Refreshing Required Signage: The Risks and Rewards

Refreshing Required Signage:

The Risks and Rewards

Required Signage: An Overview

Required signage doesn’t have to be boring. Often, however, it is. Some designers are afraid to step out of their comfort zone, whether due to a fear of misinterpreting standards or a concern over negatively impacting a sign’s effectiveness. Still, there is room for innovation. Though required signage must achieve certain very specific objectives, there are opportunities for sign manufacturers to push the overall aesthetic to an elevated level of design.

At its core, signage has a very specific function—to communicate. When a sign is effective, it allows the individual interpreting the sign to make smart, productive and beneficial decisions. According to an article titled Function of Signage, signs can be classified as providing the following:

  • Information, giving information about services and facilities like maps, signs by tomorrow photo 1directories, and instructions.
  • Direction, leading to services, facilities, functional spaces, and key areas, such as sign posts and direction arrows.
  • Identification, indicating services and facilities such as room names and numbers, restroom location, and number of floors.
  • Safety and regulatory, giving warning or safety instructions, like warning signs, traffic signs, exits, and rules.[i]

The International Sign Association lists several examples of the latter, including electrical, engineering and installation, environment and energy, building codes and workplace safety.[ii] Some types of required signage have very detailed specifications regarding their design, such as Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)-regulated signs, while others are less specific in how to execute. Regardless of the parameters that apply for certain types of signage, basic graphic design principles should be followed in order to ensure the sign is effective.

This relationship between artistic license and practical execution is essential to businesses as they implement quality signage that meets their branding needs and information-sharing priorities. The Art & Science of Sign Design states, “To be an effective form of communication, signs must incorporate sciences behind artistic design principles. Any regulation must also take these factors into consideration to ensure that signs are both effective and safe…Sign regulations, too, must balance artistic expression with scientific research.”[iii]

Sign regulations...must balance artistic expression with scientific research.

Making the Rules

Many people are aware of ADA regulations, which are federally mandated in all public spaces. In addition, local governments often have their own regulations that businesses must adopt when creating signage. According to the American Planning Association, “From the point of view of local government, the regulation of signs is motivated by the need to ensure public safety and minimize the negative visual impacts of signs in a community. The means by which these goals have traditionally been accomplished have been to limit the size of signs, control their type, placement, and appearance, and, generally, to impose measures to reduce ‘visual clutter.’”[iv]

signs by tomorrow photo 2Signage companies must work with local governments to understand the regulations and then get approval on the design. Local governments routinely regulate signs through either a ‘sign code’ ordinance or provisions for sign regulation in a zoning ordinance. A typical sign code regulates the location, number, size, etc., of business signs and varies widely depending on the zoning district in which a business is located.[v]

For other required signage, there may not be any specific guidelines, yet it is imperative that the business execute the signage effectively in order to convey essential information in a way that is clear and understandable to the viewer.

Getting It Right

For certain signs, like ADA-mandated products, many stylistic elements are defined; for example, space between characters, instructions on the inclusion and implementation of Braille, the height of letters, sign location and more.[vi]

And while not all required signage is held to such specific standards, virtually all signage must follow the basic rules of good design in order to accomplish the number one priority of environmental graphic design—readability.

According to A Framework for On-Premise Sign Regulations, sign design, readability and comprehension are influenced by:

  • The size of the lettering or logos. Minimum size of the letters has been established based on the distance that the viewer is from the sign.
  • The relationship of the lettering/logos, which is the message area to the background area—often referred to as the “white space” or “negative space”—of the sign.
  • The thickness and spacing of the letters.
  • The number of elements—words, syllables, symbols, logos, etc.—that can be comprehended in the short period of time that the viewer likely has available. This is particularly relevant to wall signs that need to be seen and comprehended instantaneously.
  • Color contrasts between the message and the background.
  • Letter style.
  • Lighting.[vii]

Following is a recap of basic design elements and how they relate to required signage:

