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ISA Position Statements

ISA knows regulations and ordinances can keep a community safe. It has created positions related to key aspects of effective signage and work to promote a reasonable regulatory environment.


David Hickey
VP, Advocacy

Aesthetics and On-Premise Signs

One of the main justifications that localities cite for their sign codes is their community’s appearance, or aesthetics. Many sign code officials have been taught to view on-premise signs as unsightly. Some courts have been permissive in allowing local officials to base their restrictive local building ordinances on reasons of aesthetics.

ISA believes that local officials may have some legal authority to regulate the aesthetic appearance of their communities, as established by U.S. Supreme Court precedent. However, ISA also believes that while this authority to regulate extends to the physical appearance of homes, trees, etc., it does not extend without limit to subjects which have constitutional rights, such as the commercial speech embodied in on-premise signs.

ISA believes that the combination of words, symbols, colors, fonts, shapes, textures, etc, on commercial on-premise signs present a unique and recognizable message that is valuable to end users and potential customers. ISA also believes that the total presentation of a sign is its message, and aesthetic restrictions that limit this presentation could result in the loss of creative expression, loss of conspicuity and readability, and even result in de facto censorship of the commercial message.

ISA believes that a good business will want to have an aesthetically pleasing sign in order to attract customers. ISA also believes that communities and businesses should work together to establish design review standards that promote well-designed and effective signs without censoring speech.


ISA believes that the amortization of on-premise signs violates the letter and spirit of the United States Constitution and various state constitutions, which provide that no person shall be “deprived of life, liberty or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” ISA believes that amortization of on-premise signs is based on flawed reasoning; specifically, that that the sole economic value of signs is the cost of purchasing and installing them, and that over a specific period of years the business owner has depreciated out the cost of buying and erecting their sign and has therefore already recovered the entire value of the sign.

Bringing Non-Conforming Signs into Compliance

ISA believes that local regulations requiring nonconforming signs be brought into compliance with current standards are unreasonable. In most states, legal nonconforming structures on private property are protected against discontinuance by state statute or judicial precedent. Municipalities should write regulatory language that distinguishes between alterations that might enlarge or otherwise transform an existing sign and those improvements that do not expand the size or visual impact.

ISA also believes that any regulations must account for the existing base of on-premises signs already installed in the community. Many existing signs will remain for years after new regulations are enacted. Consideration needs to be given to the challenges of compliance with any new standards, as well as the costs associated with upgrading a sign into conformance.

Digital Signs and FCC Regulations

ISA believes that the sign and graphics industry must be in compliance with all relevant federal laws, including regulations from the U. S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

The FCC is responsible for the management of our country’s wireless spectrum, and protects it against “radio and broadcast pollution” by regulating electromagnetic noise sources. The emissions from LED light sources in digital signs can, if not in compliance with FCC regulations, interfere with the wireless spectrum and create problems with commercial and public wireless devices. 

If a digital sign is found to cause interference to the wireless spectrum, the sign’s owner or manufacturer may have to pay a fine. If the sign cannot be brought into compliance, it can no longer be used. Other penalties may be included for willful violation of the FCC’s rules or citations.

Digital signs sold in the U.S. must be tested by accredited laboratories under normal operating conditions to demonstrate compliance with FCC rules. Testing by a North American, FCC certified testing facility is strongly recommended. Sign industry stakeholders should consult with their attorneys to determine the applicable requirements under U.S. law for their products and services, and for advice on how to work with your manufacturer/supplier to ensure compliance.

ISA provides communications, resources and education to help ensure that the sign industry is in full compliance with FCC regulations.

ISA believes that being in full compliance with FCC regulations will ensure proper allocation and use of the wireless spectrum, enhance the reputation of the sign industry, help sign industry stakeholders and end users avoid costly fines, and make digital signs as effective as possible.

Digital Sign Security

ISA believes sign users and operators need to actively manage the security of their electronic message centers (EMCs) and digital signs. To assist with protection of digital signs, sign companies should fully educate their customers and promote responsible use of important security procedures.

Replacement of factory preset passwords and authorization codes – Manufacturers usually ship electronic message centers and other digital signage with preloaded passwords. Upon installation, sign users need to create personalized codes and passwords that are unique to that sign or signage network. Support staff and representatives from manufacturers and sign companies can assist a novice sign user in configuring these settings.

Limit access to computers and servers used for content management – Even the most sophisticated security can be undermined if sign users leave terminals unsecured or allow staff access to update content without proper approvals.

Establish secure password requirements for all authorized users of the content management system – A well-designed security system involves an administrator issuing and cancelling passwords whenever needed. Additionally, the assignment of user roles and privileges may determine if additional approvals are required before content can be displayed.

