Vertical Text Do’s and Don’ts

Vertical text do's and don'ts Cal State vertical bannerThere are no hard and fast rules about text direction in the sign industry, at least as far as we know. However, there are opinions. Some are based on historical book and print examples, others on human nature. For example, what direction would most people tilt their heads to read vertical text? What about stacking letters? Even if there is no definitive rule about text on signage, there are a few vertical text do’s and don’ts.

The western world reads left to right.

Most vertical signs and banners run text from bottom to top. Logically, the reason for this is that most of the western world reads from left to right. We naturally tilt our heads towards the first letter of the text that would appear on the left. If we rotate our heads 90 degrees, that’s where we would start reading. Consequently, we read upwards to a satisfying finish. It’s awkward to read text where the first letter starts at the top and reads down.

Having said that, text on book spines runs downwards. Therefore, some sign makers will justify running text in that direction. After all, it’s readable when a book is lined up on a bookshelf. However, sometimes books are stacked horizontally. Obviously, top to bottom title placement is necessary in order to read them horizontally from left to right.

The crucial consideration is that book spines are displayed within close eye proximity, AT EYE LEVEL OR BELOW. But signs aren’t books. So, a good rule-of-thumb might be to favor the human nature option. That is, if the text is to be read ABOVE eye level, then it should run from bottom to top.  If the text is to be read BELOW eye level, it should run from top to bottom.

Vertical Text Do's and Dont's on Chicago signWhat about stacking letters?

Stacked letters have a history all their own. Traditionally, this is a method found on many of America’s old theater and drugstore signs. The practice dates back to Art Deco innovations during the early 20th century. However, most graphic and sign designers will discourage the format. This is what Ellen Lupton of, Thinking With Type, says:

“Roman letters are designed to sit side by side, not on top of one another. Stacks of lowercase letters are especially awkward because the ascenders and descenders make the vertical spacing appear uneven…Capital letters form more stable stacks than lowercase letters. Centering the column helps to even out the differences in width.”

Essentially, we agree with Lupton. The exception we make is if the sign’s cachet is intended to recapture the Art Deco era or other historical timelines. As Lupton notes, if stacked letters are used, use only caps, never lower case. In addition, the letter count should be minimalized. Less is more!

Vertical Text Do's and Don'ts on Paxton antiques signReadability and graphic interest come first.

Paxton Signs’ challenge is to fit the necessary text and information into a sign’s available space. We try to do this in the most attractive and effective way possible. And, we always try to honor vertical text do’s and don’ts. Obviously, most signs use horizontal text, since it’s the most readable. However, for graphic interest, vertical and stacked text can be an option, but only when it’s used for the right reasons. Paxton Signs’ ANTIQUES sign, shown here, is an example of period art utilizing stacked text. The letter count is acceptable, and the art elements and styling add to the sign’s cachet.

See more text ideas on our Pinterest boards at,

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Paxton Signs’ more than 38 year history includes hundreds of signs. Some are major monument signs, some small business signs. We’ve created ranch signs, lighted signs, and signs made from recycled wood. We specialize in hand-painted signs, carved signs, vehicle and fleet graphics. We offer a continuous variety of communication art. Paxton Signs serves Fort Collins and northern Colorado, and the surrounding mountain communities.

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