Strategies to Encourage Attractive On-Premise Signs

The charm and appearance of commercial districts plays an important part in a community’s image. A key element of this image is on-premise signs, or signs located on the site of the business that they advertise. Signs say a lot about a place, yet all too often a community’s image is blighted by on-premise signs that are too large, too tall, too numerous, or poorly located.

A proliferation of on-premise signs can create visual clutter that detracts from the unique character and beauty of a place. However, appealing signs that are compatible with local character contribute to a neighborhood or downtown, cultivating local pride and inviting travelers to stop. Attractive on-premise signs can help encourage citizens and business owners to work together to improve and revitalize local appearance.

An ideal system of on-premise sign control allows each business to communicate its message clearly and at a lower cost without clashing with the visual character of the area. The following strategies can help your community encourage attractive signage and reduce visual clutter.

Community Education

A good way to educate business owners on design options is to hold a sign design workshop. Invite local artists, graphic designers, architects, and planners to the workshop to show merchants how well-designed signs can benefit their businesses. Model signs, artists’ renditions, and computer images can help business owners envision proposed sign changes in their community.

Voluntary Measures

Erecting free model signs in towns along the Hudson River Valley in the early 1990s proved highly effective. The appearance of the new signs encouraged other merchants to follow suit and voluntarily install more attractive signs. Other voluntary actions include distributing design pamphlets to business owners, speaking about good design at local business meetings, and encouraging civic groups to donate time or resources to help merchants create better signs.


Many businesses express concern over sign controls because of the cost of new signs. Incentives are an effective way to offset merchants’ fears and encourage the use of attractive signs. Common incentives include offering free sign design by local artists, creating a grant program to help reduce the cost of new signs, arranging for community groups to assist owners with the removal of old signs and erection of new ones, and creating an awards program to honor excellence in local signage.

Regulatory Measures

Adopt community based design guidelines. People prefer to visit, shop, and live in attractive places. Creating design guidelines developed with the community encourages business owners to erect less intrusive signs that reflect an area’s spirit, contributing to civic pride and helping to revitalize commercial districts. Design guidelines should encourage signs that quickly communicate their message, compliment their surroundings, and enhance the visual character of the community.

Enact strict legislation to regulate on-premise signs. Sign ordinances are the typical method by which communities regulate on-premise signs. Ordinances commonly regulate the height, size, color, type, placement, number, and illumination of signs. Local officials, merchants, and citizens should work together when proposing an ordinance to form a vision for the community based on aesthetics, traffic safety, communication, preservation, and economics.

Offer incentives to supplement your community’s sign ordinance. Ordinance-based incentives encourage business owners to comply rapidly with new regulations. Some effective incentives your town might adopt include:

  • Offer a bonus in the size of new signs if the owners remove nonconforming signs by a certain date;
  • Offer to remove old signs without cost to the merchant in exchange for early compliance;
  • Establish a grant program to help minimize the cost of new signs

Simplifying Sign Ordinance Enforcement

  • Keep regulations clear and simple to make administration easier and to encourage compliance;
  • Create a master record of specific signs that are permitted in various land uses, organized by location, as well as a schedule for removal of nonconforming signs;
  • Assign adequate staff for enforcement;
  • Build a review procedure into the sign regulation process to gather support for sign control; and
  • Encourage citizens to notify the municipality of sign violations.