Brands, Wayfinding, and Community: How Signs Permeate our Environment


Signs permeate our urban and suburban environments. As commercial brands have embraced design, so have communities. Discover how wayfinding, graphics and signage have evolved to become landmarks of our living environment.

This past year, the Signage Foundation did a research study on on-premise landmark signs in the environment and people’s views of their quality and effectiveness in suburban and urban environments. One big surprise from the study is people’s love for quality brands in the environment. Survey participants had great admiration for Starbucks, Chipotles, Wendy’s, Ikea and all the other companies that have made large scale investments in modernizing their signage. In fact they consider these places crucial to the success and prosperity of their communities.

Commercial brands have moved from being a necessary evil to community attraction.

This goes so far against conventional wisdom it is shocking. We are told by the media and planners that residents of cities and towns crave a return to the “authentic”, or environments that reflect history and subtle small scale approaches. This is seen in our suburban communities trying to couple enormous vehicular scale with Victorian streetlights and small scale commercial signs.

The reality though is, in our environment of suburban strip malls, rapidly evolving downtowns and aging town centers, we crave design and material quality in all its forms. Whether it is through exciting large format print graphics, dynamic lighting, or even beautiful wayfinding, the need for design quality and beauty has been fed by a steady diet of design excellence on television, magazines, the internet and real life experience.

Inspired by Supermarkets.

In addition, the cutting edge in design has shifted decisively to the commercial world over the last two decades. Where once, daily design experience was defined by performing arts centers, convention facilities, public parks, town halls (And the occasional bank) we now find beauty and inspiration in a supermarket or a doctor’s office. In many ways our institutions have had to catch up (Witness the rebranding of libraries with graphics and wayfinding once seen only in retail environments).

The commercial and the institutional are merging their best practices.

Sign companies today are on the leading edge of modernizing the community brand. Whether it is a healthcare wayfinding system, a retail store rebranding or a new library identity; signs and graphics are taking the lead role in the way communities look at themselves. Sign companies in this environment can look at themselves as every bit a steward of quality environments as architects, interior designers and planners.

We live in a world where large format printers have the power to define place.

Sign organizations like the International Sign Association have also seized the leadership mantle. In their education and advocacy, they have shifted their focus on how signs can take a lead role in branding communities through improved scale, legibility and quality. Even companies have gotten in the act with manufacturers like us, investing in white papers and education that support the improved interpretation of building codes and providing best practices.

Selling quality wayfinding as a way of supporting a community is not only good business but also a service to the community.

The rise in understanding and acceptance of community branding provides a great opportunity for sign companies. Proactive meetings with planners and code officials go a long way towards providing an educational foundation for high quality design, and using the every opportunity to show customers that higher quality materials and methods on even the simplest projects can have an outsized impact on the community at large.

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