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Sign Code Update: Finding the Sweet Spot between Flexibility & Clutter Management

Image courtesy of Melissa.

MRSC Advisor Joe Tovar, FAICP, Tovar Planning, contributed to this post.

After complaints from the local business community, the City of Lacey reached out for help to update their code. Lacey adopted a relatively strict sign code in 1997 to transition Lacey’s image from its strip commercial past towards the community’s new vision. While the strict sign code achieved the desired results, it made for designs that were perceived as restrictive and sterile. The community desired to enhance the visual character of the community and felt that signage played an important part. My firm, MAKERS, and Joe Tovar were hired in early 2014 to help update the code. The process and outcomes of updating the code provide tools and approaches that may be useful for many of Washington’s cities and counties.
At the outset, city staff gave us a list of “Issues and Ideas” to be addressed in the update. Some of these issues included:

  • Resolve the lack of business identification for storefronts set back from streets, obscured by other buildings in front, or not visible from fronting street.
  • Address signage needs according to street frontage.
  • Address signage needs according to district.
  • Discuss the appropriate provisions for electronic readerboard signs.
  • Address sign design and architectural character.
  • Address temporary signage.

City staff assembled a citizen’s advisory committee comprised of public officials, concerned citizens, business owners, a local college student, chamber of commerce representatives, and (most fortunately) a local sign designer to assist in addressing this list. We met with the group seven times (including workshops) over nine months to discuss the sign issues in depth, review concepts and drafts, and ultimately forward recommendations to the planning commission and city council.  The city council adopted the new regulations in January of this year.

Lacey’s Pacific Avenue circa 1974.


Form-Based Approach

Early on, Joe and I suggested a form-based approach to consider different sets of standards depending on the context of the street or district. This approach places more emphasis on the physical form (e.g., shape, scale, placement, or orientation) of buildings and signs and other key architectural details (e.g., materials, colors, and lighting) over simplistic sign size requirements that apply to all commercial areas.

A form-based approach is context sensitive.  It focuses not just on the design of individual buildings or signs, but factors in the context of adjacent buildings, parking areas, trees, fronting sidewalks and streets.  Context sensitive sign regulations can achieve more effective business identification, reduce visual clutter, improve orientation, and foster a sense of place.  The following examples demonstrate some of these differences.

These examples show how a sign’s physical form (e.g., individual channel letters vs. a cabinet) and placement (e.g., monument vs. pole mounted) can better reflect building and site context. The result achieves visibility for individual businesses within the landscape that is clear, coordinated, and place-specific rather than fragmented and anonymous.

Examining the Issues and Approach with the Committee

During three workshops that examined the form-based approach and various sign code issues with the committee, there was general agreement that the sign ordinance should include some form of clutter management to improve the visibility and appearance of signs by limiting the amount of information overload to motorists. We discussed the visual limitations of signs based on the speed at which motorist move and reviewed the street graphics approach that other cities across the country have adopted to address clutter. In these examples, we found a broad range of limits placed on the number of items of information, syllables, size and style of fonts, and sign/letter color.


23 words 11 words 13 words
2 logos No logos 4 logos/graphics
12 broken planes 7 broken planes 5 broken planes
56 syllables 24 syllables 13 sybllables
3 sets of numbers    

Examining sign examples and measuring the amount and type of information.

Committee members had a robust discussion on the level of clutter management regulations. For example, they felt that the code should address the items of information, but that font styles and other more intricate details of what makes a sign effective might come from a handout made available from the local business association or chamber.

Committee members and other workshop participants discuss clutter management concepts and other sign code proposals.

There was also support for providing staff with flexibility in administering the code in order to account for unique circumstances or challenges. Our approach was two-pronged: first, create clear and illustrated standards for sign size, placement, and information load – second, give city staff administrative discretion to depart from the code where circumstances warrant.

Clutter Management Solution

Ultimately, the committee preferred simple solutions that were easy to understand and administer:

  1. The key principle is that a motorist’s ability to see and comprehend a sign message is related not only to the size and placement of the sign, but also the speed of the vehicle. Hence, the faster the speed, the less information motorists can absorb. Our approach was to scale the amount of information permitted on a sign to the posted speed limit of the serving street.
  2. Each word of a business name counts as one item of information, regardless of the number of letters or syllables in the name. Hence, JONES HARDWARE and GILBERTSON’S HARDWARE are both two items of information. It did not seem fair to put businesses at a disadvantage for having longer names.
  3. Any other words on the sign face would be counted in the same manner to keep things simple.
  4. Some business signs list phone numbers (which seems less and less necessary with each passing day). Each grouping of numbers is considered an item of information (for example, 867-5309 is considered two items of information).
  5. Each logo, symbol, or shape would be counted as one item of information.
  6. As a way to foster neighborhood identity, shopping center names not related to an individual business are exempt from the information limit provisions.

Illustrating signs that conform to the sign information allowance provisions.

The limits of information provided in the table below are based on the corresponding speed limit.

  Sign Information Allowance
  Sign Area
Speed Limit Up to 24sf 24-35.9sf 36-49.9sf 50-80sf 80sf+
25 mph 18 20 22 26 30
30 mph 14 16 20 22 25
35 mph 12 14 16 18 20
40 mph 10 11 12 14 15
Freeway 10 10 10 10 10

Note that departures are allowed to the standards above. The community development director can allow up to 33 percent more pieces of information on a sign provided the applicant demonstrates that the design of the sign in its context, is legible and successfully employs techniques to minimize visual clutter.

