Follow the Sign Standards

The Whys and Hows of Sign Standards and Guidelines

Developing sign standards are important for creating consistent and smart sign programs that uphold the design integrity of a space or place. They can communicate the aesthetic requirements that allow the program to live in harmony with a space’s interior or exterior design; they can provide guidance in how information needs to be presented to make a place highly usable. Most importantly, sign standards set the parameters for how all of these objectives can be maintained in the future.


When a Design Consultant speaks of Standards, two applications typically come to mind; the first is Sign Standards. Developed by a consultant, sign standards are designed to document a comprehensive sign system and protect the purpose and longevity of the wayfinding and identification program for a particular place or space. These standards are often used by large institutional buildings or campuses such as hospitals, schools, airports, etc.

Wayne County Park Sign Standards

Wayne County Parks Sign Standards by Guide Studio

The other application is Design Guidelines for signage. These are usually developed for a place that has a pre-established design vernacular. Guidelines are important for places where many different parties may implement signs, such as shopping/lifestyle centers or perhaps in a city or historic streetscape.

The difference between Standards and Guidelines is that Standards are high in authority and limited in application. On the other hand, Guidelines are low in authority and more general in application. Both play a very important role in successful sign programs.

The Hard Fast Rules

Sign Standards have a bit more “teeth” than Design Guidelines. Standards are typically built-in rules that have been established not only for design, but also for the communication style of a sign program. For comprehensive sign systems in complex environments (such as a hospital) where many types of signs are used to impart information to first-time visitors, these Standards are critical for establishing uniformity and clarity in communicating to visitors how they can find their destinations with ease.

When Sign Standards are implemented, styles of all the sign types are pre-established, as well as specified type styles, colors, sizes, materials and even installation methods. This also includes adherence to codes and regulations such as requirements for ADA (American’s with Disabilities Act — Standards for Accessible Design) that are required by law.

Accessible design, as it relates to signage, deals with establishing standards by which those with disabilities are taught what to expect when using wayfinding information within a space. Tactile signs, featuring both raised letters and braille, are mounted at a specific distance from a door and height from the floor so that they can be easily reached by a person walking or in a wheel chair. Contrast, size and proportion of lettering on signs ensures those with a visual impairment can discern information.

Many times Standards also include structure for consistent terminology. This ensures that the message on a directional sign appears the same on identification once a destination is reached. Consistent terminology is just as critical to the Standards of a sign system as the physical structure and design. Criteria may also be developed for the type of content presented in the program, such as quantity of messages on a directional that would allow for readability in a moving vehicle, or types of destinations that are most appropriate for effective wayfinding.

Easy As 1, 2, 3

Along the same lines as providing structure for terminology, room numbering guidelines are important for establishing a consistent numbering system that can lend itself to both wayfinding and future growth of the space. Architects and interior designers utilize numbering systems to organize the design of the spaces and systems. However, these numbers often identify all spaces — not just rooms pertinent to the visitor — therefore creating an inconsistent numbering pattern. While respecting the need for the interior space organization, numbering guidelines that focus on creating consecutive numbering patterns for rooms only will allow simple room signs to enhance wayfinding on floors and corridors.

GCRTA Sign Standards by Guide Studio

Quantity and Quality

While creating standardized sign programs may seem restrictive, (i.e., less creative) they often produce aesthetically appropriate and cost-effective solutions for places that require immense quantities and types of signs. When modularity is incorporated into the system, versatility and expandability allow for future changes. Standards also create ease of maintenance and re-ordering.

Kent State University Sign Standards by Guide Studio

“Existing places already have a design vernacular. It is important to their brand image that signs integrate beautifully and naturally within their settings.”

As A Guide

Design Standards for signage are often established to uphold the context in which the sign will appear. Existing places already have a design vernacular. It is important to their brand image that signs integrate beautifully and naturally within their settings. When, for example, a new tenant is moving into a building in the middle of a Historic Business District, the tenant and their consultants may find that the city or district has developed guidelines for what a business sign can look like. They may not specify a certain sign type, but encourage tenants to consider several elements that will uphold the visual integrity (in other words, its “image”) of that building or district.

These guidelines may indicate sign structure styles, colors and type styles that are historically accurate or complementary to the architecture, and may restrict the locations and sizes for which signs can be installed. They may even go as far as presenting examples of signs that feel appropriate for the context.

Rhyme & Reason

The intent of Design Guidelines are to assist property and business owners in understanding the expectations of the landlord, district, or city in which their signs will appear. Guidelines may also help with quicker review and processing when applying for sign permits, since these Guidelines may often go hand-in-hand with more regulated sign codes. Ultimately, Design Guidelines can encourage creative and innovative approaches to sign design, even within an established framework. Their adoption can enhance overall property values and the environment by discouraging signs that may contribute to visual clutter in the area — again, protecting your place’s brand investment.

Working Together

We can’t ignore how these Standards can also be a strong vehicle for a place’s brand. Translation of a brand to space in three dimensions can be very different from its translation to paper or the two dimensional experience. Careful use of brand elements (as simple as colors or type style) when incorporated consistently can contribute to the solidarity of a brand’s message.

Whether you use Standards or Guidelines in your project, understanding the “whys” of utilizing the right control element for your sign program and how they are implemented can offer some very strong tools to maintain the usability and image of your place.


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