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Signs are any kind of visual graphics created to display information to a particular audience. This is typically manifested in the form of wayfinding information in places such as streets or inside/outside of buildings.
The French enseigne indicates its essential connection with what is known in English as a flag, and in France, banners not infrequently took the place of signs or sign boards in the Middle Ages. Signs, however, are best known in the form of painted or carved advertisements for shops, inns, etc. They are one of various emblematic methods used from time immemorial for publicly calling attention to the place to which they refer.
The ancient Egyptians and Romans were known to use signs. In ancient Rome, signboards were usually made from stone or terracotta, and Greeks are known to have used signs also. Many Roman examples are preserved, among them the widely-recognized bush to indicate a tavern, from which is derived the proverb "Good wine needs no bush". In some cases, such as the bush, or the three balls of pawnbrokers, certain signs became identified with certain trades and some of these later evolved into trademarks. Other signs can be grouped according to their various origins. Thus, at an early period, the cross or other sign of a religious character was used to attract Christians, whereas the sign of the sun or the moon would serve the same purpose for pagans.
In 1389, King Richard II of England compelled landlords to erect signs outside their premises. The legislation stated "Whosoever shall brew ale in the town with intention of selling it must hang out a sign, otherwise he shall forfeit his ale." This was in order make them easily visible to passing inspectors of the quality of the ale they provided (during this period, drinking water was not always good to drink and ale was the usual replacement). Later, the adaptation of the coats of arms or badges of noble families became common. These would be described by the people without consideration of the language of heraldry, and thus such signs as the Red Lion, the Green Dragon, etc., have become familiar, especially as pub signs.
Large towns where many practiced the same trade, and especially, as was often the case, where these congregated mainly in the same street, simple signs of a trade signs did not provide sufficient distinction. Thus a variety of devices came into existence; sometimes the trader used a rebus on his own name (e.g. two cocks for the name of Cox); sometimes he adopted a figure of an animal or other object, or portrait of a well-known person, which he considered likely to attract attention. Other signs used the common association of two heterogeneous objects, which (apart from those representing a rebus) were in some cases merely a whimsical combination, but in others arose from a popular misconception of the sign itself (e.g. the combination of the leg and star may have originated in a representation of the insignia of the garter), or from corruption in popular speech (e.g. the combination goat and compasses is said by some to be a corruption of God encompasses).
Whereas the use of signs was generally optional, publicans were on a different footing from other traders in this respect. As early as the 14th century there was a law in England compelling them to exhibit signs, for in 1393 the prosecution of a publican for not doing so is recorded. In France edicts were directed to the same end in 1567 and 1577.
Since the object of sign boards was to attract the public, they were often of an elaborate character. Not only were the signs themselves large and sometimes of great artistic merit (especially in the 16th and 17th centuries, when they reached their greatest vogue) but the posts or metal supports protruding from the houses over the street, from which the signs were swung, were often elaborately worked, and many beautiful examples of wrought-iron supports survive both in England and continental Europe.
The signs were a prominent feature of the streets of London at this period. But here and in other large towns they became a danger and a nuisance in the narrow ways. Already in 1669 a royal order had been directed in France against the excessive size of sign boards and their projection too far over the streets. In Paris in 1761 and in London about 1762-1773, laws were introduced which gradually compelled sign boards to be removed or fixed flat against the wall.
For the most part they only survived in connection with inns, for which some of the greatest artists of the time painted sign boards, usually representing the name of the inn. With the gradual abolition of sign boards, the numbering of houses began to be introduced in the early 18th century in London. It had been attempted in Paris as early as 1512, and had become almost universal by the close of the 18th century, though not enforced until 1805. Another important factor was that during the Middle Ages a large percentage of the population would have been illiterate and so pictures were more useful than words as a means of identifying a public house. For this reason there was often no reason to write the establishment's name on the sign and inns opened without a formal written name—the name being derived later from the illustration on the public house's sign. In this sense, a pub sign can be thought of as an early example of visual branding.
During the 19th century, some artists specialized in the painting of signboards, such as the Austro-Hungarian artist Demeter Laccataris. Pending this development, houses which carried on trade at night (e.g. coffee houses, brothels, etc.) had various specific arrangements of lights, and these still survive to some extent, as in the case of doctors dispensaries and chemists shops.
With a 100+ year history, one of the best known signs in the world is the Times Square Ball, located at One Times Square, New York City. It has been featured in countless movies and is used for the New Year's Eve ball-drop ceremonies.
In signs, a pictogram is the image used to convey the message of the sign. In statutory sign pictograms follow a very specific set of colour, shape and sizing rules. In UK and EU signs the width of a sign's pictogram is set at 80% the height of the area it is printed to. In the US, a pictogram that identifies a room or space (such as the gender pictogram on a restroom signs), must follow specific rules. Other pictograms that must comply with rules are the four "Symbols of Accessibility" specified in the ADA Accessibility Guidelines.
For example: On an A4 Portrait UK / EU statutory sign (210 x 297 mm) using 2/3s of its area to display the pictogram 210 w x 198 H (mm) and 1/3 for its text display, the pictogram would be 158.4 mm wide. (80% of 198 mm).
In the US, the pictogram described above would have to be located within a 6-inch-high (150 mm) clear field, with raised characters and braille located beneath the field.
