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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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