Sign Design Software and Common Errors

Firstly – let’s get the vested interest out of the way. I like SignPlot. Whilst it doesn’t necessarily give you the freedoms CAD based packages have for manipulating signs, for most practitioners who have no need to delve into the dark world of non-prescribed signs and authorisations, SignPlot makes it very difficult to go wrong. I’ll heap some lavish praise and a few of my own observations on it here.

Making signs should be easy, right? Unfortunately there are way too many horrific examples out there that suggest those who are paid to design signs sometimes have a bad day at the office. Charitable explanations suggest a lack of detailed knowledge; cynical ones suggest a lack of caring. Regardless of what the issue is, sign design packages should make it easy to get right.

That said, over-reliance on computer packages is one of the reasons we are in a mess. Nothing is a suitable substitute for knowing the rules, taking pride in your craft, and ensuring you get a competent signs expert to check your work. Do these, and you’ll go from making average signs to excellent ones.

So, why do I like SignPlot? Well, I was first introduced to it way back in 2003. Back then it was still mostly DOS based. You had severe limitations on several aspects, but if you knew what you were doing the results were very pleasing. When SignPlot 2 worked its way out to the industry the Windows GUI was far more workable. In 2009 when I started as a signs technician, I had already had several years of practice with SignPlot but was in a role where KeySIGN was the norm. I soon got used to that, mind.

In 2013, I moved to a different role where SignPlot and KeySIGN were used by different sides of the office, so I could use both. Then a third group working on a BIM compliant highway scheme brought PDS Sign into the office as well, so I got to grips with that too; the results of which are visible on the A556 between the M6 and M56.

So, back to SignPlot. In this office I was the only person who really knew it. The traffic section could make basic signs, but anything complex became an issue. Remember, SignPlot will not let you do anything ridiculous, but it still relies on you knowing Chapter 7 for direction signs. It’s still possible to make a total hash of things even with this software if you don’t know what you’re doing, as I will now demonstrate:


It is now very difficult to accidentally make this error since SignPlot 3 introduced the ADS Wizard. Prior to this, you had to make blocks up, and it was a frequent mistake to add a border to the entire non-primary arm block, rather than using the Block Assembler to provide a left turn arrow plus the panel for the non-primary route. That said, if you do use the Block Assembler, you can still get this wrong.

(In fact, I am going to go out on a limb and say the Block Assembler being largely replaced by Wizards is the best thing about SignPlot. Whilst the CAD packages have similar wizards, I have always found their’s to be clunky and sometimes crash-prone (AutoCAD can be temperamental at the best of times, combine this with a slow machine and a complex routine and start getting used to fatal errors. In 14 years of using SignPlot I’ve only ever crashed it twice, and one of those instances was a catastrophic memory crash on a laptop which wasn’t really the fault of SignPlot anyway.)


What is very difficult to get wrong in SignPlot, but possible, is the incorrect colouring of road numbers on primary signs. The only way to do this is to forget to put a space between the A (or B) and the number. However, you have to insert the text in the ADS Wizard to manage this, and given there is a box specifically for the insertion of a route number, essentially only a fool would succeed in doing this. If you try this anywhere else in SignPlot it basically yells at you and tells you to fix it or it’ll do it for you. You can turn off these hints, but doing so is akin to saying you’re a know-it-all and that is a distinctly bad idea.

Compare with CAD packages where you often have to colour the text in manually or select it to be changed by a routine within the program. Either way, you have to tell it to do it whereas SignPlot is programmed to do it automatically. There are fewer automatic routines away from SignPlot which leads me to believe the real horror shows come from inexperienced CAD users.

So, how do we fix this? Well, other than the obvious testing and probable licensing of signing practitioners, any company that deals with signs should be training their staff properly. This means paying if necessary. It is essential that people can do their jobs properly and it is essential that they understand the tools available. When I have seen enthusiasts on SABRE produce better looking signs in MS Paint than some paid professionals have with bespoke kit, it makes me worry that we are doing things badly wrong.




6 thoughts on “Sign Design Software and Common Errors

  1. Hi Bryn. Many thanks for the kind words about SignPlot.
    As you say, we take a lot of trouble to try to avoid errors slipping through. I’m not sure how you got the white “A6” above, because you don’t have to type a space when inserting it in the route number box on the wizard. Only if you say it’s a destination would you need to insert the space manually.
    We consider SignPlot to be perfectly capable of creating the vast majority of non-standard signs for authorisation (indeed DfT themselves use it a lot for this purpose). The only ones we really struggle with are those favoured by TfL showing routes for cyclists to take around a junction, with the main carriageways shown hollow.


  2. Hi Simon,

    You spotted the way I did it by using the destination builder for numbers. Unless you deliberately do that you are right that in SignPlot white route numbers are impossible.

    The TfL cycle route signs are tricky but my advice to designers who also have CAD packages would be to export to .dxf format and draw those elements manually to Ch. 7 principles. I can’t see a routine being easy to create either as those signs are extremely bespoke.


  3. Give me CAD based software any day of the week! Having used it since the late 80’s the advancements have been huge and with the BIM monster snapping at our heels the only way for me!!


  4. Just out of curiosity, is there set of stencils for Microsoft Vision for amateur or professional use?

    (Visio shapes can, if used properly, enforce quite a number of rules, and you can layer macros or a full app on top for greater automation).


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