Regular review of security protocols and updates of passwords – Over the lifetime of an EMC, the relative strength of a digital sign’s security may change. The sign user, working with their sign company and manufacturer’s support staff, should review existing protections and the need for any changes. Additionally, periodic updates of passwords and authorization protocols should be implemented, especially if employee turnover has resulted in security data being known to ex-employees.

ISA believes that most on-premise EMCs and digital signs are designed and deployed with adequate and appropriate security protections installed. Furthermore, the software and operator controls—used properly—will protect the sign user from unauthorized access to the device.

Driver Distraction & Signs

ISA believes on-premise signs are often subject to numerous regulatory controls designed to limit their perceived negative impact on motorists. For example, federal highway policy reserves the right-of-way, including the road shoulder, the median, and the air above the roadway, exclusively for traffic control devices and not on-premise signs. In addition, federal, state, and local regulations also often restrict the location of on-premise signs near the visibility triangle adjacent to intersections and driveways.

Yet no research or evidence is available that demonstrates a causal link between well-designed, effectively placed on-premise signs and dangerous driver distraction or a decrease in traffic safety. In fact, studies prove that signs must be of certain minimum sizes in order to be sufficiently visible to motorists.

ISA believes that signs serve a vital function in assisting drivers to navigate the visual environment. Using on-premise signs to easily locate a destination helps drivers safely navigate the roadway and promote a more orderly traffic environment. Because drivers rely on on-premise signs to serve a vital wayfinding function, signs designed with proper size, height, placement, and lighting with correct readability and conspicuity can significantly promote safe driver behavior and traffic conditions.

Electrical Components Upgrade

ISA believes owners and users of electric signs should be able to maintain, upgrade and improve the components within existing signs and displays. State and local regulations should distinguish between alterations that might enlarge or otherwise transform an existing sign and those improvements that do not expand the size or visual impact. When signs are electrically or structurally upgraded, but not expanded, local regulations should not require additional compliance with zoning permitting approval.

Energy Efficiency – Sign users, often motivated by electric utility rebates and/or tax incentives, have pushed electrical contractors to reduce power consumption in signs and lighting fixtures. As solid-state lighting technology has matured, the viability of retrofitting LEDs into a sign cabinet originally designed to house fluorescent bulbs or neon tubes has increased. At the same time, government phase-outs have eliminated the markets for less-efficient magnetic sign ballasts and incandescent light bulbs.

Environmental Impact – In some places, sign users are unable to obtain replacement parts for electric sign components because state and federal regulations have prevented some older products from being manufactured or sold. In some states, controls on mercury-added products may affect some fluorescent bulbs, high-intensity discharge lamps, and neon tubes. Other environmental regulations may affect the handling or disposal of chemicals in older sign ballasts.

Ease of Maintenance – Many signs are placed in locations that are inaccessible for easy servicing or maintenance. In these locations, the costs of building a scaffold or using a mobile crane may encourage the replacement of electrical components with alternatives less likely to require frequent maintenance. In other signs, the fragility of exposed glass and neon lamps to hail and/or rock-wielding vandals may encourage redesign reduce the need for frequent replacement of broken components.

ISA believes that sign users should be encouraged to prolong the effective lifespan of their signs through regular maintenance and replacement of electrical components. If municipal regulations prevent or discourage changes made to on-premise electric signs, those regulations will serve to increase the costs of doing business in that community and will function as a disincentive to reinvest in that business location. ISA believes that local governments should try to encourage local businesses to reinvest in and adaptively reuse their signs so that they don’t become nonconforming, and so sign users aren’t discouraged from upgrading and improving their on-premise electric signs.

Electric Sign Illumination

ISA believes any regulations enacted on a municipal or statewide level designed to standardize electric sign illumination must begin with an understanding that the design and construction methods used to build electric signs are not universal. Variations in sign area, cabinet depth, sign face variables, source of illumination, and use of electrical components also are based on outside considerations such as local sign ordinances, landlord restrictions, and corporate branding guidelines that may further discourage standardized sign design and construction.

ISA believes that any regulations that are enacted must be written with the specific focus on illuminated signs and not just applied from rules designed for other forms of general illumination. These regulations must have effective design-based recommendations with defensible research as its base.

On-Premise Signs are Not Standardized – The primary design consideration for on-premise signs is the size restrictions specified in the local sign regulations. Even when a business wants to install identical signage at multiple locations, each municipality is likely to prescribe differing size, height, and setback requirements. Also, unique site-specific characteristics may present visibility challenges that require additional design changes.

