Designing for visual impact at large distances or at small sizes

I recently designed an advertising beachflag. Such classic graphic design tasks are usually not part of my work. But in this case the assignment came from my mother who sells self-produced honey, marmelade, and similar products on local markets. To my surprise I learned quite a few things about what to consider when designing for visual impact at large distances or at small sizes. I will explain these points in this article.

I prepared several design variants of the beachflag. In the picture below you see an intermediate design on the left, in comparison to the final design on the right, from up close/large and from a distance/small.

The intermediate version on the left looks better to me from up close. The handwritten script fits the theme of homemade honey and marmelade. The dark brown contours and yellowish white of the bees’s wings give the image a soft, warm touch. However, when viewed from a distance and at a small size, the elegant handwritten script quickly becomes illegible. Subtle color details are also lost. Visually the image is reduced to yellow, orange, black and white.

To account for these effects, I made several modifications in the final version. I decided to use a better readable sans-serif font that still suits the theme. Having the text run vertically normally isn’t good for readability, but in this case allows to use much bigger letters. Using only uppercase letters also makes the text better readable at a distance. I increased the contrast of the used colors, by replacing brown by black and yellowish-white by white. It would also have been warranted to simplify the image to a more abstract iconic version. I decided against it because I had previously constructed the image from a pencil drawing, and a more iconic version would probably have meant starting again from scratch. I also a added a small watermark at the bottom of the flag. In orange on the yellow background it is intended to disappear when viewed from a distance.

Below is what the beachflag printed by finally looked like. Creases and their shadows can be seen to reduce visibility a bit.

In a nutshell these are the things that I learned should be considered when designing for viewing at large distances or at small sizes:

  • Text: use well readable, simple non-serif fonts, use proportionally larger font sizes in comparsion to your text area, use bolder fontweights and uppercase lettering to improve readability
  • Images: reduce images to abstract icons, use only areas or widen contours
  • Colors: use only 2-3 colors with high contrast, a colorful background with neutral-colored content works better than the other way around

All of these points are fulfilled by european traffic signs which are of course designed for maximal recognizability under varying circumstances. It is an interesting coincidence that the color combination yellow-black chosen for the topic of bees and honey here, is also one of the classic high-contrast color combinations used for traffic signs. Other such color combinations with strong contrast in color and brightness are red-white-black and blue-white-black.

Additional Note 13.05.2019: I simplified the bee icon further for printing it on workwear shirts. This version is reduced to a single color and simpler surfaces. It can be seen that this version works even better for viewing at distances and at small sizes. (The shirt is shown in worn condition here.)