A brief history of signs and signage. Signage is the design or use of signs and symbols to communicate a message, usually for the purpose of marketing or safety. The term signage is documented to have been popularized in 1975 to 1980.
Signs are any kind of visual graphics created to display information. They vary in form and size based on location and intent, from more expansive banners, billboards, and murals, to smaller street signs, street name signs, sandwich boards and lawn signs. Newer signs may also use digital or electronic displays.
The main purpose of signs is to communicate, to convey information designed to assist the receiver with decision-making based on the information provided. Alternatively, promotional signage may be designed to persuade receivers of the merits of a given product or service. Signage is distinct from labelling, which conveys information about a particular product or service.
The term, ‘sign’ comes from the old French signe (noun), signer (verb), meaning a gesture or a motion of the hand. This, in turn, stems from Latin ‘signum’ indicating an”identifying mark, token, indication, symbol; proof; military standard, ensign; a signal, an omen; sign in the heavens, constellation.” In English, the term is also associated with a flag or ensign. In France, a banner not infrequently took the place of signs or signboards in the Middle Ages. Signs, however, are best known in the form of painted or carved advertisements for shops, inns, cinemas, etc. They are one of the various emblematic methods for publicly calling attention to the place to which they refer.
The term, ‘signage’ appears to have come into use in the 20th century as a collective noun used to describe a class of signs, especially advertising and promotional signs which came to prominence in the first decades of the twentieth century. The Oxford Dictionary defines the term, signage, as “Signs collectively, especially commercial or public display signs.
Some of the earliest signs were used informally to denote the membership of specific groups. Early Christians used the sign or a cross or the Ichthys (i.e. fish) to denote their religious affiliations, whereas the sign of the sun or the moon would serve the same purpose for pagans.
The use of commercial signage has a very ancient history. Retail signage and promotional signs appear to have developed independently in the East and the West. In antiquity, the ancient Egyptians, Romans and Greeks were known to use signage. In ancient Rome, signboards were used for shop fronts as well as to announce public events. Roman signboards were usually made from stone or terracotta. Certain identifiable trade signs that survive into modern times include the three balls of pawnbrokers and the red and white barber’s pole. Of the signs identified with specific trades, some of these later evolved into trademarks. This suggests that the early history of commercial signage is intimately tied up with the history of branding and labelling.
Recent research suggests that China exhibited a rich history of early retail signage systems. One well-documented early example of a highly developed brand associated with retail signage is that of the White Rabbit brand of sewing needles, from China’s Song Dynasty period (960- 1127 CE). A copper printing plate used to print posters contained a message, which roughly translates as: “Jinan Liu’s Fine Needle Shop: We buy high-quality steel rods and make fine-quality needles, to be ready for use at home in no time.” The plate also includes a trademark in the form of a ‘White Rabbit” which signified good luck. Details in the image show a white rabbit crushing herbs, and included advice to shoppers to look for the stone white rabbit in front of the maker’s shop. Thus, the image served as an early form of brand recognition. The rise of a consumer culture prompted the company image, retail signage, symbolic brands, trademarks and brand concepts.
During Medieval times the use of signs was generally optional for traders. However, publicans were on a different footing. As early as the 14th century, English law compelled innkeepers to exhibit signs from the late 14th-century. In 1389, King Richard II of England compelled landlords to have signs outside their premises. The legislation stated Whosoever shall brew ale in the town with intention of selling it must hang out a sign, otherwise, he shall forfeit his ale.” Legislation was intended to make public houses easily visible to passing inspectors of the quality of the ale they provided. In 1393 a publican was prosecuted for failing to display signs. The practice of using signs spread to other types of commercial establishments throughout the Middle Ages. Similar legislation was enacted in Europe. For instance, in France edicts were issued 1567 and 1577, compelling innkeepers and tavern-keepers to display signs.
Large towns, where many premises practised the same trade, and especially, where these congregated in the same street, a simple trade sign was insufficient to distinguish one house from another. Traders began to differentiate themselves. Sometimes the trader used a figure of an animal or another object, or portrait of a well-known person, which he considered likely to attract attention.
Around this time, craftsmen began to adapt the coats of arms or badges of noble families as a type of endorsement. By the 17th and 18th centuries, the number of commercial houses actively displaying the royal arms on their premises, packaging and labelling had increased, but many claims of royal endorsement were fraudulent. By 1840, the rules surrounding the display of royal arms were tightened to prevent false claims. By the early 19th century, the number of Royal Warrants granted rose rapidly when Queen Victoria granted some 2,000 royal warrants during her reign of 64 years.
Since the object of signboards was to attract the public, they were often of an elaborate character. Not only were the signs themselves large and sometimes of great artistic merit (especially in the 16th and 17th centuries, when they reached their greatest vogue) but the posts or metal supports protruding from the houses over the street, from which the signs were swung, were often elaborately worked, and many beautiful examples of wrought-iron supports survive both in England and continental Europe.
