Which Direction Should Vertical Text Go?

Hi Danthonia,
I’m freelance designer, and I’ve done plenty of branding and logo work. Sign design is something I’m less familiar with. I have a question for you regarding a current project: On vertical signs, should the text read bottom-to-top, or top-to-bottom? Thanks for taking the time!

[Freelance Designer]

Hi Freelance Designer,

You’ve hit on a hot topic. I’ve seen this one discussed at length on forums such as Typophile. The quick answer is that there is no rule about text orientation on signage. It can go either up or down, so take your pick!

Architectural Sign in France

(image courtesy of Alpolic)

Having said that, I’ve noticed that most vertical signs and banners have the text running from bottom to top. I’m not sure if there’s any reason for that, besides that it looks better (to me, at least). When I’m standing on a busy city street, reading a banner that says ‘Sapphire City Festival’ (or any other message), I tilt my head to the left and run my eyes upwards. When I get to the end of the banner, I am looking at the sky and maybe a few trees. Generally, this is better than running my eyes downwards into the visual clutter of the street. Of course, for a smaller wall-mounted sign, the background would be consistent, so it wouldn’t matter either way.

Vertical Text Sign

(image courtesy of Freshome)

I used to think that downwards was the correct direction, since the text on book spines runs downwards. That was before I visited Germany and noticed that all the book spine text ran bottom-to-top, except on volumes so thick that space allowed for horizontal text (the ones that I wouldn’t attempt to read). Americans justify running the text downwards because that way it’s readable when the book is lying flat with the cover up. Europeans would argue that when a book is lying flat, the cover is plainly visible, so it doesn’t matter that the text on the spine is upside-down.

Bookshelf

(image courtesy of Frank M. Rafik)

But I digress. Signs aren’t books, and they don’t have covers or spines. What’s more, signs have traditionally followed a slightly different set of rules than printed matter. Many of the old theatre signs, especially in the United States, are vertical. This is for the simple reason that vertical signs are much more practical to build and install on towering urban facades. Traditionally, these signs don’t use vertical text at all, but rather vertically-stacked horizontal letters. Stacked letters have an art and a science of their own.

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, and the varied width of the characters makes the stacks look precarious. (The letter I is a perennial problem.) Capital letters form more stable stacks than lowercase letters. Centering the column helps to even out the differences in width.

– Ellen Lupton, Thinking with Type

Portland Theatre

(image courtesy of Treye Rice)

I’m not really sure why stacked text was so popular in days gone by. Possibly sign-makers simply couldn’t stand the thought of tipping text ninety degrees. Maybe they felt that rotating text was an affront to the dignity of respectable letterforms. Or they may have believed that stacked text is more readable. It’s not.

Art Deco Sign Miami

(image courtesy of Adam Sherbell)

I would only consider stacking text on a sign that is designed to emulate the Art Deco style of the early twentieth century – or at least a sign with a bit of historic flavour. For anything else, it tends to look bad (unless it’s a skateboard deck that says ‘Gnarly’ in decorative circus-style lettering).

Jessica Hische Skateboard Deck

(image courtesy of Jessica Hische)

Now I’ll digress a little. Since we’ve talked so much about vertical text, I might as well touch on the topic of angled text too. If you ever consider using angled text on a sign design, make sure that it always angles ‘uphill’ (with the right side higher than the left). It just looks better, and ninety-nine percent of angled text angles upwards.

Gilded Window Sign

Matt, of Sign Master Signs, paints a window in Vancouver, Canada (image courtesy of Old Faithful Shop)

As sign designers, our challenge is to fit the appropriate text into the available space, in the most beautiful and effective way possible. Obviously, most signs use horizontal text, since it’s the most readable and the English language is designed to be written in horizontal lines. On the other hand, the world is overloaded with horizontal lines of text. Sometimes, an angled, curved or vertical typographic design can catch people’s attention simply because it’s different.

Hand-Painted Sign | Danthonia Designs Blog

A Hand-Painted Sign by the Author, Demonstrating Angled text

Hope that helps!