Illumination Sources Vary – Based on the shape and size of a sign, the source of illumination may be LED, fluorescent lamps, neon, HID lamps, etc. Depending on the characteristics of that specific light source and its power supplies, each sign may or may not be dimmable or able to adjust other characteristics of its operation.

General Illumination Standards are Inappropriate for Signs – General illumination is designed to project a light up onto another surface (roadways, façades, and parking lots). Internal sign illumination is designed and optimized to light itself from within. Many general illumination lighting standards are based on the overall lumens per site (or per square foot), adding together all light sources present. Because signs communicate and have special constitutional protections as speech, evaluating the relative priority of sign illumination versus other general illumination is a complex exercise that merits additional consideration.

Accommodating Nonconforming Signs – Any regulations must account for the existing base of on-premise signs already installed in the community. Many existing signs will remain for years after new regulations are enacted. Consideration needs to be given to the challenges of compliance with any new standards, as well as the costs associated with upgrading a sign into conformance.

Field Measurement Must Be Replicable – Traditionally, sign brightness has been regulated through “nuisance” provisions of zoning authority. Typically, the evaluation of a “nuisance” has been at the discretion of the Authority Having Jurisdiction. Under the principles of preventing “prior restraints” on speech by government, there are limits to discretion in the evaluation of signs; there must be guidance to making that determination. Therefore, it is crucial that objective performance standards are made available in order to ensure that outside individuals can verify a sign’s compliance with any local regulations.

Communities should get input from the sign industry and sign users during the development of sign lighting ordinances, general outdoor lighting ordinances, and other environmental aspects affecting illuminated signage. This is critical to develop sign lighting regulations that work and that enable sign users to effectively use their illuminated signage to identify and advertise their businesses.

Illegal Signs

ISA believes that if cities develop and properly enforce reasonable sign codes, then “sign clutter” or other problems caused by illegal signs would decrease significantly.

ISA supports proper licensing of sign contractors by municipal and state jurisdictions. Additionally, ISA’s membership comprises professional sign companies that understand and comply with requirements to obtain local permits prior to the erection of signs.

Furthermore, regional sign associations affiliated with ISA actively monitor and report unlicensed companies that sometimes operate in their home territories. Because the vast majority of illegal signs are not erected by licensed sign companies, we believe that enacting more stringent sign codes represents an inappropriate response to this problem.

Illumination in Model Codes

ISA believes that model code language needs to recognize that the unique purpose of commercial signage is for advertising, which differentiates it among the many structures and energy uses that may be present on a property. When language addressing signage is included in model codes, the standards developing organizations should consider that signs function at times other than during hours of operation or when tenant spaces are occupied.

ISA further believes that when states or municipalities adopt a model code containing energy efficiency regulations that limits the hours of illumination, municipalities should adopt local ordinances that protect the right of businesses and institutions to operate their electric signs. These ordinances should allow for sign to operate during all reasonable times of pedestrian and vehicular travel, even if more than one hour after facility operations end or before facility operations begin.

Illumination Improving Sign Visibility

ISA believes that luminance is a key technical consideration in optimizing the visibility, conspicuity and legibility of on-premises signs. In nighttime conditions, illuminated signs provide greater conspicuity and legibility of the message. In addition, the contrast between an illuminated sign and the night sky or a dark building façade increases contrast, which further improves visibility.

ISA further believes that illuminated signage with a high luminance contrast strongly correlates with a decrease in visual acquisition time needed to recognize and understand an on-premise sign’s message at night. Properly illuminated on-premise signs allow viewers to detect and respond without diverting attention away from the operational task of driving.

ISA also believes that sign regulations should encourage the use of illuminated on-premise signs as a means of providing an easily indexed nighttime visual environment for drivers and pedestrians.

Inspections & Certifications

ISA believes that municipalities should not impose illumination and energy efficiency regulations unless it can be proven that the benefits outweigh the costs of doing so. When a municipality imposes certification requirements, they must be technically feasible and compliance needs to be timely in order to ensure that local business customers can receive their signs with unnecessary delays or additional fees.

Every municipality must assess its technical knowledge, staffing capacity, and willingness to enforce any illumination or energy efficiency regulations. Sign contractors should not be required to provide certifications that fall outside the purview of their license.

Internally Illuminated Signs

ISA believes attempts have been made by certain jurisdictions to regulate internally illuminated signs in the same manner as exterior lighting, such as that which illuminates roads and parking lots. However, these initiatives do not take into account that illuminated signs are messaging devices and the essential use of lighting is incidental to their core function. This important distinction entails certain unique requirements and First Amendment protections for signs.

