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Outdoor Signs: The role of signage in urban development


Photos courtesy Craig Berger

By Craig Berger
The last 10 years have seen enormous changes in the acceptance of commercial and institutional landmark signs, both static and digital, as well as urban and community wayfinding systems. Today, signs are widely viewed as a key driver of brand strategies for cities, retailers and other parties. The industry has also benefited from improved legibility, high-quality materials, modern lighting and integration into buildings and landscapes.

Unfortunately, the effectiveness of the sign industry’s best practices as tools for community and business improvement has been obscured somewhat by a deficit of research and education in the field. Evidence-based design methodologies have been out of reach for most organizations and sign builders.

With that in mind, new research undertaken on behalf of the International Sign Association (ISA) and the Signage Foundation—a non-profit organization dedicated to expanding knowledge of the purposes of on-premise signage—has explored the various ways signs enhance cities’ downtown areas, helping to increase tourism, development and consumer spending. By reviewing the importance of different attributes of exterior landmark signs, this research study has compared the effectiveness of different approaches to create a clearer picture of how signs play an important role in their communities.

Surveying the landscape
Through online volunteer research sites, 80 participants between the ages of 21 and 60 were recruited for the study in three cities, comprising 30 in Chicago, Ill., 30 in New York, N.Y., and 20 in Philadelphia, Penn. Of this overall group, 55 per cent of participants were female, 40 per cent were minorities and the average age was 41, roughly correlating with both urban and suburban demographics. They were paid an honorarium of $40 U.S. for four hours of their time.

With a survey format, the report asked the participants to rank 13 attributes—such as legibility and architectural integration—of suburban and urban sign design approaches showcased in a slideshow. These were specific to each city, including a trolley tour of Chicago landmark signs, a walking tour of digital signs along a key retail corridor in New York and an examination of wayfinding programs and the impact of both commercial and institutional landmark signs in Philadelphia.

The research process began in March 2014 and most major studies were carried out over the following summer. The report was compiled in late 2014 and released in 2015.

Landmark signs
The study of landmark signs has been popular for more than 40 years. The release in 1972 of Learning From Las Vegas by Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour launched the high-level academic study of signs, which culminated in 2012 with Signs, Streets and Storefronts by Martin Treu, an in-depth review of the history of urban signs.

In recent years, the public’s expectations of and attitudes toward high-quality landmark signs have changed substantially. On-premise signs are playing a central role in defining a community’s overall identity, whether they represent commercial brands or traditional institutions like libraries or municipal buildings.

The effectiveness of these signs, however, has mainly been studied in a proprietary manner by companies seeking a competitive edge through higher visibility and brand recognition. The Signage Foundation’s study endeavoured to ‘open up’ this field by studying the most effective strategies in sign design for a variety of companies and institutions based on the conditions around them, including restrictive sign codes, corporate branding philosophies and new technologies.


Wayfinding was studied by examining the impact of institutional and commercial landmark signs in Philadelphia, Penn.

Weighted attributes were used as the basis for the analysis in Chicago. The top four, responsible for more than 42 per cent of the total weighted average, were:

  1. Legible—11.37 out of 13; 12 per cent of weight score.
  2. Informational—10.08 out of 13; 11 per cent of weight score.
  3. High-quality—8.83 out of 13; 10 per cent of weight score.
  4. Enjoyable to view—8.29 out of 13; nine per cent of weight score.

Lower down the list were other attributes like ‘well-designed,’ ‘memorable,’ ‘appropriately scaled,’ ‘exciting’ and ‘unique.’

Based on the weighted averages, the following strategic approaches were analyzed:

  1. Integrated landmark design—Where the brand identity is integrated into all aspects of the architecture, with the addition of a smaller-scale pylon sign.
  2. Architectural integration—Where the brand identity and all sign elements are integrated into the architecture, without additional free-standing signs.
  3. Large-format print integration—Where printed building and window graphics are the main vehicle for visual communications at the given location.
  4. Pylon signs—Where a pylon or other large landmark sign is the key commercial communication approach, with only minor architectural signs.

The first approach, integrated landmark design, earned the highest score at 4.04 out of five, with 57 per cent considered complementary to the community and 56 per cent ranked important to the quality of the community. The second, architectural integration, scored 3.98 out of five, with 50 per cent complementing the community and 50 per cent important to the quality of the community.

Large-format print integration proved less popular, scoring 3.62 out of five, with only
25 per cent complementing the community and 25 per cent important to the quality of the community. Finally, pylon signs scored 3.69 out of five, with 44 per cent complementing the community and 33 per cent important to the quality of the community. Tall pylons scored better than low pylons.


Digital signs were studied along a key retail corridor in New York, N.Y.

Three lighting approaches—internal, external and channel letter—were also analyzed. Internally illuminated channel letters received the highest score at 4.56, but this acceptance was downtown-centric; in the suburbs, there was no significant difference in attitudes toward internal versus external illumination.

It was clear from the study that a great deal of weight is placed on integrated design concepts that combine signs, graphics and architecture. This trend has also led to more urban signs incorporating traditionally architectural materials like stone and wood, as well as the use of architecture-dependent applications like awnings, screens and window graphics.

At the same time, signs that suffered problems with regard to legibility, clutter and/or clarity were given outsized negative weight in the survey, even when efforts were made to integrate them into architecture. In other words, legible, informational signs outweigh all other influences.

Finally, downtown signs played the most major role within their landscape, with positive attitudes toward them surpassing even those expressed toward traditional buildings. Compared to the suburbs, there was a downtown focus on the most flamboyant, exciting designs, with a broad mix of materials and displays, from projected signs to banners.

