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UC Hosts Scholarly Signage Conference:
Amidst Downturn, Signage Takes on New Level of Importance to Business...and Academia

Signage is the low-cost, high-value marketing tool for business. As such, it has taken on new importance for businesses, both large and small, during the economic downturn. Researchers are taking note, and the University of Cincinnati will host a national signage conference Oct. 13-15.

Date: 9/11/2009 12:00:00 AM
By: M.B. Reilly
Phone: (513) 556-1824
Photos By: Lisa Britton and provided by Barry Richman

UC ingot   Signs make “cents” for business – and sense for communities.

That’s according to business owners and community administrators alike.

Still, signage as a specific field of study in and of itself has been neglected. That’s why North Carolina small business owner Joe Rickman, who also serves as chair of the national not-for-profit Signage Foundation, Inc., hopes an upcoming conference will begin to change that. The conference is sponsored by the Signage Foundation, with the University of Cincinnati serving as the host site. (The conference will meet at the Kingsgate Marriott Conference Center on UC's campus.)

The 2009 National Signage Research and Education Conference (NSREC) will be held at UC Oct. 13-15, 2009. Participants and presenters from academia and the business world will attend, including faculty and students from UC’s College of Business and UC’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning.  

The event marks the first time since the founding of the Signage Foundation in 2002 that the organization’s annual conference is integrated with the capabilities of a major research university to examine the business, design, technology, planning and legal implications related to signage.

It also signals UC’s commitment to build the nation’s first research center for signage study – with some research already underway at the university.
A sign that spells out Cincinnati at the city's Duke Energy Convention Center. A signage conference is planned for the city in October, held at the University of Cincinnati.

Said Rickman, “This is the first time we are bringing everyone with something to contribute on the topic of signage together. This will serve as our baseline year for moving forward to a national signage code that benefits everyone in the community as well as business.”


And such a research effort couldn’t be better timed since missed opportunities related to signage cost both businesses and their communities. “An effective sign can increase sales volume by 25 percent and even as much as 65 percent in some industries. This directly affects any community’s tax base and job stability and growth,” said Rickman, a 25-year veteran of the retail signage industry.

He added that signage is responsible for bringing in 25-50 percent of new customers into an establishment’s door. Half of all first-time customers stop at a business because they saw the on-premise sign.

The Small Business Administration posts information that supports the value of signage, citing studies indicating that the number of signs at a particular site has a positive impact on both annual sales returns and annual customer transactions.

For instance, one study cited by the SBA found that one additional on-premise sign resulted in an increase in annual sales revenues by nearly 5 percent, and one additional on-premise sign increased annual transactions by nearly 4 percent. Meanwhile, the addition of new signage to previously unsigned buildings and the replacement of existing signage (usually with larger signs) resulted in an average weekly revenue increase of 5 percent. The addition of a pole sign or a plaza-identity sign including the store's name resulted in an average increase in weekly sales of 5-10 percent.

Twenty-five year business veteran Jim Torcivia, vice president of development for the national store and restaurant chain, Cracker Barrel, supported the figures offered by Rickman of the Signage Foundation.

Cracker Barrel has nearly 600 store and restaurant locations nationwide and is one of the few companies that carefully tests its signage positioning and has a full-time national identity manager whose sole responsibility is the company’s signage engineering, construction, manufacturing, placement and adherence to code.

Torcivia said, “In business, your sign is everything. That’s especially true for any business – small or large – that is not placed in front of a major traffic generator (such as a location in a busy mall or intersection). Most businesses are not doing any kind of research into signage, but it can make or break them.”

Torvicia added that signage location and positioning are so important to Cracker Barrel that the company has actually walked away from proposed locations because of municipal signage restrictions: “There was a community in Missouri where we couldn’t get the signage we wanted. A different town provided the variance we needed for our sign, and that’s where we located. That’s an indication of how much we’ve come to recognize the value of signage.”


Alan Weinstein, co-author of a new national model signage code and a long-time signage researcher as well as professor and director of the Law & Public Policy Program at Cleveland State University, affirmed, “Signage is critical for the independent business that is without the support of national or international signage. Any three-year-old will recognize a McDonald’s sign because of global advertising. An independent business doesn’t have that advantage. Their sign will make or break them.”