ISA believes that internally illuminated signs have unique requirements not shared by fixtures designed for exterior lighting applications. These unique requirements include the need for conspicuity and readability, and protection of commercial and non-commercial speech. Therefore, regulatory attempts to restrict the operation or dispersion of light from internally illuminated signs defeat their core function and constitute de facto censorship of constitutionally protected speech.

ISA also believes that internally illuminated signs are very effective in promoting safer driving conditions and more successful local economies at night due to their increased conspicuity and readability when it is dark outside.

ISA supports efforts which take into account the unique function and characteristics of internally illuminated signs when drafting regulations. Sign code regulations dealing with internally illuminated signs need to support conspicuity, readability and protected First Amendment speech rights.

Federal Lanham Trademark Act

ISA believes that trademark usage plays a vital role in our consumer economy, as it allows consumers – at a glance – to form a familiar mental association with known information.

The visibility, identity and brand recognition afforded by trademarked logos on signs plays a powerful role in consumer choice and the success of a business. It is difficult for a business to maintain its brand identity if a community required all business signage to look the same. This sort of regulation diminishes the importance that signs bring to the value of small businesses, restricts the message embodied in the overall presentation of the sign, unduly burdens consumer identification and choice, undermines the investment-backed expectations of mark holders, and subsequently limits the ability of businesses to operate to their full economic potential. It also could raise significant implications under First Amendment content neutrality requirements. With annual retail sales by franchised businesses estimated by the International Franchise Association to be $1 trillion, the financial implications of such regulations can be dire.

Highway Beautification Act and On-Premise Signs

The Highway Beautification Act (23 USC 131) of 1965 calls for control of outdoor advertising or billboards within 660 feet of the nation’s Interstate Highway System and the existing federal-aid primary highway system.

Since its passage, the Highway Beautification Act has been consistently interpreted as exempting on-premise signs under its jurisdiction. However, in recent years a few state and federal officials have mistakenly sought to regulate on-premise signs using the Act as justification.

The Highway Beautification Act cannot be used as justification for government officials to regulate on-premise signs. The HBA does not apply to all signs within 660 feet of a primary aid highway or interstate system. 23 USC 131(c)(2) and 23 USC 131(c)(3) of the Act provide exceptions for on-premise signs, including for on-premise electronic changeable message signs. It was never the legislative intent of the drafters of the Highway Beautification Act or its subsequent amendments to place on-premise signs under any federal control.


Letter Size Standards

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ISA believes that when communities establish sign size standards, they should ensure that the words and symbols comprising the message on the sign are large enough to be visible and readable to passing motorists.

Most communities have rules specifying the size of on-premise signs. However, those ordinances typically restrict only the overall area of the entire sign. But, the effectiveness of a sign depends more on the legibility of the copy on the sign than on the size of the overall sign itself. Attractive, well-designed signs need to consider how the words and symbols that comprise the primary copy fit within that area.

The minimum size of the text and/or symbols should be considered as a function of road speed and the position of the sign relative to the target viewing location. When a sign code overly restricts the ability of a business to display its message such that it cannot be read and understood, it is reducing the safety of the driving environment and limiting commercial speech rights.

Signs that are designed to be viewed by pedestrians only need to be legible at very short distances and do not require large letter heights. But for the many on-premise signs that are designed and placed to be viewed by passing motorists, it is critically important that their letters and symbols are large enough to be safely visible and able to effectively communicate the message.

Maintenance & Permitting Approvals

ISA believes that owners and users of electric signs should be able to maintain, upgrade and improve the components within existing signs and displays. ISA also believes that state and local regulations should distinguish between alterations that might enlarge or otherwise transform an existing sign and those improvements that do not expand the size or visual impact. When signs are electrically or structurally upgraded, but not expanded, local regulations should not require additional compliance with zoning permitting approval.

ISA also believes that when local zoning regulations interfere with electrical service and maintenance, a portion of electric sign maintenance is either curtailed or occurs outside the oversight of electrical inspectors. Considering ISA’s longstanding relationship with standards setting organizations, ISA believes that local regulations should encourage high-quality service that is consistent with a high level of electric sign safety.

Mandating Technologies & Light Sources

ISA believes that municipalities should not regulate or impose controls over the internal components of electric signs. When individual communities develop their own regulations, the result often conflicts with national or statewide controls that have emerged from years of research and an open rulemaking process inclusive of many stakeholders.

ISA further believes that knowledgeable sign electricians and electrical engineers are the individuals best qualified to design and build electric signs from components capable of meeting performance, efficiency, and safety standards. Requiring through specification that these electricians and engineers use components or designs that may differ from those widely-used and tested elsewhere could result in unintentional noncompliance with the local requirements.

