Five Tips for Do It Yourself Sign Design

As the tools for graphic design have proliferated, so, too, has the desire for some to create their own sign designs. As a sign shop owner, I see this as a double-edged sword: it’s great that some clients can create what they want and provide us with a high-quality print file, BUT we also have seen a huge amount of files that are just not useful for making a sign.

Here are the top five issues that do-it-yourselfers designers need to address:

  1. Copyright! We cannot print anything for which you do not have the rights to use. “I found it on the internet” is a big red flag for us. Everything is created by someone, and if they have not given you permission to use the photo or graphic, Kona Impact can’t output it for you. The obvious are known trademarks like Disney characters or Marvel superheroes. The less obvious are “found on the internet” photos or graphics. 

How to avoid this issue. Only use photos or graphics from licensed sources like, or others. 

  1. Incorrect Proportions. We can’t make a square a rectangle or a oblong a circle. If you want a 6’ x 4’ banner, the file needs to be set up at, ideally, 6’ x 4’, but 3’ x 2’ (half-size), or 1.5’ x 1’ (quarter size). A 2’ x 2’ (square) size can’t be made into a 6’ x 4’ (rectangle) size.

How to avoid this issue. Set up your file to the exact size of the output you desire.

  1. Poor file quality. There are several online design programs you can use, but many do not let you export what you make at a high quality for free. At Kona Impact, we have started to see more files from clients that use phone-based software, and what we receive is very low quality file at a phone screen size. Screen (phone, internet) resolution–a measure of quality–is often 72 dots per inch. Printed resolution should be at least twice that, if not four times that. Doubling the size of a 72 dpi graphic, makes the dpi to to 36 dpi, which will be heavily pixelated and probably unusable.

How to avoid this issue: Use software that allows you to export at 300 dpi or as vector formats. 

  1. No bleeds. Essential graphics in the safety zone. A standard 24” x 6” real estate sign should be set up at 24.5” x 6.5” to allow us to mount it to a sign blank. If you make it the exact size, there is no room for slight errors when we mount it. All things to be printed on paper also need a bleed, as this is how we get images and colors to run to the edge of the final product. Likewise, it’s always a good idea for sign design to keep all essential text in from the edges by at least ¼”, but ½” is better for small signs. More if you are going to drill holes or use grommets or more if your sign is large.

How to avoid this issue: Contact Kona Impact before you set up your file to get the correct bleed and safety dimensions. Keep in mind that the file you give us will almost never be the exact size of what you want us to make! Use software that lets you set up files correctly. Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop is what most use.

  1. Poor Design – We like to say that complexity is easy and simplicity is very hard when it comes to laying out a sign or print document. Most novice designers tend to gravitate toward too much complexity in their layouts, which makes the messaging muddled and sub-optimal. A sign should really only have a few main points. Adding too much to a design means that there will be no focus and, for a sign, all the elements will become too small as you fit everything in. There are, of course, many subtleties that take something from ok to spectacular in terms of design, and, in our experience, getting from good to great can take years in the business.

How to avoid this issue: Ask yourself: What is the essential message? Everything else should either not be there or at a much smaller size than the main message. More important, though, is the willingness to hire someone who is skilled at design. I don’t fix my car. I don’t do my own electrical work. I hire competent people to do these things for me, which frees up my time and energy to focus on things that I can do well.