In this space, I have written often of signage which, if you have been to the annual ISA Sign Expo—about which I have also written often—is a fast-growing product and service area. I have covered the physical printing of signs and the technologies used, and looked at dynamic digital signage (DDS). There are, however, several nuances involved with signage that put print services providers in a unique position to help customers with signage needs.

Printing different forms of signage is obviously the most basic sign-related service a signmaker can offer, but an additional, related service involves helping customers navigate the byzantine maze of sign codes, or the regulations that control where signs can be installed, how big they can be, and how long they can remain up. Interior signage poses few problems, usually, but once you move outside, it can be remarkably easy to fall afoul of the ever-changing rules surrounding sign size and placement, which can be mandated by the Feds, or, more commonly, by state, county, and—especially—municipal authorities.

Legal wrangling over sign codes even made it all the way to the Supreme Court, in the landmark 2015 case Reed v. Town of Gilbert. In that case, a sign code issue turned into a First Amendment battle.

Ultimately, sign codes exist—usually—for the purpose of attempting to eliminate clutter. Think about election season (without drinking heavily) and the vast proliferation of lawn signs (which, by the way, are also opportunities for a print business). That sign clutter is what municipal leaders fear will happen permanently if anyone can put a sign anywhere they like, whenever they like.

These codes usually apply to temporary wayfinding signage, such as those Coroplast signs that turn up promoting an upcoming 5K, blood drive, art show, or some other local event. These are obviously legal (in most cases), but need to be removed within a very short time after the event they are promoting. In some cases, the placement of the signs is blatantly illegal, but authorities turn a blind eye to them (“I’m shocked, shocked, to discover there are signs here.”) You don’t want to build a business plan around a nefarious activity, but it happens, depending on the community, or who happens to be in office at the time.

Even exterior signage on buildings can be subject to regulation. If a retail location erects signage, particularly temporary exterior signage (“Mattress Sale!!!”) it can inadvertently violate a local ordinance. And many exterior signs require permits. Which ones? Well, it varies.

The company printing or otherwise making a sign for a client isn’t legally required to be an expert in sign regulations; ultimately, compliance is the responsibility of the sign owner—the print customer. However, being an authority on local sign regulations can be a highly valuable ancillary service that a signmaker can provide. A valuable part of that is recognizing that even if signage doesn’t require a permit, it may be subject to regulation. Knowing what signs need permits and which may be subject to what kind of regulations can help a new or small business owner who likely has a million other logistical hurdles to jump through in getting a business or new location off the ground.

Take what are called “feather flags,” those tall, thin fluttery signs often found outside auto dealerships. Some municipalities require those kinds of signs to be set back from the road a certain distance so that if they blow over they don’t create a road hazard, or so they don’t impair the ability of drivers pulling out of parking lots to see oncoming traffic. Being able to provide even this simple piece of information that a client may not be aware of can go a long way toward solving what can be a serious problem for that client.

When planning a signage project with a client, it’s like the advice, when putting in something like a swimming pool, to “call before you dig”: check with the gas company so as to avoid hitting a gas line. The International Sign Association (ISA) can provide guidance on navigating sign codes and regulations.

This idea may sound daunting, and the thought of having regular conversations with City Hall may be cringe-inducing, but it’s nothing unique to other services print businesses have provided. For example, it’s not a million miles removed from the “value-added” service that commercial printers provide when they are able to help customers navigate postal rates and regulations, which can be no less byzantine and changeable. It’s a service that saves customers time, it saves them headaches, and it saves them money. These are good services to offer.

While a lot of commercial print businesses are just starting to wrap their heads around printed signage, signmakers themselves are wrestling with dynamic digital signage, which is becoming more and more prevalent, and is increasingly being installed to complement and supplement printed signage. If a business is serious about getting involved in signage, the ability to design, develop, and deploy dynamic digital signage is an important skill set.

While digital signage is a good value-added service in and of itself, a value-added-added service is, like with physical signage, helping customers understand the regulations and sign codes that govern digital signage—which can be even more restrictive than those pertaining to printed signs. For example, there is the fear that unregulated digital signage—specifically, electronic message centers (EMCs)—will turn a nice, quaint downtown into the Las Vegas Strip. It’s also felt that overly bright EMCs can also pose traffic safety hazards, although studies have not borne this out. These are not unreasonable concerns, but sometimes town planners err a little too far on the side of caution.  

Indeed, EMCs are the real bane of many of today’s city planners. An electronic message center is exterior digital signage that is located on the premises of the business or other facility it is advertising. Convention centers, banks, and now even schools are increasingly installing EMCs. (EMCs are not considered—legally, regulatorily, or otherwise—to be a digital billboard, which is located off-premises an has other regulatory issues.). As a result, municipalities often impose brightness restrictions on EMCs.

Bright Lights, Small City: Electronic message centers (EMCs) are the bane of many city planners, even when they are fairly unobtrusive.

As a signmaker—of printed or digital signage—you’re not required to be conversant in your local sign codes. But if you are in the business of helping customers deploy EMCs or similar kinds of exterior digital signage, knowing the local rules and regs can be a great asset to those customers.