9 thoughts on “Which Direction Should Vertical Text Go?

  1. Nice to see Matt/Sign Master Signs… Vancouver,BC wielding the Brush there on Cordova St.!

    Good topic, food for thought

  2. Personally I always for for stacked text as it drives me and others crazy trying to read a sign and having to lean 90%. I can see though from what you have said that there are certainly two different sides to the argument. It seems to come down to personal preference it seems. Great topic though. It is a bit like if you put the milk in before or after the tea when making English tea!

  3. Thanks Paul. I first thought of writing about it, after searching the internet to see if ther is a ‘standard practice’ for vertical text. I soon discovered that there is none – just a lot of opinions and personal preference as you say. So, I thought I’d weigh in with some thoughts of my own on the issue. There ar some great signs out there with stacked text!

  4. It is from bottom to top.
    Architects learn to draw/read a floor plan from the right bottom corner.
    Turning the head slightly left.
    So dimensions and vertical text should be from bottom to top.
    That is an ISO norm.
    Same reason why signs are from bottom to top.
    Book covers are usually not designed by architects 😉

    Hope this clarifies.

    JP

  5. Sorry but ISO norm relates to technical drawings and that’s where it ends.
    There is no standard for it simply because the direction of the text depends on a lot of factors such as the object itself.. the visual direction of the object… the relation of the object to its surroundings… the angle from which people are looking at it… the font being used.. etc etc
    Same as a picture… where you place the person in the field of view depends on its surrounds.. and if you do it wrong.. it just looks stupid.
    So I hope you don’t start applying ISO norms to art… 😉
    Greetings,
    Floris.

  6. In conventional drafting, where construction drawings were bound on the left spine, vertical text would ALWAYS run ‘bottom to top’, making it read left to right when the drawing was rotated 90º with the bound edge at the top. (Turning it the other direction would make flipping the pages cumbersome.) The same convention should be followed for maps or any other technical drawing or chart.

  7. Thanks everyone, for your insights on this issue. As we can see, it is not clear-cut and different rules apply to different situations (signage, book spines, websites, et cetera). I recently did a little more investigating and found several forums where people were arguing about this very same question, and coming to no clear conclusions. However, I also came across these two insights, which may help:

    The height of the viewer in relation to the sign can be a consideration. I had not thought of this aspect:

    “If the sign is viewed from above, for example from a floor above, then top down is often easier to read. This is less common but worth considering especially in multi-level shopping centres. If in doubt consider where most of the passing traffic is. If the most traffic is on the lower level, than bottom up is preferred. As we regularly write about on this blog, we often only get a couple of seconds to identify a shop or specific building so it is important to make it as easy as possible to grab attention.”
    http://pbvisual.com.au/signage-sam-which-direction-should-vertical-text-go/

    And a study by the University of Toronto seems to indicate that people are better at reading angled and vertical text than previously thought (so maybe it doesn’t matter all that much which way we spin it):

    “In collaborative tabletop groupware systems there is a tension between orienting textual data towards the user to facilitate readability, and orientation of interface objects to facilitate interaction, cognition, and communication as observed by Tang (1991) and Kruger et al. (2003). Our experimental results agree with those seen previously that orientation has an effect on speed of reading, and that if maximum reading speed is desired and the position of the intended reader is known, text should be oriented directly towards that user. What we have seen in our study, however, is that if circumstances require it, presenting text at non-optimal orientation does not as severely impair reading performance as previous studies had suggested.”

    http://www.dgp.toronto.edu/~ravin/papers/ecscw2005_textorientation.pdf

    So, no hard rules, but more factors to consider.

  8. I’m a graphic designer, and a proponent of top-to-bottom. I’m going by the book spine rule – I’ve spent a lot of time in libraries and bookstores, and that familiarity goes a long way. I believe that the right-head-tilt makes way more sense for a predominantly right-handed society, that is, it ‘feels’ more natural somehow (try it). Plus, we read top to bottom in all of our media, and all architects and Germans are total weirdos. Fact.

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