For a pictogram to work it must be instantly recognizable and understood by all. For this to work the image must be kept consistent. In its purest form a pictogram on a sign should be understood even if there is no text present. Following the standard color and shape rules increase the likelihood of a universally understood pictogram and therefore sign.
According to the book "Discovery-Based Retail," signs falls into three groups: decorative, adding eye-pleasing color; informational; or directional, providing guidance.
Function of signs
The main purpose of a signs is to communicate, to convey information such that its receiver can make cognitive decisions based on the information provided. In general, signs can be classified into the following functions:
(a) Information: signs giving information about services and facilities, e.g., maps, directories, instructions for use, etc.
(b) Direction: signs leading to services, facilities, functional spaces and key areas, e.g., sign posts, directional arrows, etc.
(c) Identification: signs indicating services and facilities, e.g., room names & numbers, toilet signs, number of floors, etc.
(d) Safety and Regulatory: signs giving warning or safety instructions, e.g., warning signs, traffic signs, exit signs, rules & regulations, etc.
Use of shape
Signs have very specific shapes. These shapes on signs send messages to the audience and form a set of rules that should be followed when developing signs. The particular shapes may vary among different parts of the world.
Rectangular signs are used to portray information to an audience. This is found in safe condition signs, public information signs, and fire equipment signs. These signs provide information to an audience. They tell where something is, what something is, and similar information.
In contrast, a circular sign is an instruction that must be followed. Both the mandatory and the prohibition signs provide instructions that cannot be ignored.
Finally, there is the triangle or the warning sign. This is used to convey danger. It can also provide information but its primary purpose it to quickly tell you to be aware and careful.
Types of signs:
- Aircraft smoke-formed sign (Skywriting)
- A-frame sign
- Aircraft towed sign
- Architectural Sign/Wayfinding Systems - A unified system of signs for a single facility that aid in wayfinding and identification of specific destinations within the facility. Signs include building and room identification signs, directional and informational signs and regulatory signs. In the US, all such systems must comply with the ADA.
- Banner sign
- Channel letters sign
- Complex outdoor sign, neon and lettering
- Complex outdoor sign, sheet metal with lettering
- Concrete and Cement sign, reversed impression lettering
- Custom-made sign - Signs that are built from scratch to suit a specific requirement presented by a client or a specific project.
- Digital signs on LCD, Plasma, LED or similar forms of display
- Distributor advertising sign, metal, lettered
- Distributor advertising sign, neon
- Electronic sign - A sign system that consists of illuminant advertising media.
- Exterior wall sign, lettered
- Foam sign, lettered
- Handheld sign
- Hanging sign, lettered
- Hanging sign, multi-listing
- Interior wall sign, lettered
- LED sign (light-emitting diodes technology) — LED lighting
- Lettering on glass
- Lettering on glass with goldleaf
- Lettering on vehicle side(s)
- Magnetic sign, industrial equipment, heavy equipment, and vehicles
- MCFT (Modular Curved Frame Technology) — A contemporary fusion between custom-made signs and modular sign systems that features a curved profile.
- Metal sign, box, cast, channel lettered, engraved
- Mural sign
- Neon sign - Electric lighting
- Oilcloth sign, lettered (similar to banner)
- Painted-blimp sign
- Painted sign
- Paper sign, lettered
- Pavement sign
- Plastic sign, lettered or engraved on Acrylic, HDPE, High Density Polyurethane, PVC, Polycarbonate, Polypropylene, Styrene, and other thermoplastics
- Poster (Printmaking)
- Proprietor sign
- Proprietor sign, hanging
- Rooftop sign
- Sample sign
- Showcard sign, lettered
- Silk screen processed sign
- Street sign - signs stamped out of metal with lettering embossed or printed (or both).
- Vacuum formed sign
- Vinyl sticker lettering
- Wood sign, dimensional: engraved, carved, or sandblasted
- Wood sign, MDO panel lettered or painted
- Yard sign or Lawn sign, real estate or political
Light-emitting diode (LED) technology used in signs.
- Manton, Dafydd (2008). Ale and Arty in Sheffield: The Disappearing Art of Pub Signs. Sheffield, England: Arc Publishing and Print. ISBN 978-1906722005.
- David W. Dunlap (17 October 2013). "Tracking ‘Privilege Signs’ as They Vanish". New York Times. Retrieved 17 October 2013.
- Haas, Cynthia Lea (1997). Ghost Signs of Arkansas. University of Arkansas Press. p. 19. ISBN 9781610751698.
- O'Toole, Lawrence (2012). Fading Ads of Philadelphia. History Press. p. 103. ISBN 9781609495435.
- "About the New Year's Eve Ball". Times Square District Management Association. Retrieved 12 July 2012.
- Recommendations on the Transport of Dangerous Goods: Model Regulations. New York: United Nations. 2005. ISBN 978-92-1-139106-0.
- Sutton, James (1965). Signs in Action. London: Studio Vista. OCLC 456695324.
- Wenzel, Patrick (2004). Signage Planning Manual: Planning Aids for the Design of Pedestrian Signage Systems. Hünstetten: P. Wenzel. ISBN 978-3000128646.
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- Reading Signs in English - Interesting Things for ESL Students.
- Function of signage
- International Sign and Printmakers Guild