Mandatory Lighting Restrictions

ISA disagrees that nighttime illumination is necessarily harmful and should always be restricted without regard for the nature of the illumination. Lighting restrictions may seriously impact a community’s economic health when applied to signage. Forcing cities and businesses to change all lighting – including the illumination required for some types of signage– may increase costs for taxpayers and customers. Redesign, retro-fitting of sign structures or elimination of lighting fixtures, and capital expense of new products will negatively impact not only the business that must bear this burden, but it can negatively impact on the sign’s ability to communicate clearly. Signs have unique illumination properties that can not be regulated as “light sources.”

The reduction of illumination in signs often results in a lack of conspicuity and readability, which significantly limits a sign’s message and visibility to potential customers, resulting in effective censorship. Illuminated signs fall under the protections of the First Amendment and consequently can not be restricted like general outdoor nighttime lighting.

Illuminated signs also help enhance public safety at night, as people feel more secure in well-lit public areas. Illuminated signs also help increase public safety by providing effective direction to nighttime motorists in finding their destinations.

ISA supports smarter lighting strategies such as dimming capabilities in on-premise electronic message centers and technology that allows illuminated signs to use light more efficiently.

Mercury-Lamp Recycling

Mercury, in vaporized form, is a critical component of many types of energy efficient lighting, such as fluorescent lamps, compact fluorescent lamps, HID lamps and some colors of hand-fabricated neon tubes. The use of mercury is essential for proper illumination, conspicuity and visibility of neon signs. The International Sign Association (ISA) is firmly committed to environmental quality and to corresponding reductions in the usage and disposal of mercury. At the same time, however, ISA opposes regulations that arbitrarily prohibit or limit the use of mercury in neon signs.

Supporting our commitment to the environment, ISA promotes measures and provides resources that enable our members to properly recycle all types of mercury-added lamps, including neon. These initiatives comprise efforts to increase the recovery of spent mercury lamps and to establish a network of recyclers throughout North America equipped to receive and process lamp wastes in accordance with applicable statutory requirements.

Additionally, ISA is investigating mercury consumption during the life cycles of neon lamps to ensure that mercury usage is limited to the minimum levels appropriate for proper sign operation in a broad range of typical applications. In this way, ISA implements a two-pronged approach to mercury reduction: first, by advocating the use of accurate control systems for mercury dosage during fabrication of neon tubing and second, by promoting recycling of all mercury lamp wastes at the end of product lifetimes.

Because a substantial percentage of obsolete, electric signs are recovered intact by sign companies from retail and commercial sites, ISA has the capability to achieve significant improvements in the industry’s overall recycling of mercury lamp wastes. For this reason, ISA’s strong commitment to recycling promises to yield substantial benefits to the environment and without compromising the inherent value of signs as essential forms of communication.

On-Premise EMCs Having Off-Premise Messages

An on-premise sign is a communication device whose message and design relate to a business, an event, goods, profession or service being conducted, sold, or offered at the same location as where the sign is erected. An off-premise sign is any sign that is not appurtenant to the use of the property, a product sold, or the sale or lease of the property on which it is displayed and that does not identify the place of business as purveyor of the merchandise, services, etc. advertised upon the sign.

When an on-premise EMC is programmed to include among its several messages one that advertises a business, an event, goods, profession or service being conducted, sold, or offered at a different location from where the sign is erected, it may be viewed by some government officials as being an off-premise sign, and need to be permitted and regulated as such. This can have adverse impacts on both the individual sign users as well as other future sign users who will need approval from zoning or permitting authorities.

ISA believes that the messages that should be displayed on signs permitted under on-premise sign regulations should be messages relating to a business, an event, goods, profession or service being conducted, sold, or offered at the same location as where the sign is erected. ISA also believes that on-premise signs should be permitted to display noncommercial messages without risk of losing their on-premise status or exemption from outdoor advertising restrictions.

On-Premise Sign Size Standards

Studies and research demonstrate that signs must be of certain minimum sizes in order to be sufficiently visible to motorists. Otherwise, inadequately-sized signs can create unsafe driving conditions. As noted in a 1998 study by Richard N. Schwab, a former Federal Highway Administration program manager for research on highway visibility and night driving safety: “Traffic safety is not jeopardized by the sign itself or some sort of stimulus overload; instead the culprit is inadequate sign size or lighting, or inappropriate placement, or a combination of these factors.”

Size standards for signs must be based on various objective factors such as the number of highway lanes, posted speed limits, driver reaction time and the sign’s letter size, color contrast, mounting height, etc.

