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Signs speak.

signs and landscape designToo many signs get annoying and distracting. Loud, intrusive signs are unpleasant. Signs with tiny fonts and lots of words are ignored. Ugly, chaotic signs cause the eye to glaze over. The more attractive the sign, the more attention it will receive. When you design a sign, think about how it will deliver its message.

Wording must be concise. Huge billboards, in order to be read, must have eight or fewer words. The most important part of sign design is the scale of the lettering. Letters should be a minimum of one inch tall for every forty feet away from the viewer, in order to be legible. The letters on typical interstate overhead signs are almost two feet tall!

When you are designing a sign, use the highest quality lettering you can find. Inexpensive wood cutouts and characters will become an embarrassment as they age. Graphic environmentalists study for hours and hours over font styles to get effective results. You should, too.

Gateway signage for communities should not be used to advertise every local civic group and industry in town. Just say, “Welcome,” and let the people who live there do the economic development educational pitch. A tasteful and colorful landscape will do much more positive advertising than a collection of logos hanging on a chain link fence.


Advertising on roadsides must comply with local and state laws. The federal highway Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) sets the rules for traffic signs. The Highway Beautification Act and state departments of transportation rules set the specific requirements for outdoor advertising. These are not rules you can break, ever.

State encroachment permit reviews for your roadside landscape project proposals will block use of vegetation that will obscure billboards. There are many states with laws that even allow legitimate removal of trees in public rights of way in front of outdoor advertising. The political lobbying is powerful. Your best bet is to avoid, entirely, designing any landscape plan with trees in front of signs. If you design a landscape with trees that obscure a billboard or advertising sign, be prepared for the vegetation to “mysteriously” disappear, sometimes in the night on a weekend. It is something you cannot fight.

Wayfinding and Interpretive Signs

Wayfinding signs are increasingly important as the population gets older. Efficient navigation of unfamiliar places is done with good signage. Good wayfinding uses themed visual cues to help people go from one place to another. Wayfinding has improved tremendously since the seventies. Before then, I suppose people stayed at home more! The trend now is to provide signs that both local and international visitors can comprehend, heavy on graphics.

Interpretive signs are used at parks and on trails to educate and direct visitors. They need to be weatherproof, and they need to convey a lot of information on a single square space. The copy may be designed by the client for use on the structure you design.

If signs are your passion, you may want to study environmental graphic design as a specialty. It is a narrow field. It requires a special sense of proportion and spatial smartness, and, of course, a love for fonts!  

Signs and Landscape Design