A Collection of Tools Working Together

It was particularly important for committee members to see the sign code tools working together to achieve goals for business visibility and community character. Below are other notable concepts that were approved by the committee and ultimately, the Lacey City Council:

Increased flexibility on the number of signs allowed. Committee members found that more freestanding signs along larger street frontages would be acceptable provided they met updated size and design provisions. For properties with more than 500 feet of frontage, additional freestanding signs are permitted per the separation standards below.

Additional Freestanding Sign Standards
Applicable Speed Limit Minimum Separation
Less than 35 mph 150’
35-45 mph 200’

An example of a shopping center with a large frontage where multiple freestanding signs are allowed. The fronting street has a posted speed limit of 35 miles per hour, which requires a minimum sign separation of 200 feet.

Allow bonus sign area for signs that employ shaded, opaque, or dark background and light colored lettering. After examining numerous sign examples through the use of a visual preference survey and feedback from the committee’s sign designer, committee members agreed that measures to encourage dark background colors on signs would be appropriate. Signs with dark background and light letter coloring are commonly thought to be easier to read and less visually intrusive. However, the committee balked at penalizing businesses who chose to use the white or light colored sign background. The solution was to use the existing code as a starting point for maximum sign size.

Maximum freestanding sign height and area
Total ROW Frontage of Parcel (on each streets) Allowable Sign Area (white/very light background*) Allowable Sign Area (shaded or dark background*) Maximum Height (white/very light background*) Maximum Height (shaded or dark background*)
< 200 Feet 24 sq. ft. 40 sq. ft. 6 feet 7 feet
200 - 399 Feet 36 sq. ft. 54 sq. ft. 7 feet 8 feet
400 - 599 Feet 50 sq. ft. 70 sq. ft. 8 feet 9 feet
600 - 799 Feet 60 sq. ft. 80 sq. ft. 8 feet 10 feet
800 - 999 Feet 66 sq. ft. 88 sq. ft. 9 feet 12 feet
1000 Feet and > 72 sq. ft. 96 sq. ft. 9 feet 15 feet

Signs that employ shaded, opaque or dark background and light colored lettering for at least 50 percent of the sign copy are allowed larger sign areas, as they are found to be less visually intrusive than signs incorporating white or very light-colored background. Using a CMYK color chart, signs that employ color numbers that add up to at least 20 (collectively) shall be considered as “shaded”. For example:
C=0, M=0, Y=0, K=20 = Shaded
C=10, M=0, Y=0, K=10 = Shaded
C=10, M=0, Y=0, K=0 = Not considered to be Shaded

The black, dark, and shaded signs above qualify for the extra sign area and height specified in the shaded columns of the Table above. The sign on the right with the white background is allowed (but doesn’t qualify for the “bonus” sign area and height) and subject to the sign area/height in the unshaded columns in the table above.

Updated design and materials standards. For freestanding signs, the provisions emphasize elements that frame the sign on one or both sides, the use of durable high quality materials, and the integration of a top/middle/bottom element. The top could include a distinctive sign cap and/or include the name of a multi-tenant center. The middle can include a consistent framing technique for an individual sign or multiple signs in a multi-tenant center. The bottom could include a distinctive base design with special materials and/or design. See the figures below for examples that meet this requirement. These components are less critical for signs less than six feet tall, and thus exempt from this provision.

 Each of these three signs includes a frame, top/middle/bottom components, and feature high quality materials that relate to and/or complement the design of on-site buildings and/or is coordinated with other site design elements.

 These signs feature substantial framing elements on one side, and thus meet the design provisions herein.

Integration of limited digital signage.  The committee had lively debates about electronic readerboard signage, ultimately agreeing that it would be acceptable if the following conditions are met:

  • Only allow a percentage of freestanding signs to include chargeable digital messaging components.
  • Adopt a 10 second minimum dwell time for images and prohibit video and other moving images.
  • Adopt brightness limits for day and nighttime using common industry lighting measurements (nits).
  • Require a program from applicants describing how the sign will meet applicable standards.

Key Lessons Learned

  • Get a representative mix of stakeholders involved. This is easier said than done, but it can be particularly critical in sign codes (or any other planning or code provision for that matter) that could easily be derailed late in the process by key stakeholders who claim they weren’t notified.
  • Identify and discuss the problems/issues.  Beyond staff’s initial issues statement, our close examination of the issues and challenges were critical in demonstrating that the team was listening to the community and getting a greater understanding of the issues.
  • Consider form-based tools and street graphics approach to address local issues. Our exploration of these tools and concepts with the committee helped to craft solutions that provided appropriate levels of flexibility and specificity where warranted.
  • Use graphic communication. Our use of photo examples, sketches, and other graphics were tremendously helpful to participants in understanding the issues and evaluating various concepts.  We built a simple 3D model (shown above) of one of the notable shopping centers in Lacey as a platform to explore and review concepts – and ultimately illustrate the code itself.

Link to the adopted sign code

To view the finished product, see Ch. 16.75, Lacey Municipal Code, and their sign regulation web page.

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Photo of Bob Bengford

About Bob Bengford

Bob Bengford writes for MRSC as a guest author.

Bob Bengford, AICP, is a Partner with MAKERS architecture, planning and urban design firm. Bob's community design work encompasses all transects, from urban downtowns and transit-oriented development to rural area planning. Bob's specialty has been helping communities craft usable development regulations and design guidelines.

The views expressed in guest author columns represent the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of MRSC.