Sign Glossary


Aesthetics: A term dealing with form, design, and/or quality of construction of a particular sign, building, site or structure that presents a subjective statement concerning the level of beauty or artistic value.

Amortization: (1) In accounting terms, this refers to the method in which an intangible asset is depreciated over a specified period of time. (2) In terms relevant to signage and urban planning, it conveys the “grace period” beginning on the date a sign owner is notified that removal of a previously conforming sign has been ordered, and ending on the date removal is required. This process makes a sign structure, which was legally erected or placed pursuant to permit, legally nonconforming for a period of time – the amortization period. After the amortization period expires, the sign becomes illegally nonconforming and must be removed. Non-removal often invokes severe penalty. Amortization is a form of regulatory taking. Its legality depends on state law and numerous other conditions, and it is frequently unenforceable.

Animated Sign: A sign depicting action, motion, light, or color changes through electrical or mechanical means. Although technologically similar to flashing signs, the animated sign emphasizes graphics and artistic display.

Awning Sign: A building-mounted sign that provides additional functionality as shelter.


Backlighted Letter: An illuminated reverse channel letter with an open or translucent back so that light from the letter is directed against the surface behind the letter, producing a halo lighting effect around the letter; also referred to as silhouette- or halo-lighted.

Ballast: An electrical device required for operating fluorescent lamps.

Banner: A temporary sign of lightweight fabric or similar material that is mounted to a pole or a building. Promotional banners include those used to announce open houses or grand openings, or to advertise special events. Ornamental banners use images or colors of a decorative nature. Bench Sign: A sign located on the seat or back of a bench or seat placed on or adjacent to a public right-of-way; a type of street furniture.

Billboard: A large, standardized third-party/off-premise structure displaying advertising intended for viewing from extended distances, generally more than 50 feet. Billboard/outdoor advertising displays include, but are not limited to, bulletins, wall murals, wrapped posters, 30-sheet posters, and eight-sheet posters.

Brand Equity (Branding): The intangible but real value of words, graphics, or symbols that are associated with the products or services offered by a business. Development of site branding includes the presentation of signage and architecture to create a unique awareness and memory by the potential customer of the products or services offered at that site. Brand equity for a particular business is similar to the goodwill of an enterprise.

Building Fascia: That portion of any elevation of a building extending vertically from the grade to the top parapet wall or eaves, and horizontally across the entire width of the building elevation, including slanted wall surfaces sometimes referred to as a mansard.

Building-Mounted Sign: A sign that is applied or attached to a building.


Cabinet Sign: A sign structure consisting of the frame and face(s), not including the internal components, embellishments, or support structure.

Canopy Sign: (1) A building-mounted sign functioning as a marquee. (2) A sign mounted on a marquee or attached to or printed on the fascia or valence of a canopy, awning, or marquee, or hanging from the soffit (underside) of such structure. (See awning sign; marquee sign.)

Changeable-Copy Sign: A sign or portion thereof on which the copy or symbols change either automatically through electrical or electronic means (for example, time and temperature units), or manually through placement of letters or symbols on a panel mounted in or on a track system.

Channel Letter: A fabricated or formed three-dimensional letter that may accommodate a light source.

Coated Tubing: Clear glass tubing, coated on the interior surface with phosphorus powder. Coated tubing produces a variety of different light colors, depending on the specific mixture of phosphorus powders used.

Cold Cathode: (1) An electric-discharge lighting system that uses an electrode with a large metal mass to emit electrons. Neon tubing is a cold-cathode type of lighting system. (2) A generic term employed to specify custom interior lighting produced through the use of large-diameter cold-cathode tubing.

Colored Tubing: Transparent glass tubing manufactured with colored pigments. Typical color examples include ruby red, canary yellow, green, and midnight blue.

Conforming Sign: A sign that is legally installed in accordance with federal, state, and local permit requirements and laws.

Conspicuity: The capacity of a sign to stand out or be distinguishable from its surroundings and thus be readily discovered by the eye. It is the noticeable contrast between a sign and its background, attributed to an exogenous (unplanned) or endogenous (planned) mindset, with the display having features that attract attention to the sign. Conspicuity is considered a subjective outcome.