  1. Font -- Generally, san serif fonts are easier to read than serif fonts, while italic is harder to read than upright text. Correct spacing between letters can go a long way toward making a sign more—or less—readable. The size of the text is another critical element, with the ideal size of the letters dictated by how far the sign is from the viewer.[viii] And when designing ADA-compliant materials, Braille must also be included on signage. The intent is to make the text, both by font choice and by the inclusion of Braille messaging, understandable by everyone, even those who are visually challenged.
  2. Color Combinations -- Some color combinations are inherently easier to process than others. Generally, the more contrast, the easier the sign is to read, with the most legible being dark text on a light background. White letters on a yellow background will not be nearly as striking as white on black, for instance.[ix]
  3. Location -- Signs must be placed appropriately so that the greatest number of people can see the sign and interpret its meaning. There’s strategy involved—signs can’t be too high, too low, too out of the way—businesses must take into account not only regulations that pertain to placement, but also the needs of those coming through their doors.
  4. Clarity -- Word choice is essential in rendering a sign easy to understand. Generally, the fewest number of words possible should be used. In addition, some required signage benefits from clear, simple illustrations that can convey a sign’s meaning even without words.
  5. Familiarity -- Many businesses have an established brand that includes trade dress: color preferences, text styles, etc. that are implemented organization-wide. For individuals who are familiar with your brand, “Signs that feature familiar logos, words, and fonts can be processed more quickly.”[x]

Pushing the Envelope

Even with regulatory requirements and the basic principles of good design, sign manufacturers can—and should—make innovation a priority. According to the American Planning Association, however, this isn’t always the case: “In general, the attitude of sign manufacturers toward sign regulation ranges from sympathetic understanding, to tolerance of a necessary evil, to willful disdain for sign code standards and permit requirements.[xi]

Justin Malloy, of the Society for Environmental Graphic Design, has a similar sentiment, recently telling the Sign of the Times, “I think there’s still a lot of uncertainty. Designers will sometimes default to a simpler design because they’re unfamiliar with the new specs, or design managers will reject a design because they don’t know the code and assume it’s noncompliant.”[xii]

While some companies may shy away from risk-taking, companies like Signs By Tomorrow are attempting to lead the way in terms of what is possible for required signage.

Thinking Beyond

In an ideal world, sign regulations would be user friendly and easy to understand and apply, according to the American Planning Association.[xiii] This isn’t always the case, however, which means experienced sign manufacturers are essential to producing quality products. And the consequences of not properly implementing the signage are real: at a minimum, poorly-designed signs can confuse those they are intended to help, while the worst case is the possibility of hefty fines for noncompliance.

For some companies, this blend of the practical with the artistic is what they do best. “Sign manufacturers believe very strongly in the value an attractive product will bring to their clients and do their best to provide that. Many people in the sign industry have fostered excellent relationships with the planners and sign-permitting staff in the communities in which they do business.”[xiv]

Dynamic companies like Signs By Tomorrow are able to incorporate the constantly changing regulations, staying nimble in their approach to design and production of signage. By experimenting with color, font, shape, texture, and production, Signs By Tomorrow is able to take what has historically been an ordinary approach to required signage and elevate it to extraordinary.

Notable Standards of Accesible Design Changes

Following are brief descriptions of recent changes made to ADA regulations.

  • Uppercase characters only, and only sans-serif typefaces with thin strokes are permitted for tactile characters.
  • All braille characters used must be separated by at least 3/8” from raised, alphanumeric characters, and the braille must be domed or rounded.
  • Signs must be placed so the baseline of the raised characters exists 48-60” above the floor. They must also be placed on the door’s latch side.
  • Visual characters must be a minimum of 40“ above the ground. No italic, script, or decorative fonts are permitted.
  • Contrast between lettering and background is no longer required to be 70%.
  • All characters must be kerned (spaced) 1/8”.
  • Stroke width of an uppercase “I” cannot exceed 15% of the letter height.
  • Overhead signs may now use 2” high text. The signs must have an 80” clearance between the bottom of the sign and the floor.
Source: Excerpted from Sign of the Times, March 2013, and ADA Update

Works Cited

[i]Function of Signage,
[ii]International Sign Association, Technical & Regulatory Resources,
[iii]American Planning Association, Context-Sensitive Signage Design,
[iv]Sign Foundation, Arts & Science of Sign Design
[v]Alan C. Weinstein, Inc., A Framework for On-Premise Sign Regulations, March 2009,
[vi]International Sign Association, Comments Submitted by ISA to International Code Council (July 2, 2012),
[vii]Alan C. Weinstein, Inc., A Framework for On-Premise Sign Regulations, March 2009,
[viii]Sign Foundation, Arts & Science of Sign Design
[ix]Sign Foundation, Arts & Science of Sign Design
[x]Sign Foundation, Arts & Science of Sign Design
[xi]American Planning Association, Context-Sensitive Signage Design,
[xii]ADA: One Year Later, Signs of the Times, March 2013,
[xiii]American Planning Association, Context-Sensitive Signage Design,
[xiv]American Planning Association, Context-Sensitive Signage Design,