Digital signs
Digital signage has become part of nearly all urban and suburban environments. A convergence of lower-priced technology, more open codes coupled with greater public acceptance has seen the medium expand to universities, health-care facilities, restaurants and other locations. Retailers, in particular, have advanced the use of digital signs as a foundation for promoting their products.

One of the goals of the New York survey was to develop a set of ‘metrics’ appropriate to the characteristics of digital signs. There has been surprisingly little research with regard to digital signage as an asset in support of urban landscapes. Again, most research so far has been proprietary and/or promoted by the industry itself. As a result, few ‘best practices’ have been developed for design.

The signs selected for the Signage Foundation survey were integrated into buildings and streetscapes, rather than installed for stand-alone messaging. Specifically, three strategic approaches were analyzed:

  1. Architecturally integrated—Digital signage integrated into a building’s architecture.
  2. Information systems—Messaging systems providing important community information.
  3. Pylon signs—Digital signs incorporated into pylon signs.


The research included a trolley tour of Chicago’s landmark signs.

Information systems scored the highest at 3.99 out of five, while the other two approaches tied at 3.31 each. Overall, 77 per cent complemented the community and 35 per cent were considered important to the quality of the community.

There were also three media approaches in terms of video content:

  1. Scrolling information—Signs with simple scrolling or changing information, facilitated by rolling, flashing or fading transitions.
  2. Scrolling/animated graphics—Signs that combine scrolling information on-screen with graphics and simple animation.
  3. Full media—Signs with fully developed media content, including animation integrated into the entire presentation.

The basic scrolling information signs scored 2.76 out of five, topped by scrolling/animated graphics at 3.65 and full media at 3.57.

In the New York study, it was clear participants had grown accustomed to digital signs in their environment, but also took a highly critical view of them, with immediate negative reactions to any issues in legibility, quality or messaging. Compared to static signs, the standards rose substantially, with significant variability between low and high scores. In other words, the public responds highly positively to good digital signage and highly negatively to bad digital signage.

The most positive responses were to signs that provided important information in addition to advertising. Full media signs with a clear flow of content earned the highest scores.

Digital signs integrated into larger fixtures or landmark signs also drew a positive response, particularly in the context of well-designed complementary sign packages. With design playing such a crucial role in the success of digital signage, the top-scoring examples tended to focus on providing clear, legible content on screens integrated into architecture.

Wayfinding and identity signs
Wayfinding and identify signs have become essential components of major cities, towns and regions for both drivers and pedestrians. While they have proven popular for local branding, making spaces more livable and promoting tourism, however, there are still questions about their importance and worthiness as an investment today, particularly in light of mobile navigation technologies. So, the goal of the Philadelphia survey was to measure the relative importance of wayfinding in comparison to other streetscape and landmark investments.

There has been very little research in the past into the effectiveness of wayfinding programs, particularly in relation to their cost. It is important to focus on wayfinding as one of a number of infrastructural investments that support an urban brand, including street lighting. A wayfinding project must begin with the premise that cities and towns are looking for the most effective investments to enhance their identities.

The Philadelphia survey built on earlier, ground-breaking research developed by Applied Information Group for Vancouver and London, England, which studied how an effective wayfinding system can lead to greater commerce by enhancing a city’s walkability and, thus, the public’s access to the urban environment. Augmenting that analysis, the Signage Foundation’s study compared wayfinding to building lighting, street lighting, landmarks, public art, murals and interpretive signs. It also analyzed several wayfinding approaches, including pedestrian, vehicular, gateway and mobile applications.


Digital signage integrated into larger landmark signs, like this example in Innisfil, Ont., tends to draw a positive response from the public.

Lighting, public art and murals scored high, at 4.04 to 4.05 out of five, closely followed by wayfinding signs (3.95), landmarks (3.77) and interpretive signs (3.72). Gateway identity signs scored 4.12, followed by vehicular wayfinding (3.91), pedestrian wayfinding (3.83) and mobile applications (3.82). Interestingly, most of the survey participants had downloaded a city or transit map onto their mobile phones, but only used resources they were very familiar with, like Google Maps.

The survey showed attitudes toward urban infrastructure projects are very positive. Indeed, the biggest issue that came out from the focus group at the end of testing was the need for many wayfinding sign design features found in larger cities to be extended to smaller cities, towns and neighbourhoods.

Directional signs, maps and kiosks were all seen as extremely important investments, particularly when integrated into street furniture like bus shelters and benches, while gateway signs were seen as crucial to success at the vehicular level. Murals and public art were seen as ‘creative landmarks’ for a strong community identity and as an important complement to wayfinding signs.

The more negative responses were to approaches that would add clutter to the environment, including the extensive use of banners or too many small signs as key elements. Fewer but higher-quality elements were perceived as more successful in reinforcing the urban identity.

What makes signs successful
The Signage Foundation’s new research emphasizes how design issues can be judged objectively, with general consensus among a public population, by asking survey participants to rank design attributes like legibility (which involves contrast levels, typography, letter size and the use of negative space), clarity of information, reduction of clutter and architectural integration before comparing real-world signage approaches. Another major finding was there is no difference to the public between a sign and a building, in terms of how well-accepted they are as parts of the urban landscape.

The next question is whether or not a sign code can cover all of these issues properly. People respond positively to good design in commercial signage, which should give planners some ammunition in the sign bylaw arena. There are design truths that are not just subjective.

Craig Berger is chair of the visual presentation and exhibition design department of the Fashion Institute of Technology’s (FIT’s) School of Art and Design. This article is based on research efforts he has led for the Signage Foundation. For more information, visit