One-time planning practitioner Menelaos Triantafillou, UC associate professor of planning, agreed. As a planning practitioner, Triantafillou has years of experience, where he developed signage regulations for municipalities and reviewed signage applications made by small businesses.

“For a small business, signage is extremely important. It’s the most important way that a small business identifies itself,” he said.

Cincinnati small business owner Barry Richman, owner of MotorTime Auto Sales, Inc., agreed. His business benefits from a sign that is nationally unique: a 50-foot-tall, sheet-metal American Indian that has stood sentry over the auto business since 1954.
MotorTime sign
Barry Richman's sign is so valuable to his business that he has refused to sell it, even after receiving substantial offers for the sign.

Said Richman, “From what I understand, there were only two of these signs made in 1954, and the other one was shipped to the western U.S. The sign is big, colorful and unique. That’s a big plus to my business.”

First, the sign is prefect for providing directions for most of his customers who come to his dealership from a 100-mile radius. Richman has even trademarked his directional slogan: “Where Paddock Meets Vine at the Big Indian Sign.” (Paddock Road and Vine Street constitute the intersection in front of MotorTime.)

Second, the longevity of the sign marks his business as a trustworthy one. He explained, “People know that the sign has been here a long time, so they know the car business is a longstanding one. I’ll be here for their future needs. The sign as a symbol of the business’ consistency and stability has been especially valuable in this crazy and unpredictable economy.”

He finished, “I’ve even had an offer for the sign that went into the tens of thousands of dollars, but I wouldn’t sell. It means too much to the community.”


Weinstein said that the October 2009 conference at UC is well timed given how the current economic climate is changing communities’ attitudes related to signage.

He is in the process of conducting his fourth national survey of municipal sign codes on behalf of the Outdoor Advertising Association of America. Past surveys of nearly 300 U.S. cities has generally found “sign codes that are overly restrictive,” Weinstein explained, adding that the current economy may be influencing communities to better appreciate both the necessity and benefits of signage.

“Right now, I’m seeing anecdotal information dealing with signage regulation and how local governments are revising sign codes to be a little more open because these same communities are seeing businesses fail,” he stated.


The UC signage conference and future research plans could affect the 90,000 U.S. cities, towns and jurisdictions that currently govern signage via ordinances. Currently, most communities base signage codes on what a neighboring community does. There has never been any comprehensive examination of what works best.

Said Rickman, “Frankly, right now, signage is overlooked until it’s defined as a ‘problem’ in some way. But, it’s not a problem. It’s not a question of signage OR trees. Signage is an opportunity for communities. Business revenues equal tax base. Neglecting signage is a self-inflicted wound.”

Presentation at the conference include  

  • Presentation of a model national signage code by Alan Weinstein, director, Law and Public Policy Program, Cleveland State University, and David Hartt, president, DB Hartt, Inc., Cleveland.
  • Views of how that code would play out in a real community: Anderson Township in Cincinnati. Application of the code by Menelaos Triantafillou, UC associate professor of planning, and by UC planning students.
  • A comprehensive review of existing research on signs, from 1950 to the present, by Joan Christodoulou, former UC graduate student in planning.
  • Future trends in signage technology and the expected impact on business revenue by Brian Linzie, senior human factors engineer, 3M Commercial Graphics Center, St. Paul, Minn.
  • Signage as marketing communications by James Kellaris, James S. Womack/Gemini Chair of Signage and Visual Marketing at UC. This will be the keynote address of the conference.
  • Signage defines a community by Mark Olinger, director, Department of Planning & Community & Economic Development, City of Madison, Wis.
  • Integrating signage, design, architecture, marketing and branding by Peter Dixon, senior partner and creative director, Prophet, Inc., New York City, and Hank Hildebrandt, professor in UC’s School of Architecture and Interior Design.
  • UC’s commitment to build the nation’s first research center for signage study by Robert Probst, dean, UC’s nationally ranked College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning (DAAP). Participating in this session with Probst will be James Weinel, board chairman, Gemini, Inc., the largest producer of dimensional letters and logos in the world, and Fred Oss, president of Gemini, Inc.