In the Know & In the Zone

by Katie Lee

What to know about signage codes and zoning regulations.

By Curtiss Taylor

When working on the development of a shopping center or even the design of a stand-alone retail location, the importance of signage sometimes gets overlooked. Signage, after all, is one of those last-minute details that can be dealt with as the project nears completion, right?

The answer, of course, is — or at least should be — no. As a study conducted by Federal Express just a few years ago clearly shows, signs are one of the major factors in driving purchases and affecting customer decisions.

According to the FedEx survey, 76% of consumers have chosen to enter a store they had never before visited based purely on its signage. While this may come as a surprise, roughly the same number of respondents had told someone about a store based entirely on signage! Conversely, 52% of customers surveyed by FedEx state that they’re less willing to shop at a store with poor signage.

Clearly, this study highlights the importance of signage within retail. In fact, many argue that it is one of the most important elements in a design. It is the first element that engages a customer, to which they immediately respond — either positively or negatively.

Signage and graphics, in fact, tend to define how visitors to a shopping center or retail destination perceive, interact and engage with the space. It is often the first thing shoppers see when they arrive and the touchstone to which they return throughout their visit. From wayfinding and directional signage to recognizable symbols of recognizable tenants and cultural icons, the writing is literally on the wall when it comes to the shopper experience.

A prime example of the benefits of good signage can be found at a mixed-used development just outside Washington, D.C. Spread over several city blocks, the development was difficult to navigate — stores weren’t well-marked, parking lots were hard to find, and directional signage was non-existent. So, too, was a brand for the entire area.

After a complete overhaul, the full scope of signage and graphics were used to bring a strong project identity to the main thoroughfare. New signage and thought-out wayfinding locations were used on both interior and exterior areas to increase project awareness, create greater navigation into and throughout the site, and elevate tenant presence. Paired with a new identity and marketing program, this facelift helped to re-launch the property to both locals and consumers outside the area, ultimately leading to a significant increase in consumer traffic.

The Need for Codes

Signage, of course, cannot be created in a vacuum. Signage ordinances are established to regulate the size, placement and certain aspects of design, and serve to reduce the sign clutter and resulting ineffectiveness. These regulations have been put in place to protect property values, promote traffic safety and preserve the area’s atmosphere.

Every jurisdiction is going to be a bit different. In busy urban environments, prohibited signs will likely include billboard, off-premise advertising, box sign, programmable electronic sign, sandwich board, waterfall awning and freestanding sign. Other signs and designs — including vertical and horizontal blades, flat signs, awning and window signs, flat, big box, and icon signs, banners, and motion/marquee signs — are likely to be permitted.

Zoning Regulations: What to know upfront

It is also imperative to be aware of zoning restrictions so as not to waste time — and money. Before the design begins, zoning regulations and signage code should be fully understood and addressed. Blindly designing signage with no idea whether the signage is within regulation or even allowed in that specific district is not only a waste of time, but also a waste of money. Even if a tenant or property owner is planning to apply for variances, they should have an understanding of the associated fees before starting the design. Consultants should work with their retail clients and guide them through the process. Before any design gets started, it is best to research and know the codes for a shopping center’s specific district.

A good rule of thumb before starting the signage process is to investigate nearby properties. With the invention of the Internet, local codes are right at one’s fingertips. Utilize Google Earth to survey the area. At times, one tenant or property owner can look up their neighbor’s signage allowances, providing there isn’t a roadway dividing the two centers. But be cautious: new signage in an old structure likely means that the zoning changed and the allowable square footage for signage has been reduced. With that being said, if a tenant is acquiring property or space with existing signage it’s time to look into the code before removing or updating the sign. The last thing a tenant wants to do is remove a grandfathered sign before understanding if square footage will be lost or a sign height no longer permitted.

Even if they have been provided with architectural elevations that show signage, tenants and property owners should keep in mind that it doesn’t mean it is actually allowed in that particular district. While beautiful renderings of your new project may include digital billboards, wall and extreme storefront graphics, along with oversized signage, there is a good chance the zoning only allows for a portion of what was shown. Typically, tenants are usually allotted 10% to 15% of the retail center façade’s total area, or 1 to 1.5 square feet of the linear store frontage for signage.

A surefire way to ensure compliance is literally as easy as visiting the city or county’s website. The best place to look is in the zoning, development, or land use section of the website. Another option is to visit Municode, a code provider website. Or, if these options don’t work, call the zoning office and speak to one of the officials.

Signage codes are usually laid out in a standard outline form, but more recently there has been a trend to provide a detailed package, which looks more like tenant sign criteria than a sign ordinance. The packaged codes contain a detailed summary of the sign types, their sizes, placement, limitations and restrictions. It will also outline any additional allowance or design restrictions due to the location of the signage, whether it be in a flood plain or distance from the public right of way.

In Conclusion

Proper signage can have a major impact on retail centers — be it a single storefront or a large, mixed-use shopping center. But it is important for tenants or property owners to do their homework upfront when it comes to zoning regulations, in order to save time and money — and many headaches — in the long run.


— Curtiss Taylor is director of graphics at inPLACE Design, an architecture, planning and design firm. Email the author at [email protected].

You may also like