In order to attract potential customers, the best sign for a small business is one that is visible and legible for people who are driving past the business. Sign codes, therefore, should be based on sign sizes adequate for effective communications to the public.

ISA believes that municipal codes which unduly restrict sign sizes defeat the very purpose for which signs exist. Restrictions of this type also curtail the creativity and artistic expression which represent hallmarks of the sign industry, and which can therefore result in bland, uniform and unattractive signs.

ISA believes that while “time, place and manner” restrictions apply to sign regulations, cities must consider the latest in scientific research and data regarding the relationship between sign sizes and motorist visibility. Observing these guidelines is just as important with reference to commercial signs as it is for traffic safety signs, the latter of which are governed by the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, which uses minimum size standards.

On-Premise vs. Off-Premise Distinction

ISA supports the ability of cities to distinguish between on- and off-premise signs because each type of sign has very distinct capabilities and purposes, each targets a specific audience and because each has traditionally been treated under separate legal and regulatory regimes.

There are over 35 years of U.S. Supreme Court precedent on this issue. Metromedia v. San Diego (1981) is perhaps the landmark sign code case by the U.S. Supreme Court, and it allowed different treatment for on-premise and off-premise signs. The Metromedia distinction is still a well-accepted legal principle, and Reed v. Town of Gilbert (2016) did not overturn any aspect of Metromedia. In fact, in Reed, Justice Alito’s concurring opinion (joined by two other justices) explicitly listed this distinction as a form of sign regulation that is not content based (“I will not attempt to provide anything like a comprehensive list, but here are some rules that would not be content-based…[r]ules distinguishing between on-premises and off-premises signs.”).

ISA believes that sign codes that regulate location, as those involving on-premise versus off-premise signs, are not content-based restrictions, they are place-based restrictions. Regulations singling out off-premise signs, for example, don’t apply to any particular ideas or viewpoints, they just regulate the locations of these signs generally. Locational restrictions fall under the traditional “Time, Place and Manner” regulations that have been accepted for decades and that were spoken of favorably in the Reed decision.

Because of these rulings from the United State’s highest court and the practical and traditional considerations that have governed these kinds of signs for generations, it is ISA’s position that communities can safely continue to enact and enforce distinctions between how they treat on-premise signs and off-premise signs—including EMCs and digital billboards.

Perception of Illuminated Signs

ISA believes that illuminated signs greatly assist business owners in effectively performing key marketing functions crucial to the success of their businesses. Illuminated signs enhance the store image, brand the business’ location, help communicate the business’ location, and reinforce advertising as part of integrated marketing communications. Users of illuminated signs recognize that a lit sign greatly improves nighttime visibility of the business.

ISA further believes that illuminated signs work to benefit the larger community, even among those who are not customers or patrons of that individual business. Illuminated signs, as part of an improved street lighting system, are causally linked with decreased crime and an increased sense of public safety. Illuminated signs improve visibility and increase street usage. Illumination also improves the night-time legibility, use, and enjoyment of a site, promoting pedestrian activity by emphasizing walkways, gathering places, and building entrances.

Without a widespread understanding of the value of illuminated signs, legislators and regulatory officials could mistakenly view electric signs as an amenity that can be reduced or eliminated.

Prior Restraint

ISA believes, and the federal court system agrees, that the messages embodied in on-premise signs are speech and are therefore due certain constitutional protections. In the area of prior restraint, this includes the First, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. Specifically, the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees “due process and equal treatment” in the regulatory process. In the signage regulatory process, the Fourteenth Amendment commonly enters the picture at the permitting phase, including appeal of a permit denial. The courts have ruled that there are two types of prior restraint – “procedural” and “substantive.”

ISA believes that sign permit standards must be clear, concise, and capable of objective interpretation and administration. Additionally, the decision to grant or deny a sign permit (and in the case of the latter, a hearing on appeal of a denied permit) must occur in a timely manner. If the government does not provide any of these minimum procedural requirements, they violate the due process clause.

ISA believes that government officials should not have “unbridled discretion” when deciding whether or not to grant a sign permit, but should instead follow explicit, understandable and objective standards within the sign code. If not, such a scheme can result in censorship.

ISA believes that any sign permitting process which does not guarantee resolution of application issues within a short period of time and that does not strictly limit the government’s discretion should be challenged.

Shutoff or Lighting Curfew Requirements

In recent years, proposals to restrict night-time illumination have emerged as a growing issue of concern.

