The architectural signage industry has taken advantage of a plethora of technological advances that have enabled the design, production and installation of signs that would have been unimaginable just a few decades ago. A vast array of materials and finishes are available for both exterior signage and interior signage, and digital signage technology seems to advance daily. So many signage options are available to help organizations choose just the right solution to build their brand and to assist in wayfinding while also adhering to the latest ADA guidelines concerning people with disabilities. It is easy to forget that signs date back to the days when humans were cave dwellers and that signs have been a fundamental element of trade throughout history.
Known Use of Signs Dates Back to 18,000 BC
The first known use of signs dates back to around 18,000 BC during the Paleolithic Age when signs were used not only for identification and directional communication but also for spiritual purposes. The word sign comes from the ancient word “signum” which means mark or token.
Friends, Romans, Countrymen Lend Me Your Signs!
The Romans and ancient Greeks used signs to promote services that were available at different buildings. An image of a bush was used to indicate a drinking establishment and the still used image of 3 balls denoted a Roman version of a pawnshop. The Romans were the first to employ the use of signs on road systems to indicate distance and direction. One cannot help but wonder the arduous task of measurement that the Romans must have employed two thousand plus years ago to measure distances throughout the vast territory that they controlled.
England’s King Richard III Required Signs on Pubs in 14th Century
During the fourteenth century England’s King Richard III was the first European monarch to require establishments that served alcohol to have signs outside. The legislation was instituted to enable inspectors to be able to easily identify all places serving ale so that they could determine the quality of the ale being served (the water quality from which ale was made varied greatly). No doubt the inspections also made tax collection easier to enforce. Signs on businesses also served as a form of advertising. Soon signs showed up with different logos including lions and dragons and other popular symbols such as shields.
The 1700s Brought The First Sign Ordinances
By the 16th and 17th centuries signs became more elaborate, being made out of hand-carved wood, wrought iron and gold leafing. As cities grew in size signs actually became dangerous as roads were narrow and crowded with people, animals and carts, and signs could easily get in the way as they became detriments to the flow of traffic. The first sign ordinances came into being in the 1700s with both Paris and London requiring signs to be displayed flat against walls. In the 18th century signs started relying heavily on the printing press for producing messages.
With the advent of the industrial revolution and the emergence of the automobile, signage became crucial for safety and as an aid to ever growing hoards of travelers to assist them in finding their way through cities, countries and across continents.
The Birth of Neon Signs
In 1929, a U.S. car salesman ushered in a technology that soon spread around the world when he ordered the first neon sign; signage has never been the same since. The signs of Las Vegas are visible from space as are the bright lights of New York’s Time Square, London’s Piccadilly Circus, along with Tokyo, Rio de Janerio, Shanghai and numerous other cities around the globe. The introduction of neon signs nearly a century ago was revolutionary but today’s ever growing advancement in digital signage is no less of a revolution in today’s signage marketplace.
The early sign-builders could never have envisioned today’s $50 billion a year signage industry with signs now being fabricated from hundreds of different materials in a myriad of colors, textures and finishes. Throughout the signage history signs major use has been their service as a major communication tool. The messaging options continue to expand to serve an ever-growing list of uses with new design choices growing daily.