Content-Neutral Sign Code (Time, Place, or Manner): Consistently applicable, reasonable and nondiscriminatory sign regulations that specify when, where, and how a sign can be installed, without reference to the content of the message displayed. Physical parameters that are addressed in time, place, and manner regulation include, but are not limited to, height, size, and location. The regulations should minimally ensure that the sign will be easily discernable and readable to targeted viewers.

Contrast: The difference or degree of difference between things having similar or comparable natures, such as light and dark areas, colors, or typefaces.

Copy: The words or message displayed on a sign.

Copy Area: That area which encloses the actual copy on a sign.

Custom Sign: A sign designed, manufactured, and installed to meet the requirements of a specific location.


Daily Effective Circulation (DEC): The average number of daily potential exposures to a display or group of signs. DEC is determined by counting only those vehicles traveling toward the face of the sign and then multiplying that number by the average number of people per car during the hours the sign is visible. Pedestrian and mass-transit circulations are not included. This is the basic measure in establishing cost-per-thousand exposures on signs. The basic traffic numbers can usually be obtained from state departments of transportation.

Day-Glo: A trade name for certain inks or lacquers that become fluorescent when activated by the ultraviolet rays of sunlight of special illumination.

Deck Cabinet: Similar in detail and use as a raceway except larger in cross-section to provide a background area.

Dimensional Letter: A cut-out, cast, fabricated, or molded material such as metal or plastic, in the shape of a letter, logo, or symbol. Directional Sign: Signs designed to provide direction to pedestrian and vehicular traffic.

Directory Sign: A sign that identifies the names and locations of tenants in a multi-tenant building or in a development made up of a group of buildings.

Double-Faced Sign: A sign with two parallel faces.

Downsizing: A change in law or regulation that requires alteration in size or height of any existing sign. Downsizing of an outdoor advertising structure (or “billboard”) requires compensation as a regulatory taking.


Electric Sign: Any sign containing or using electrical wiring.

Electronic Message Center (EMC): A variable-message sign that utilizes computer-generated messages or some other electronic means of changing copy. These signs include displays using incandescent lamps, LEDs, LCDs, or a flipper matrix.

Embellishments: Letters, graphics, mechanical devices, fiberoptics, lighting, cutouts, extensions, structure coverings, vicinity landscaping, or any other special-effect addition to a sign that will enhance its appearance and ability to effectively communicate its message.

Eminent Domain: The power of the state to take private property for public use.

Extensions: The area of design made as a cutout that extends beyond the basic rectangular space of a sign face or message.

Exterior Illuminated Sign: A sign that is illuminated by a light source that is directed towards and shines on the face of a sign; also called direct illumination.


Face: The surface area of a sign on which the advertising message is displayed. A sign may have more than one face.

Fascia Sign: A building-mounted sign.

Fiberoptic Display: An innovative use of electronic light-transmitting fibers to create changeable-copy displays.

Flashing Sign: A sign with an intermittent or flashing light source. Generally, the sign’s message is constantly repeated, and the sign is most often used as a primary attention-getting device. Government highway departments frequently use flashing signs to improve highway safety.

Flat Cut-Out Letter: A dimensional letter cut from sheet or plate stock.

Fluorescent Lamp Or Tube: An electric-discharge lighting system, utilizing glass tubing and a hot tungsten cathode. Unlike neon tubing, it is manufactured to standard lengths and can be mass produced. (See neon sign; incandescent bulb.)

Font: A set of letters, numerals, and shapes that conform to a specific set of design criteria.

Freestanding Sign: A sign that is not attached to a building.

Front-Lighted Letter: An illuminated channel letter with a translucent face.

Full-Service Sign Companies: Sign companies that complete the entire signage project, including site survey and sign design, engineering, manufacture, permitting, installation, and maintenance.

G, H, & I

Ground Sign: A freestanding sign with no visible support structure.

High-Rise Sign: A tall freestanding sign, usually of pole design and construction.

Highway Beautification Act (HBA): Federal legislation enacted in 1965 – commonly called the “Lady Bird Johnson Act.” This act, as amended from time to time, controls outdoor advertising along 306,000 miles of federal-aid primary, interstate, and National Highway System (NHS) roads. The HBA allows the location of outdoor advertising structures in commercial and industrial areas; mandates a state compliance program and development of state standards; promotes the expeditious removal of illegal signs; and requires the payment of just compensation (that is, cash) for the acquisition and removal of legally constructed and located outdoor advertising structures.

