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Sign Language

Avatar photo by Casey Woods, Executive Director | September 24, 2014

Sign Language

Creating Uniform Signage for Citizens and Visitors

Within community circles, a lot has been made of the poor state of existing signage.  Most criticism is well deserved.  People and organizations are trying to make areas well defined through signs, but past efforts lacked cohesion necessary to create a true sign system.  Each type of signage (Welcome, directional “way finding”, informational, arrival and spot-direction) need to be part of a well defined system that is consistent in color palate, materials, graphics and integrated shapes.  These integrated systems automatically inform the public that each sign provides valuable information instead of getting lost in the visual overload jungle that permeates most cities.  Without a well defined system, each type of sign is part of a singular effort which often produces expensive one-off designs that will never effectively integrate into the overall sign plan and prevents visual cohesion.


In this e-news, we will look at an actual sign system designed for a real city, discuss the elements that make the signs successful and give examples of how that sign system could be implemented in a community like Emporia.  The purpose of this educational process is to inform the public about good sign design and placement, so they can be effective in public advocacy and implementation.  The following points will cover basic topics within the framework of signage.

  1. Graphic Identity- Communities are a product.  A city needs to represent itself with a graphical piece that differentiates it from other cities and highlights unique and recognizable features through the use of color, graphics, shapes and font.  Wording within the graphics piece needs to function well in a variety of formats, on various materials and in different color options.  In Emporia, our current “logo” is based on a now defunct state logo (many other communities also based their community graphics on the same logo).  The widespread use of our current graphic, when coupled with its non-unique nature makes our graphical identity inauthentic.  Inclusion of subsets that utilize the same graphic with a different sub header makes community departments difficult to read and causes brand confusion.  A solid graphics plan would give the city a color scheme, shape and graphical identity that could carry through signs.
  2. Materials Used- Kansas is one of the windiest states in the United States.  We get winters as cold as almost anyone, summers that are hot as almost anyone and weather patterns that wear and tear even the toughest of materials.  Creating three dimensional systems with materials that are fade resistant and bases strong enough to withstand flapping in the lovely Kansas wind isn’t an easy process, but doing something right the first time decreases replacement and maintenance costs down the road.
  3. A style book- Many corporate organizations are familiar with the style book concept; a book that contains all the different graphical representations of a company’s imagery in a variety of functional formats.  We know that all signs in Emporia won’t be replaced overnight.  We know that the implementation of an effective sign system could take several years when we talk about the community as a whole.  The idea is to create a system that encourages entities to alter their signs when they need replaced, when new entities come on board or when organizations partner in an effort to update signage.
  4. Prioritization- As we said, you can’t implement a new sign system in a city the size of Emporia all at once.  Communities have to prioritize and create density at a starting point and radiate out from that point.  Communities must also make priorities in regards to directional signage inclusion.  General geographic areas are typically part of downtown signage with more specific entities included in directional signage within the geographic area.  The point is, you’ve got to pick the “big” geographically defined sectors, use signs to direct to those areas and then distribute to independent entities from that single sign point as you approach the area.  For example- we wouldn’t expect directional signage to indicate a private entity like Emporia Main Street on city entry signs.  It is up to Emporia Main Street to indicate our position within the larger geographic region of “downtown Emporia”.
  5. Placement- New signs can replace some old signs for entrances, way finding and arrival signs.  New signage may include strategically placed informational pieces.  Again, everything needs to coordinate so that the consuming public can readily identify signage by its colors, graphics and shapes.  New placement opportunities should be driven by market capacity, uniqueness of the area and pedestrian accessibility (it doesn’t make sense to put a kiosk on the side of a road everyone is driving by at 50 miles per hour).
  6. Continuity- Sign projects are most successful when they are driven by municipal governments with input from area organizations and citizens.  Because the city often pays for signs, maintains signs and their entities (sports complexes, points of government, parks, the zoo, etc.) will be some of the heaviest users, it is important that the city has a prominent role in all discussions.  The style book principles should be adhered to over the long term, thereby creating graphical continuity in the minds of our citizens and visitors.

Other factors in effective sign deployment include recognizing the speed of travelers within sign areas, matching signs with their correct function for the area and integrating certain types of signs into theirsurroundings.  If handled correctly, directional signage can improve traffic flow and create a more pleasant experience for travelers in the area while exposing important points of interest that drive consumer traffic and repeat business.


Please recognize that directional signage is just part of the overall consumer equation.  Businesses and organizations are responsible for creating signage that is attractive to consumers, provides clear information about what the business is/does and is in a format that meets consumer needs (highway oriented signs for highway businesses, pedestrian oriented signs for businesses along a sidewalk corridor).   Directional signage can get people to an area, but after that, it is up to the business to “seal the deal” with attractive signs and store fronts with convenient hours and great service that encourages traffic, spending and repeat visitors.


Now that you have some additional information concerning community sign theory, we hope that you can be an active participant in the creation of a new sign strategy for Emporia.

About the Author

Casey Woods, Executive Director

Before accepting the director position in March of 2009, Casey worked in both retail and agricultural jobs in the family businesses. A lifelong resident of the Emporia Area, Casey was a ten year volunteer for Emporia Main Street prior to his appointment as director. During that time he served as the board president and chair of the Economic Vitality Committee.

Casey also serves as a partner in PlaceMakers, LLC, a consulting firm that routinely works with both large and small communities, and their businesses, to promote sustainable economic growth through community and economic development practices. Casey consults with businesses, organizations and communities to understand their market capacity and fill vacant spaces. He has been involved in two projects that included crowdfunding as a part of their overall business funding strategies, Radius Brewing and Twin Rivers Winery & Gourmet Shoppe.