Some municipalities and national model ordinances are including language that attempts to restrict the hours when a sign may be illuminated. These restrictions can limit a sign’s function only to the hours of operation or may require shutoff at a specific time of day. The imposition of these shutoff or lighting curfew requirements for signs adversely affects delivery of the sign’s message and, consequently, its inherent value to the user.

Unlike the lighting of building facades and landscape features (which are designed for an aesthetic function), signage is designed primarily for a commercial function and serves a significant audience that may not be accessing the facility. Requiring facilities to shut off signage at the conclusion of operations will deprive businesses and other facilities of necessary advertising to the pedestrian and motoring public.

ISA believes that illuminated signage should not be subject to imposed shutoff or lighting curfew requirements. Illuminated signs serve a different purpose than general lighting; they communicate and broadcast messages. This purpose extends beyond the operating hours of a business location or organizational facility. In restricting the use of illuminated signage, government regulations interfere with the distribution of a message and the constitutionally protected expression of free speech.

Sign Contrast

The International Sign Association (ISA) supports measures that preserve a high level of flexibility for designers and users of signage. Effective use of graphics, font styles and color combinations is fundamental to the visual appeal and inherent value of signs. Likewise, effective contrast represents an essential element of signage design. Because the methodology for defining and measuring contrast remains elusive, however, ISA opposes regulatory initiatives that would arbitrarily curtail the user’s freedom to effectively and creatively communicate messages.

Consequently, ISA opposes efforts to mandate a 70-percent contrast level for Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)-compliant signage. During the past 10 years, proposals to create this requirement have continually been introduced to the ANSI A117.1 Committee that develops ADA regulations. ISA has successfully defeated these proposals by pointing out errors in proponents’ understanding of color science and the corresponding metrics for contrast evaluation. So far, ISA has been successful in persuading the ANSI committee that establishing a 70-percent contrast requirement for signage would create significant problems, particularly in terms of enforcement by local authorities having jurisdiction.

The current advisory language on sign contrast has served as a sufficient guideline since 1991, when the original ADA Accessibility Guidelines were published in the Federal Register. Furthermore, the validity of the original study that formed the basis for the 70-percent guideline has been disputed by expert sources. Until such time as independent, peer-reviewed research demonstrates the value of establishing a fixed threshold for signage contrast, therefore, ISA supports preserving the current ADA language, under which 70 percent remains an advisory guideline and not a requirement.

Signs & Commercial Speech

Current Environment – Cities often regulate on-premise signs as though they are merely an auxiliary use of the land on which they are located. As such, many sign codes do not take into consideration the commercial free speech rights embodied in signs. This can adversely affect the ability of small businesses to succeed, and can also result in a city’s sign code being found unconstitutional.

ISA Position: ISA believes that the right to free commercial speech, as established by the U.S. Supreme Court under the First Amendment, applies to on-premise signs.* Therefore, small businesses have the constitutional right to have their commercial messages seen and understood without undue government regulation.

Such constitutional protection requires that on-premise sign regulation place reasonable time, place and manner limitations on signs without reference to the content or message of the speech, or the identity of the speaker, unless a substantial state interest is at stake and cannot otherwise be furthered without a burden on this protected speech.

ISA believes that when challenging the constitutionality of an on-premise sign code, the government carries the burden of proving that the regulation at issue advances a substantial state interest and that this interest cannot be advanced or conferred by a less restrictive burden on the speech embodied in on-premise signs.

Possible Consequences: If cities continue to regulate signs without fully and properly considering their constitutional free speech implications, then small businesses will have a more difficult time reaching potential customers. In addition, more cities will have their sign codes found to be unconstitutional and be held liable for damages.

Desired Outcome: Government officials and courts recognize that the messages embodied on on-premise signs are protected by the Freedom of Speech clause of the First Amendment, and that cities cannot differentiate between non-commercial and commercial messages.

Signs & Economic Development

Current environment: U.S. small businesses account for over 60 million jobs and create more than half of the non-farm private gross domestic product (GDP). However, it is still difficult for most local retailers to survive in our competitive marketplace. Most small businesses have small profit margins and cannot afford to spend excessive funds on advertising, so they must frequently rely solely upon on-premise signs to advertise their goods and location to potential customers.

ISA Position: ISA believes that businesses have a better chance to succeed if they are allowed to have well-placed and well-designed signage. According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, on-premise signs “are the most effective, yet least expensive form of advertising for the small business.” A cost-per-exposure analysis comparing on-premise signs and television, radio and newspaper ads shows that on-premise signs are a far less expensive way for a small business to advertise its goods and services.

Possible consequences: Cities continue to enact and enforce restrictive sign codes, hurting the ability of small businesses to function at their full potential. Local communities are also hurt, in the form of lower tax revenues and decreased employment. This could result in economic downturns across the board, and damage our traditionally strong, vital, market-based society.