Illegal Sign: A sign unlawfully erected or maintained. Incandescent Bulb: A lamp that produces light through the application of electrical energy to a wire filament, which glows as it is heated. Its application is limited because it is a point source light, not easily diffused. It generates considerable heat, and its life span is limited by the filament degradation factor. Unlike neon tubing, it can be mass produced. (See fluorescent lamp; neon sign.)

Interior Signs: Signs that are located inside a building or other facility.

Illuminated Sign: A sign with electrical equipment installed for illumination at night or in early morning darkness, either internally illuminated through its sign face by a light source contained inside the sign or externally illuminated by reflection of a light source aimed at its surface.

J, K, L, & M

Just Compensation: The full monetary value to be paid for property taken by the government in accordance with the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Just compensation is generally determined by obtaining an appraisal.

Legibility: The physical attributes of a sign that allow for differentiation of its letters, words, numbers, or graphics, which directly relate to an observer’s visual acuity. Legibility is considered an objective stimulus. (See conspicuity.)

Light-Emitting Diode/Display (LED) and Liquid Crystal Display (LCD): Electronic devices that channel light through tubes to create patterns that can produce changing video displays.

Listed Sign: A sign labeled to indicate that the manufacturer of the sign is identified on a list published by a nationally recognized testing laboratory as producing signs in conformance with the applicable American national standard.

Logo: A design or symbol that represents a product, identity, or service.

Luminance: The perceived brightness of an illuminated sign, measured in candelas per square foot (cd/ft2).

Marquee: A permanent canopy often of metal and glass projecting over an entrance.

Marquee Sign: (1) A sign mounted on a permanent canopy. (2) A traditional industry term for the variable-message section of a canopy sign. (3) An integral sign and permanent canopy.

Menu Board: A variable-message sign that allows a retailer to list products and prices.

Message Area: The area within the sign panel describing the limits of the message.

Message Center: An electronically or mechanically variable-message sign enabling changes to be made from locations other than at the sign.

Mobile Sign: A portable sign mounted on a trailer.

Monument Sign: A ground sign with low overall height.

N, O, & P

Nonconforming Sign: A sign that was legally erected and maintained but does not comply with subsequently enacted sign restrictions. Under the Highway Beautification Act (HBA), removal or acquisition of legal nonconforming outdoor advertising structures requires the payment of just compensation (that is, cash). Amortization is not a permissible form of compensation under the HBA.

Neon Sign or Tube: A sign utilizing a cold-cathode-gas discharge tube produced in straight or formed configuration; generally referred to as a neon-gas discharge tube, whether filled with neon or a mixture of two or more other inert gases (argon, helium, krypton, or xenon). Neon-tube lighting is a custom designed, optimally visible lighting system that may be shaped to form letters, parts of letters, skeleton tubing, outline lighting, and other decorative elements or art forms, in various colors and diameters. The cold-cathode tube can operate for many years, while the hot-cathode fluorescent lamp is limited to a relatively short life, as is the incandescent bulb. (See fluorescent lamp; incandescent bulb.)

Off-Premise Sign: A sign directing attention to a specific business, product, service, entertainment event or activity, or other commercial activity that is not sold, produced, manufactured, furnished, or conducted at the property upon which the sign is located. Also known as a third-party sign or outdoor advertising, and considered out-of-home media.

On-Premise Sign: A sign whose message and design relates to a business, profession, product, service, event, or other commercial activity sold, offered, or conducted on the same property where the sign is located. Signs in the on-premise category are not considered out-of-home media.

Open Channel Letter: A dimensional letter that has no face and, if illuminated, has a visible light source. A clear face for physical protection of internal components may be used.

Outside Panel: An advertising panel located closest to the edge of the street, where two or more panels are positioned side by side on legibility and other considerations of contents and time restraints. It is considered a subjective outcome. (See conspicuity.)

Overlay (Snipe): A paper strip or price designation, such as a dealer imprint for a promotion, which is pasted on the face of an existing advertising panel.

Painted Wall Sign: A sign painted directly on a building surface. If the sign is a third-party/outdoor advertising display, it may be several stories high and designed for high-impact visibility. (See building mounted sign.)

