How To Leverage ‘Visual Complexity’ For Better Custom Sign Engagement

How To Leverage 'Visual Complexity' For Better Custom Sign Engagement

Simple signage isn’t always the best. Today’s post digs into new research by the International Journal of Signage and Wayfinding to explain how Southfield retailers can increase sales and engagement with complex custom sign designs.

A Case For Visual Complexity In Custom Sign Design

Generally speaking, “visual complexity” isn’t something you want to aim for with your custom sign design. In today’s crowded signscapes, few readers give your sign more than a passing glance, and overcrowded, overly complex signs usually get tuned out entirely. For this reason, simplicity is usually the gold standard for sign design: clean typeface, 2-3 contrasting colors, 1-2 strong graphics, and as few words as possible.

However, according to brand-new research by the Interdisciplinary Journal of Signage and Wayfinding, simple designs aren’t always best. While clutter is never a good thing because it hinders readability, some degree of visual complexity in your custom sign design might actually improve reader engagement in some cases.

Authors Knuth et al. (2020) looked specifically at the effects complex designs had on buying decisions when used to promote unpackage or minimally packaged goods, such as plants, apparel, and produce. Due to their minimal packaging, little information was “readily discernible by simply viewing the product” (p. 7). Knuth et al. (2020) hypothesized that more visually complex signs would be of use to consumers who wanted more information.

For example, custom signs detailing product features, ethical sourcing, eco-friendly practices, and price comparisons would be useful when displayed in garden centers with minimal product information on display. In fact, for some buyers, having this information at hand makes all the difference.

To test their theory, Knuth et al. (2020) compared the performance of real garden center signs with low, moderate, and high-complexity. 5 of each complexity level were selected from a sample of 105 garden centers.

After monitoring the performance of each complexity category, these were their findings:

  • Highly complex designs produced a higher “fixation count” (i.e. number of impressions) than low-complexity designs
  • Highly complex designs produced longer total “fixation duration” (i.e. time spent reading) than low-complexity designs
  • Design complexity may produce a higher cognitive load, making decision-making more difficult and negatively affecting purchase rates, whereas feature complexity tended to positively affect purchase rates

So what are the key takeaways for Southfield sign buyers?

  • Simplicity isn’t always the best. Beware of absolutes in sign design theory—as with most things, sign design is a nuanced, context-specific matter that’s best handled by professionals.
  • Complex designs with extensive information about features and value propositions (i.e. feature complexity) are most valuable when used to advertise/promote products with minimal packaging. Accordingly, they’re less valuable when signage simply repeats what’s already listed on the packaging.
  • Design complexity is different from feature complexity; you can have feature-rich signage with a clean-and-simple design, just as you can have a low-info sign with a cluttered and complex design.

Book A Free Custom Sign Design Consultation In Southfield, MI

SignScapes is a leading provider of custom sign solutions for businesses, public buildings, and private buyers throughout Livonia, Huntington Woods, Highland Park, Warren, Novi, and all of Southfield’s surrounding communities. But our service area is not limited to the Great Lakes State; as proud Signworld partners, we also offer custom sign services and deliveries for clients nationwide.

Call 248-354-8346 or visit the SignScapes website to book a free custom sign consultation with our team.


Knuth, M., Behe, B. K., & Huddleston, P. T. (2020). Simple or complex? Consumer response to display signs. Interdisciplinary Journal of Signage and Wayfinding, 4(2), 7-22.




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