Desired Outcome: Sign codes are drafted to give businesses the opportunity to have maximum success at their locations by permitting signs to be placed where they will be seen by intended audiences. Communities and local economies benefit as well.

Sign Moratoriums

ISA believes many communities enact temporary moratoriums on certain kinds of signs while they consider how to regulate these specific signs. During this period of time, permits are not issued for the specific types of signs. In some cases, a temporary moratorium leads to a permanent ban on the kinds of signs in question.

ISA believes that sign moratoriums make for poor public policy for several reasons, including the following: (1) moratoria can have the effect of favoring businesses which have the targeted signs already in existence; (2) government signs are often not included under moratoriums; (3) moratoriums often take place during important economic opportunities (i.e., Christmas, summer tourism season etc.) for local businesses; and (4) moratoriums could discourage development of new businesses. Most importantly, sign moratoriums can usually be avoided by effectively involving and communicating with the appropriate community stakeholders.

If a community elects to enact or extend a sign moratorium, it should be used as a last resort, and only then in furtherance of an imminent health or safety concern. A sign moratorium should only be extended twice. A sign moratorium should be limited to the shortest possible duration.

ISA believes that moratoriums are not necessary to change a sign ordinance unless it can be proven that specific kinds of signs imminently threaten public health and safety. Communities should be able to research options and revise their sign codes without resorting to moratoriums.

Stakeholder Engagement in Developing Sign Codes

ISA believes that an inclusive approach to stakeholder engagement is critical to creating sign regulations that are reflective of the community. The importance of stakeholder involvement in the sign code update process is well stated in Best Practices in Developing Sign Regulations:

A wide variety of community stakeholders have an interest in ensuring that sign codes are crafted in such a way as to allow for the free flow of speech while preserving community character. These stakeholders may include businesses, sign companies, graphic designers, historic preservationists, traffic safety specialists, environmental quality advocates, and chamber of commerce types, among others. Including interested parties in efforts to develop and revise sign codes can help ensure that the resulting regulation embraces the best available technologies and business practices of the time in an effort to promote the economic vitality of local business districts.*

ISA believes that the creation of a sign code advisory committee that is diverse and representative of stakeholder interests will help ensure successful involvement of the community. The advisory committee will assist with identifying issues, provide input on the overall process that allows for and encourages broad community participation, review drafts, and make recommendations to the Planning Commission and legislative body. In addition, the advisory committee, working with local officials, can ensure that multiple methods of meaningful participation, such as online and in-person meetings, are accessible to the community.

Having inclusive and broad stakeholder participation will help ensure that the resulting sign code is balanced and more fully in line with the community’s aesthetic and economic goals. 


*Best Practices in Developing Sign Regulations, Dr. Dawn Jourdan, Dr. Eric Strauss and Madeline Hunter, Sign Research Foundation

Temporary Signs

ISA Believes that the responsible use of temporary signs serve a valuable communications function for advertising specials, and other impulse and community-oriented messages. Temporary signs also allow more effective communication in areas where codes regulating permanent signs are especially restrictive.

Temporary signs are any signs not intended for permanent installation. Generally, these signs are intended to be used for a limited period of time for purposes such as announcing special events or sales, announcing the sale or rental of property, supporting political candidates or positions, emergency messages or presenting other miscellaneous or incidental information or instructions.

In order to establish a successful temporary signage policy, communities should ensure that their code language is clear and concise with respect to permitting, duration, enforcement and legal standards.

Use of Mercury in Neon

ISA believes that a mercury dosage level of 100mg per tube is the minimum quantity acceptable for the proper operation, performance and lifetime of neon signs that incorporate mercury. Existing and proposed state regulations which mandate dosage levels of less than 100mg, therefore, constitute de facto bans of mercury-added neon signs.

Window Signs

ISA Believes that adequate window signage is an important form of identification and advertising for small businesses, and that suitable window signage helps create a vibrant and prosperous business community.

Window signs are signs that are painted on, attached to, or suspended directly behind or in front of a window or glass portion of a door.

Window signs are often regulated by the content of the message (i.e., by only allowing “open” or “closed” signs), by limiting the percentage of space that such a sign can take up in the window, and by including the square footage and area of widow signs as part of the total allowable sign area given to a business.

The overregulation of window signs can be stifling to business and create a sterile commercial environment. Jurisdictions should allow a reasonable percentage of window signs for a business (i.e., up to 50%), content restrictions should not be placed on the message of a window sign, window signs should not require a permit and should not be counted towards the total allowable sign area for a business.