What is Signage?

Brendan McGuigan

Signage is a general term for any sort of graphic display intended to convey information to an audience. There are many different types of signage, and it has existed for thousands of years. Most modern signage relies on words, often in tandem with images, but a great deal of historical signage used only images, and much modern signage geared towards an international audience also omits text entirely.

Some road signs may incorporate symbols, diagrams, or pictures.
Some road signs may incorporate symbols, diagrams, or pictures.

Custom-made signage is usually designed for a business, to convey the name and location of the business, or to promote a specific service or product that the business offers. Custom-made signage may be as simple as a small hand-written sign hung in the window of a shop, or it may be a very intentional bit of branding put together by a large-scale marketing company and present on thousands of outlets of a single corporation. This type of signage comes in all shapes and sizes, and there are very few common themes among the different types.

Signage in a shopping mall might be used for advertisement or to share information with shoppers.
Signage in a shopping mall might be used for advertisement or to share information with shoppers.

Often custom-made signage meant to promote a business will include the name of the business, but the most effective forms of signage tend to have a central element aside from the name that becomes iconic. The signage used for the McDonalds™ company is an excellent example of this. The iconic Golden Arches used in their signage have become as well-recognized as their name, making them immediately visible from great distances, and giving them limitless branding opportunities.

In the United States, street signs commonly have white letters on a green background.
In the United States, street signs commonly have white letters on a green background.

Another ever-present form of signage is street-signage, meant to give information to pedestrians or drivers. Actual street signs, for example, such as those seen in many cities throughout the United States with white lettering on a green background, give the names of streets and cross-streets to help people navigate their way around a city or town. Although these signs have changed over the years, since their primary goal is to communicate location to busy, often fast-moving people, they tend to focus on legibility above all else.

A street sign in English and Chinese.
A street sign in English and Chinese.

Hazard and instructional signs are another form of street-signage which can be seen in most countries throughout the world. Since these signs need to be easily recognized from a distance, and also need to be comprehensible to anyone who may be driving, including those who do not speak the native language, they nearly always feature some sort of design theme or infographic, either accompanied by text or alone. For example, a street sign indicating deer may be crossing the road sporadically, meant to warn drivers to slow down, may simply show a picture of a deer, in the United States generally in a simple black silhouette on a yellow background. Similarly, a Stop sign, as it needs to be easily recognized from a distance, and in poor visibility conditions, is a unique red color and a unique octagonal shape.

Road signs help navigate traffic.
Road signs help navigate traffic.

With the advent of the internet, the concept of signage has made its way into the digital world. Digital signage is a term used to describe logos, banners, and other navigational devices found online, even though they are not technically signs. They do, however, serve much the same purpose as real world signage, and often rely on a similar design aesthetic.

McDonalds is a great example of a sign including a central element that becomes iconic, in the case of the golden arches.
McDonalds is a great example of a sign including a central element that becomes iconic, in the case of the golden arches.
Street signs help people navigate around a city.
Street signs help people navigate around a city.

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