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An Introduction to Sign Code (Part 1)

William (Bill) Hayes

If you’re new to outdoor business signage, you may also be new to the concept of sign code. The thing is, you really can’t build a sign anywhere without learning about it and reviewing the sign code specific to your business’ location. Initially, upon Googling the term, you may quickly find yourself overwhelmed and confused but don’t worry.

Sign code happens to be a speciality of myself and a handful of other employees here at Signdealz. We conduct a sign code review (sometimes multiple reviews) for each and every customer we work with and in some locations where we’ve seen a lot of business - we’ve come to know the ins and outs of those specific codes really well.

Today I’m going to give you a high level overview of the basics of sign code. At first glance, it may seem like a thicket of confusing terms and guidelines, but we aim to help you understand what it is, why it exists, and how to conduct a sign code review yourself.

What is Sign Code?

The simplest answer to the question, “What is sign code?” is that it’s a compilation of regulations covering the construction, design, and usage of signage for a particular entity. The entity being your business.

You see, installing a sign isn’t as simple as digging a hole in the ground and sticking in a pole for it to sit on and you can’t necessarily go bolting giant letters to your building either. 

What are Sign Code Regulations Designed to Do?

Austin TX_height_setbacks

This document from the city of Austin, Texas dictates the height and setback allowances

Sign code regulations are designed to protect the public. If you’re constructing a sign that might be 60, 80, or even 100 feet up in the air, you want to make sure that they meet existing building code and electrical code and they don’t fall over and potentially injure someone or damage property.

They also help to promote economic stability. Ultimately, your signage is meant to help promote your business and that’s considered a form of free-speech. But, just as there are rules and conventions that guide our speech (one being, for example, that you shouldn’t yell “fire” in a crowded theater), there are also established rules and conventions that are meant to serve the means of the business while protecting people from trying to make their small town look like Las Vegas.

Who Administers Sign Code?

In most cases, your sign code is administered by your city’s building department or your city planning and zoning department. If you’re located in a very small or more rural town, your town’s sign code might actually be administered by a third-party.

What Do Sign Regulations Cover?

Sign code regulations cover just about everything you can think of related to elements of your signage.

  • Height of the sign
  • Setback of your sign from your property line
  • Maximum / Minimum letter heights 
  • Maximum / Minimum sign area
  • Maximum number of signs you can have
  • Types of signs you can have
  • Whether signs require listing with a laboratory like QL
  • Distance between signs
  • Message duration (for example, if you have an LED sign, the length of time that the sign can transition from one message to another)
  • Amount of projection (i.e. if you have a projecting or blade sign that is going over a sidewalk, it might dictate how far that sign can project over the sidewalk)
  • Illumination brightness
  • Sight triangle distance

What is Sight Triangle Distance?

In the case of a ground sign, the sight triangle distance is meant to ensure that the sign is not in the “sight triangle.” When you pull up to an intersection, and you look to your left and right to determine whether or not it’s safe to make a turn, it’s incredibly important that the corners of the intersection are clear of any obstructions.

Each municipality typically sets their own distances to make sure that there isn’t any signage present in that sight triangle which could obstruct drivers’ line of sight.



Feeling confused about Sign Code? | Contact Us Today for help with your local sign code! | Animated image of a dog in an astronaut costume with the text, "I have no idea what I'm doing"

What is Zoning?

The basis of sign code is dictated by zones because every municipality is regulated by zoning. Zoning is what most cities use to govern “uses” of spaces. Zoning can play a role in the allowed sizes of buildings, open spaces, and streets.

Typical Types of Zoning

You may already be familiar with the most common zoning categories, but there are a variety of zoning categories and sub-categories that exist throughout the country. 

Some Examples of Zone Categories and Sub-categories:

  • Zoning Map for City of Boulder, ColoradoResidential
    • High Density
    • Low Density
    • Mixed Use
  • Commercial
    • Mixed Use
    • Urban Edge
    • Urban Mixed
  • Industrial
  • Agricultural
  • Special Districts
    • Power plants
    • Historical districts
    • Sports complexes
    • Airports

Zoning can become incredibly complicated, especially in larger cities, where you might find upwards of 40+ different zones. We’ll go a little further into this in part two of our “Introduction to Sign Code” article.

Why Do We Have Zoning?

Zoning is meant to help separate out uses that are considered incompatible with one another as well as to prevent new developments from disrupting the “character” of certain communities. 

For example, if you live in a community that is made up of single family homes, the development of a large high-rise right in the middle of the neighborhood would be very out of character for that space. 

Another example might be the placement of an agricultural development between two shopping centers. Again, the agricultural development would seem a bit out of place.

Coming Up in Part 2

Because sign code increases in complexity as you move forward from here, we’ve decided to turn these articles into a short series. This article covered the very basic “what” and “why” of sign code but in part 2, we’ll take a look at common zoning issues, things you need to look for while conducting a sign code review, sign plan programs, non-governmental sign code, and where you can find sign code information for your municipality.

William (Bill) Hayes
Written by

William (Bill) Hayes

William (Bill) Hayes, with over 20 years of experience, is deeply committed to assisting small and medium-sized businesses in developing effective B2B advertising strategies. His expertise primarily focuses on integrating on-premise signage solutions with traditional advertising methods. At Signdealz, Hayes leads the charge in innovating advertising tactics aimed at SMEs, concentrating on generating efficient, lead-producing mechanisms that outperform competitors in both immediacy and cost-effectiveness. He spends much of his time working directly with small business owners, guiding them in evaluating locations, advertising strategies, and the necessary systems to attract customers to physical sites. Utilizing a tested network of partners, Hayes plays a crucial role in facilitating the nationwide distribution of signage, underscoring his dedication to enhancing the visibility and growth of businesses across various sectors.

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