Elements of an AWESOME Sign

An easy way to communicate with students is through quality signage. Signs can peak interest and sell an item! Signs can vary in style, as well as effectiveness though. An Impactful sign includes a specific message and use of color, layout, and materials in a professional manner.

Before you break out the paint, you need to decide which type of signs your cafeteria may need. Sign type differs based on the purpose or message being presented.

Types of Signage:

  1. Directional: Directional signs are used to help students locate specific food items or food sections within the cafeteria. For example, signs that say “wraps” or “salad bar” direct students to where these items are located.
  1. Instructional: Instructional signs may be necessary when specific food items require an explanation. For example, if the item of the day is a “build-your-own burger,” it may be helpful for students to provide signage with a brief description of the process.
  1. Priming: Priming, or promotional, signs grab the interest of students! Promotional signage can introduce a new food item, highlight a local food item, or encourage trial of an item. This type of sign focuses on the appeal of the item. Place promotional signage throughout the school, as well as near new or featured items.

Try to incorporate all three types of signage throughout the school, cafeteria, and food service area.

Once you’ve figured out the type of signs needed, it’s time to create! There are a few common components of effective signage. Here are some things to consider when creating your cafeteria signs.

  • Message. All signs should have a clear message or purpose. Design the sign around the message.
  • Keep it visible and legible. Less really is more. You want students to be able to read a sign at a glance. Keep your message short and concise. Visibility is one of the most important aspects of a sign. The size of the sign should be appropriate for the distance and height from the view of students. Take careful consideration of the location of signage and identify what obstacles may be in the way.
  • Keep it simple. Avoid clutter. Crowding a sign with too many words or pictures makes it hard to read from a distance. Students have a short amount of time to select their lunch components. Signs that are too wordy or complex may be overlooked.

The two photos below are signs that were used to promote vegetable-based toppings. Version one, on top, was too busy and difficult to read. In version two, most of the copy was cut. Keeping the sign simple made it easier to read, and placed the focus on the entrée and the suggested topping. Version two was a hit!


#1 – Too Busy


#2 – Simple

  • Use color and contrast. Use bright, contrasting colors to accentuate the message. Light border or text on a dark background are easier to read. Without contrast, your message cannot be read. The “Marvelous Mushroom” sign below is a great example of contrast.

The blue and white against the black background really makes the name pop.

  • Include pictures. Pictures attract students to signs and are especially helpful for priming and increasing the appeal of food items. Pictures can also help illustrate steps described in instructional signs.
  • Recruit a graphic designer. Graphic designers know design! They can take your message and give it a polished look. A graphic designer can also create a consistent theme (color and look) across all signage. If you do not have access to a designer, ask the school art or computer teacher to identify a talented student.

Visit the Resources section above for signs and posters that can be downloaded and used in your cafeteria. If you have any photos of your AWESOME signs that you’d like to share with other school nutrition teams, please send them to us – we would love to share your ideas!

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The Lunch Tray

kids and food, in school and out

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Ohio State University Extension Family and Consumer Sciences

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Featuring school nutrition programs that serve kids well

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