really have to ask? I’m certain you already know the answer. There is a reason ONE WAY signs use arrows in that proportion: optimal visibility, because lives very well may depend on heeding those. The same reasoning applies here, believe it or not. Make it easy for them.


Now that you know how to make signs to get people there, get to polishing up and pricing those items, and setting up a tidy atmosphere; turn on some tunes, pour some lemonade, lock your doors, put on a fanny pack for your cash/change reserves/payments (it ain’t a fashion show) – and make some road-trip stash/gift fund/pocket change. Remember to be safe: have some backup watching folks who come in groups and try to distract you, and never let strangers in your home – know where you can tell them the nearest public restroom is – there are common scams out there and that’s just a couple of many. As soon as your sale is finished (each day of a multi-day sale if your take is good), take the cash straight to the bank; houses have been broken into after sales. Be sure and thank your neighbors for putting up with the increased cars, and be understanding with them when they have their sales. Better yet, do a neighborhood sale and market it well to get more traffic (again check your city’s rules).

I hope that with these tips and your (undoubtedly groovy) merchandise, that your event is a booming success! Happy sales!


– Eilee





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