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.

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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.’

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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.

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