By Olivia Cahoon
Customers approach sign shops for a variety of print jobs with specific sizes, heights, colors, and graphics. Although each request is unique, they all have the same purpose—to display a sign.
But specific ordinances at local and national levels affect how signs are made and where they are placed. In some municipalities, it is the print service provider’s (PSP’s) responsibility to adhere to sign regulations.
Included in these parameters, wide format printed signage used in outdoor public areas must adhere to specific rules for sizing, material, ink, and installation. To explain signage regulations and identify the best resources, we spoke with leaders of the graphic arts community.
Sign regulations are established at city, county, and state levels. But responsibility for complying with sign ordinances depends on the local municipality. Rick Hartwig, EHS specialist, government and business information, Specialty Graphic Imaging Association, explains that some municipalities place responsibility with the sign owner, while others require sign producers to complete the sign permit application.
“The city of Chicago requires sign permits to be applied for by a licensed sign contractor,” says Hartwig. However, multiple codes can overlap depending on sign placement. For example, a pole sign posted within the city limits of Chicago, IL and viewable from a state highway is subject to city codes and Illinois Department of Transportation codes.
To maintain a trustworthy business, it’s important that PSPs ensure signage and graphics are compliant with local sign codes.
“If the PSP’s objective is to develop a strong long-term business relationship with its customer, it should look out for the client’s best interest and guide them toward solutions that avoid unnecessary complications,” suggests David Hickey, VP of advocacy, International Sign Association (ISA).
Hickey believes it is the PSP’s responsibility to get involved in the local sign code process to provide expertise and represent the sign graphics and visual communications industry. By adhering to local sign policies, PSPs help local officials understand that visible and effective signs are important to the success of businesses and communities.
Outdoor Public Signage
Outdoor signage is amongst the heaviest regulated signage due to public viewing. This includes building wraps, billboards, monument, temporary, political, and pole signs.
“Because the U.S. has 39,000 local governments, each with their own unique sign codes, there are few universal rules,” explains Hickey. However, general considerations help PSPs adhere to signage restrictions.
Few communities specify what materials and inks may be used for outdoor signage. Local codes tend to describe temporary sign requirements in terms of using durable and sturdy materials that are securely attached.
Hickey believes the key to installing outdoor signage is location. He warns PSPs to be careful about installing signage on, in, or above the right of way—this includes sidewalks, utility poles, and feather signs. “Many communities allow A-frame signs and banners but may specify times and locations for display or may require registration or permitting,” he adds.
Hartwig says that PSPs and sign owners should review the applicable sign codes for installation. “Different areas can have vastly different restrictions, and a municipality may have districts with distinct guidelines, such as historic, mixed, and sign districts.”
Sign codes are categorized by type and may address structural components and installation through building codes and permits like electrical and excavation. Hartwig advises sign owners and PSPs to be aware that codes review design, maintenance, permits, placement on property, removal service, and time limitations. “Depending on the locality, there can also be permit requirements for any subcontractors used in the project,” he continues.
Outdoor signage sizing is a considerable regulation PSPs should be aware of. Most local codes include size limitations for outdoor signage and window signs. Windows signs don’t usually require a permit but even ones posted inside adhere to size limitations.
In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court case, Reed v. Gilbert, clarified when municipalities may impose content-based restrictions on signage. Hickey says the case affirmed that communities cannot restrict sign messages. However, jurisdictions may restrict certain colors or require certain fonts.
PSPs and sign owners that do not comply with sign codes may face a loss of licenses, expensive daily fines, service disputes, and costs to remove or remake signs. Hartwig warns that sign producers may also face legal issues with the city, develop a bad reputation, or lose business.
“If you don’t know the rules or don’t follow them, then you might not be able to get your customer the sign they want, and you’ll have a difficult time with the government,” cautions Hickey.
Sign owners and users held responsible for code violations face removal costs, remaking signs, legal issues, and lost business. “It’s not uncommon for a sign customer to point blame at the sign producer for illegal or non-compliant signs. Most customers will assume the sign producer knows the area’s rules and regulations,” says Hartwig.
Piedmont Press and Graphics
Founded in 1987, Piedmont Press and Graphics is a full-service printer located in Warrenton, VA. The shop offers booklet binding, finishing services, graphic design, mailing, marketing services, and signage for banners, labels, point of purchase, vehicles, and windows.
Piedmont Press started as a print and copy center in a 600 square foot facility. It now has a production area of 2,500 square feet with four employees and a handful of part-time employees. The PSP prints outdoor signage using HP, Inc. printers with media from 3M Commercial Solutions and Avery Dennison Graphics Solutions—mostly sourced from Grimco, Inc.
For signage rules and regulations, Tony Tedeschi, CEO, Piedmont Press, believes the shop is moderately knowledgeable. “We know when to call the local government zoning offices,” he says. In fact, the shop suggests customers look at zoning law websites, the local government, and published articles and items from ISA to learn more about signage restrictions.
To efficiently abide by signage rules, Piedmont Press reads all signage regulations the local government posts and meets with government officials. “We do our best to accommodate the customer requests and then, if we believe they conflict with local regulations, we refer them to the zoning office or call on their behalf,” explains Tedeschi.
According to Tedeschi, signage rules and regulations don’t change as often as the interpretation does. But, unclear and outdated regulations can be time consuming endeavors. In some scenarios, PSPs aren’t compensated for the time invested working with authorities to figure out correct dimensions or placement.
However, good signage regulations can lead to an increase in requests for quality designs provided by sign professionals. “Ultimately, we want to create beautiful looking signs and do such a good job of planning that when the town or county sees an application that our company has worked on, they will be confident that we followed the rules and expedite our client’s permit,” shares Tedeschi.
To avoid fines and legal issues, PSPs may become familiar with sign regulations and codes by viewing the municipality’s website. However, Hartwig warns that the codes change often and the websites are not always up to date. He suggests contacting the staff at the local planning or zoning department that has authority over signage. “Contacting an actual person also helps to establish a working relationship in case you have questions or need variances down the road,” he adds.
Hickey says the best place to change a sign code, make it less restrictive, or get assistance with a permit issue is through local sign associations and ISA. “The resources developed by the Sign Research Foundation and the expertise provided by the ISA staff on these kinds of issues are very effective in educating local officials about why signs are so important to business and communities.”
The Sign Research Foundation supplies academic research on vibrant and effective sign strategies, systems, and codes. The foundation works with architects, urban planners, developers, code officials, business owners, and designers to create more navigable cities and strong urban identities.
ISA offers assistance and resources to help PSPs promote visible and effective signs. Best Practices in Regulating Temporary Signs provides a guideline on legal resources, statistics, and the best practices for individual types of temporary signs like advertising murals, balloon signs, light pole banners, sidewalk signs, and window signs. The complimentary guide is published by the Sign Research Foundation.
ISA’s official website also offers resources for local officials, position statements, sign code case studies, and the sign industry and congress. “If more communities develop better sign codes, it gives the sign, graphics, and visual communications industry a better opportunity to grow business,” suggests Hickey.
When local sign regulations fall under the PSP’s responsibility, loss of license, fines, and shop reputation is at stake. Outdoor signage poses an exceptional challenge due to public viewing, sign placement and limitations, and the possibility of multiple codes overlapping. To avoid signage code violations and to efficiently meet client expectations, PSPs may refer to local government offices, online code listings, and association guidelines to ensure all signage rules are followed.
June2017, Digital Output