The Step Child – Signage

We don’t think about it much. But try to survive without it. Try to be a retailer without a sign on your building telling people that you are there and what you do. Impossible. Yet, signage is something that is ignored by many architects and reviled by most City Planners. Many architects prefer to design their buildings with no concept of signage, they are more focused on form, function, aesthetics, color, texture, etc. When I look at some building designs generated by young idealistic and enthusiastic architects, I often wonder, “What are you thinking?” When I ask them where the sign goes, you should see the blank look on their face.

On the other hand, our city planners and code officials seem to have this inner fear of signage. They have this urge to minimize the signage. They must think that signage will ruin the livability of a community. Balderdash. (I think that is a word). I have been to communities where signage is unfettered and allowed to run wild. Hong Kong for example – wild is the best way to describe it. This might be signage to excess and the clutter is somewhat vexing. On the other hand, it is exciting, vibrant, lively and helps to make the experience of wandering around Hong Kong special. The abundant signage was not as oppressive as those sidewalk guys trying to sell you suits, jewelry, Rolexes and to introduce you to pretty girls.

Contrast that with Hilton Head, South Carolina. They must have signage regulations that stipulate that all freestanding signs have to be unlit, 4′ x 4′ maximum size and hidden behind bushes. I drove past a Sam’s Wholesale Club four times before I found it. I had the address but could not locate it. If I had to own abusiness in Hilton Head, I do not know how I would tell my customers where to find me. Hilton Head is quiet and very low key. I would also bet that retail business is not brisk there.

Those are two very extreme examples but they demonstrate that signage can and does play a part in the quality of life in the community and the economic condition of the community. If you squelch it you severely limit the business opportunities in the community which then affects that community’s ability to provide services (remember sales tax is the key source of revenue for many communities).

So back to the real issue – why are we so worried if someone has a freestanding sign that is 350 square feet instead of 200 square feet of surface area? I suspect that some people think that if they limit the size of the signage, they will get better signs. You cannot create good signage by regulating the size of it. Bad signs can be small or large. It is a matter of the design of the sign that makes it good or bad, not the size or number of signs. The signage should be allowed to be integrated into the design of the project and be allowed to truly reflect the nature of the business.

We as architects need to step up and begin to consider the signage as a part of the design on our projects and take control of the signage component of the project. Our City sign ordinances need to allow some creative signage that is integrated with the design of the facility. Stop creating ordinances whichrequire aquantitative cookbook approach to the signage. If everyone acknowledges the value of good sign design and they then allow that signage to exist, you will find that we end up with better projects with more legible and appropriate signage.

Signs are good, signs are needed and signs should not be treated like a stepchild.