Signs were a prominent feature of the streets of London from the 16th century. Large overhanging signs became a danger and a nuisance in the narrow ways as the city streets became more congested with traffic. Over time, authorities were forced to regulate the size and placement of exterior signage. In 1669, a French royal order prohibited the excessive size of signboards and their projection too far over the streets. In Paris in 1761, and in London, about 1762-1773, laws were introduced which gradually compelled sign boards to be removed or fixed flat against the wall.
For the most part, signs only survived in connection with inns, for which some of the greatest artists of the time painted sign boards, usually representing the name of the inn. With the gradual abolition of signboards, the numbering of houses began to be introduced in the early 18th century in London. It had been attempted in Paris as early as 1512 and had become almost universal by the close of the 18th century, though not enforced until 1805. Another important factor was that during the Middle Ages a large percentage of the population was illiterate and so pictures were more useful as a means of identifying a public house. For this reason, there was often no reason to write the establishment’s name on the sign and inns opened without a formal written name—the name being derived later from the illustration on the public house’s sign. In this sense, a pub sign can be thought of as an early example of visual branding.
Some artists during the 19th century specialized in the painting of signs, such as the Austro-Hungarian artist Demeter Laccataris. Pending this development, houses which carried on trade at night (e.g. coffee houses, brothels, etc.) had various specific arrangements of lights, and these still survive to some extent, as in the case of doctors’ surgeries, and chemists’ dispensaries.
Several developments in the early 20th century provided the impetus for widespread commercial adoption of exterior signage. The first erected in Manhattan in 1892 and became commonplace in the first decade of the 20th century and by 1913, “the skies were awash with a blaze of illuminated, animated signs.” In the 1920s, the newly developed neon sign was introduced to the United States. Its flexibility and visibility led to widespread commercial adoption and by the 1930s, neon signs were a standard feature of modern building around the world.
Signs conveying information about services and facilities, such as maps, directories, instructional signs or interpretive signage used in museums, galleries, zoos, parks and gardens, exhibitions, tourist and cultural attractions that enhance the customer’s experience.
Persuasion: promotional signage designed to persuade users of the relative merits of a company, product or brand.
Direction/ Navigation: signs showing the location of services, facilities, functional spaces and key areas, such as signposts or directional arrows.
Identification: signs indicating services and facilities, such as room names and numbers, restroom signs, or floor designations.
Safety and Regulatory: signs giving warning or safety instructions, such as warning signs, traffic signs, exit signs, signs indicating what to do in an emergency or natural disaster or signs conveying rules and regulations.
Navigation – may be exterior or interior (e.g. with interactive screens in the floor as with “informational footsteps” found in some tourist attractions, museums, and the like or with other means of “dynamic wayfinding”.
Signs may be used in exterior spaces or on-premise locations. Signs used on the exterior of a building are often designed to encourage people to enter and on the interior to encourage people to explore the environment and participate in all that space has to offer. Any given sign may perform multiple roles simultaneously. For example, signage may provide information, but may also serve to assist customers to navigate their way through a complex service or retail environment.
Pictures aka Pictograms are images commonly used to convey the message of a sign. In statutory signage, pictograms follow specific sets of colour, shape and sizing rules based on the laws of the country in which the signage is being displayed. For example, In UK and EU signage, the width of a sign’s pictogram must be 80% the height of the area it is printed to. In the US, in order to comply with the ADA Accessibility Guidelines, the same pictogram must be located within its own defined field, with raised characters and braille located beneath the field. Please check with your local planning department before investing in new signage.
For a pictogram to be successful it must be recognizable across cultures and languages, even if there is no text present. Following standard colour and shape conventions increases the likelihood that the pictogram and sign will be universally understood.
The shape of a sign can help to convey its message. The shape can be brand- or design-based or can be part of a set of signage conventions used to standardize sign meaning. Usage of particular shapes may vary by country and culture.
Some common signage shape conventions are as follows:
Rectangular signs are often used to portray general information to an audience.
Circular signs often represent an instruction that must be followed, either mandatory or prohibitive.
Triangular signs are often warning signs, used to convey danger or caution.
Signs frequently use lighting as a means of conveying their information or as a way to increase visibility.
Neon signs, introduced in 1910 at the Paris Motor Show, are produced by the craft of bending glass tubing into shapes. A worker skilled in this craft is known as a glass bender, neon or tube bender.
Light-emitting diode (LED) technology is frequently used in signs. This technology, first used primarily at sporting events, later appeared at businesses, churches, schools, and government buildings. The brightness of LED signs can vary, leading to some banning of their use due to issues such as light pollution. Today, LED technology is also used in light panels to illuminate advertising graphics in public places including malls, subways, and airports.