Originally published in The Town Paper, Vol. 3, No. 3 - April/May 2001
The proper way to demarcate a building, to advertise its use or purpose, is a difficult topic to discuss definitively. In general, it comes down to a matter of taste. But we can look back through history to see examples that with their longevity stand as the correct way to deal with building signage. Think of pubs in Boston, storefronts in San Francisco, or street-front offices in Washington, D.C. Most importantly, in each of these, the ground floor of the building is integrally designed within the building itself. The design of the building as a whole comes first, and the signage is an effective but unobtrusive element within that design.
Signage can refer to many advertisements, both in location and in type that a building may have. There are six types of appropriate signage: a signage band, a blade sign, an awning band, a window logo, a postal number, and a memorial plaque. These six types cover the range of signage scales necessary for advertising to different modes of transportation or circulation.
Signage bands should be fairly large in scale, as they are the main means of advertisement, particularly to the passing automobile. Still, the sign should be incorporated into the building's shopfront, typically between the ground floor window lintels and the second floor window sills. The entablature of the shopfront itself is often an appropriate location. There should be one sign band per building frontage, and it may be any length by approximately 2 to 3 feet in height. It should incorporate the color, design and character of the shopfront and should be externally lit.
Blade signs should be relatively small in scale, roughly 4 square feet in size. Blade signs should be two-sided and hung perpendicular to the building frontage, as they are used to advertise to the passing pedestrian. They may encroach into the sidewalk, provided there is appropriate head clearance. Blade signs should be built of solid materials and should not be translucent.
Awning bands, or lettering applied to the loose fringe of an awning, should be simple. Awning bands are meant to advertise to the passing automobile and the pedestrian across the street. The awning itself is meant to draw the pedestrian into the environment of the shop before he or she has stepped through the door. It should extend to as much of the width of the sidewalk as possible without any interference, be open at the ends, and provide appropriate head clearance. In other words, the awning should be functional and not simply decorative. Awnings should be straight and should not be internally lit, both common mistakes.
Window logos, inscribed or painted on the inside of storefront windows, advertise to the passing pedestrian. They should be relatively small in scale, so as not to obstruct the pedestrian's view into the shop or the owner's view out of the shop. Window logos should be clean and elegant, contributing to the storefront as a whole.
Postal numbers should be relatively small in scale and applied to or integrated into a building's entrance. Postal numbers are mainly for the use of the pedestrian, specifically the postal worker. But the numbers should also be located so that they are available to a pedestrian or an automobile looking for them.
Memorial plaques identifying the name of the architect and the year of the building's construction are a permanent building demarcation. A plaque should be permanently affixed to or incorporated into the building, in conspicuous locations.
Other elements, such as external signage lighting, neon signs within storefronts, low-level string bulbs hung from exterior architectural elements, or holiday banners, are permissible. But they should be used with discretion, and they should be well maintained. Quite often, a community's architectural review committee decides rules concerning more minor elements. As with all elements of signage, good taste is the key to a beautiful, integrated shopfront.