How to make a protest sign we can actually read

There are a lot of reasons to protest in 2020.

We aren’t saying what you should protest (or even that you have to protest anything at all), but we are saying if you’re going to protest something, you should ensure you get your message across effectively.

I live on the main road in a prominent Upstate NY city, which means I’ve seen a lot of different protests, parades, and demonstrations come by my apartment. It’s a bustling street, and I’ve seen quite a few of the drive-by protests. I can be perfectly honest when I tell you that I can’t tell you what a single one of those drive-by protests was about.

It’s hard to make out the messages on moving signs from 10-30 feet away when their message is scribbled out with a single line of black sharpie.

I look at these messages with a marketer’s mind. How ineffective are these messages in reaching their intended audiences? How can they be made more effective? I offer up some design and copy tips for creating protest signs that actually get the point across.

Materials

There are a number of different materials you could use for an effective sign for a parade, rally, or just to get a point across nonverbally. Some recommended materials include:

  • Foam core – the ideal sign material. It’s strong, it’s light, its pretty water-resistant.
  • Cardboard – it’s cheap and accessible. You might want to double it up because it’s a little flimsy. Definitely not waterproof. The brown background makes contrast low so keep that in mind when you consider lettering.
  • Wrapping paper tubes or other cardboard “sticks” – in many cities, it is illegal to have a wooden stick attached to your sign. Don’t risk using one and use other non-paper sticks.
  • Tape 
  • Scissors 
  • A pencil
  • Markers – this isn’t the time for a fine tip. Get a big marker that puts down a lot of ink.
  • Printer– You can print your message if you don’t want to spend the time hand lettering.
  • Multimedia decorative elements – a simple image can speak a thousand words. Think about how to make your message pop with simple, effective elements.

Keep material in mind as you work through these other aspects of sign creation. The right materials are ones that are durable and display your lettering well.

Messaging  

Protests reflect a singular idea expressed through a variety of different angles. You need to choose the right message to reflect the issue. You’ll want to ask yourself some questions, like:

  • What kind of protest are you going to?
  • Who will be protesting the same things as you?
  • Will there be a counter-protest?
  • What groups of individuals will you be targeting with your message?
  • How will your message be viewed (from a car, as you walk by, etc)

What is your goal?

Proper blogging has a goal, and so does good sign making. What is the overall goal of the demonstration you’re attending? What is the outcome you desire as an individual?

I like to think of it in terms of marketing strategy. Good marketing and good sign making should have one of the following goals:

  • Education
  • Thought leadership
  • Increased loyalty
  • Encourage action
  • Evoke emotions

What are you looking to do with your sign? Going in with a purpose beyond just showing up will make your protest poster more impactful.

Call to Action

The best signs are a call to action. What do you want the result of your sign to be? Like writing a blog post or posting on social media, you should have a goal for your protest and, therefore, your protest sign. You want to determine what action you want your audience to take. That could be calling a rep, changing a law, or converting a person to the cause.

Copy  

Now that you’ve considered the goals and intent behind your sign, it’s time to draft out ideas for what you want to say.

I recommend drafting up a list of potential goals and messages, then writing a list of possible short, snappy slogans for your poster. Write down every version so you can decide which fits best on your sign.

Write it or rip it?

Sign slogans, like social media captions, are often great candidates for quotes and humor that already exist. There are no rules against plagiarism in sign making, so if you already have a quote in mind that fits your intent, use it.

Did someone who wrote your favorite show say something funny? Maybe you were inspired by a quote on a podcast. What inspires you inspires others. Use that to help determine whether you’ll write your sign copy or pull it from another source.

Keep It Short

Do not underestimate how short the average person’s attention span is. Keep your message simple. Keep it short.

Make it readable. Don’t make it too complicated.

A good sign has maybe seven to nine words. Keep it around there. Your sign is a tiny billboard, and you want it to be scannable.

Evoke Emotion

Make them laugh, make them cry, make them gasp, and cover their mouths. You aren’t protesting to blend in.  You are protesting to make a point, and you want to be memorable.

Like any quality piece of art or content, a snappy slogan on a sign can unwillingly pull an emotion out of someone who reads it. Make a joke, tug on some heartstrings, lightly diss someone. Just make sure you have another person look over your copy to ensure you won’t go viral for writing something offensive.

Design

Design is the key to the perfect protest sign. Without it, you get signs that don’t have enough negative space or are unreadable from a distance.

What fits?

Look at the list you brainstormed. What will fit on your poster? How big can you make the lettering without it looking crowded? Sketch out your message with a pencil to ensure that it fits before you go in with a more permanent option.

A pro tip is to start lettering with the middle letter of the words in the middle of the poster. That way, you can tell what fits before you.

Color

Color is compelling and can evoke emotions, but try to keep your color palettes simple for something like a protest.

Check out your background color. What contrasts with that? That should be the color of your main text. Black text on a white/light background is always a good bet.

Is there something on the poster you want to draw particular attention to? Maybe it’s the call to action. Select a different color to draw the readers’ eyes to that word.

Lettering

Font, text size, and color are critical parts of making a readable sign. Imagine trying to read your sign as it moves down a street in your hand or on a car window.

Decide if you want to hand letter (this gives your sign a more grassroots touch) or print letters for the sign. If you’re feeling particularly inspired, you could cut out your letters and paste them to your board.

Choose a simple, bold font. Make sure that your letter and word spacing are set up properly, as nothing reads worse than a sign where the letters or words are cramped because you clearly ran out of space.

Consider Your Space

A two-sided sign is ideal when possible. You want people on either side of you to be exposed to your message.

It also ensures that if a photo is taken of you, that the camera catches the message even if you aren’t facing it.

Plus, a double-sided sign means that you can either double up on a compelling message or choose two complementary messages.

You will make all of these choices, not necessarily in this order. Sometimes you have to tweak your message to fit the size poster you have. You may have to adjust your design to accommodate an extra word to ensure you’ll be understood.

Protesting, parades, and demonstrations are real-life marketing for a cause. Your sign is a piece of content for that cause. Make sure you put your best foot forward by spending a little time crafting your protest poster.

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