Pan Channel Letter: A dimensional letter that is constructed with side walls, a back, and a face, making the letter a solid integral unit with the side walls and back having a pan-shaped cross-section.

Pan Face: A plastic sign face molded into a three-dimensional shape. Also called molded face, molded and embossed face, or molded and debossed face.

Parapet Sign: A sign mounted on top of the parapet of a building. (See building-mounted sign.)

Permanent Sign: A sign attached to a building or structure, or to the ground in a manner that enables the sign to resist environmental loads, such as wind, and that precludes ready removal or movement of the sign.

Pole or Pylon Cover: An enclosure for concealing and/or decorating poles or other structural supports of a ground sign.

Pole Sign: A freestanding sign with visible support structure.

Portable Sign: A sign not permanently attached to the ground or a building, and easily removable using ordinary hand tools.

Post and Panel Sign: An unlighted sign which uses one or more visible posts to support the sign body.

Projecting Sign: A building-mounted sign with the faces of the sign projecting from and perpendicular to the building fascia.

Push-Through: A letter or logo that is cut out of a backing material as thick or thicker than the sign face material, and then mounted on the inside of the sign face so that the backing material’s thickness extends flush with or through and beyond the front plane of the sign face.

Pylon Sign: A freestanding sign with a visible support structure, which may or may not be enclosed by a pole cover.


Raceway: An electrical enclosure that may also serve as a mounting structure for the sign.

Readability: That which enables the observer to correctly perceive the information content of letters, numbers or symbols grouped together in words, sentences, or other meaningful relationships on the sign. Readability is the character of a sign which leads to comprehension of its intended message, and depends on Section 1127 (1988).

Recall: The ability of a viewer or listener to remember an advertising message. The recollection stimulus may be verbal or visual.

Recognition: The ability of a viewer or a listener to identify a message and connect it with the particular advertiser.

Regulatory Sign: A sign having the primary purpose of conveying information concerning rules, ordinances, or laws.

Retainer: A framing member mounted around the perimeter of a sign face and attached to the sign cabinet structure. It is designed to attach the face to the cabinet and/or intended to provide a decorative trim piece.

Retroreflective: The quality of a surface that reflects light directly back toward its original source.

Return: The sides of a channel letter.

Reveal: An indented detail on a sign.

Reverse Channel Letter: A fabricated dimensional letter with opaque face and side walls.

Right of Way (ROW): The land on which a public thoroughfare is located and certain lands adjacent thereto. Permanent commercial signs are generally located on private land adjacent to the public right of way.

Roof Sign: A building-mounted sign erected upon and completely over the roof of the building.


Sandwich Board/Sidewalk Sign: A sign not secured or attached to the ground or surface upon which it is located, but supported by its own frame and most often forming the cross-sectional shape of an A. Sign: Any device, structure, fixture, painting, or visual image using words, graphics, symbols, numbers, or letters designed for the purpose of conveying information or attracting attention.

Sign Face: The area of a sign on which copy is intended to be placed.

Signage: A system of place-based communication devices and graphics intended to impart information or the largest number of outdoor advertising signs.

Signature Building: A building architecturally designed and/or painted or decorated to reinforce a traditional sign’s message or display; it also reinforces major media advertising programs.

Signcentric Design: Building or site design that makes the on-premise signage the prominent visual feature of the building or site.

Single-Face Sign: A sign with only one face plane.

Snipe (Overlay): Refers to a small, added strip along a poster design to announce special or revised messages.

Street Furniture: Advertising displays, many which provide a public amenity such as bus benches, positioned at close proximity to pedestrians for eye-level viewing or at a curbside to reach vehicular traffic.

T, U, V, & W

Temporary Sign: Any sign 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 positions, or presenting other miscellaneous or incidental information or instructions.

Time-and-Temperature Display: A variable-message sign that displays current time and temperature in a stationary or alternating manner. Some also display simple messages.

Tourist-Oriented Directional Signs (TODs): A federal sign program that provides for small business identification and directional information for businesses, services, and activities where incomes and/or visits are derived from tourists or travelers. This program is intended only for use on rural conventional roads. Sign content is limited to the identification of the business, service or activity, and directional information.TODS do not include promotional advertising.

Trade Area: Most retail businesses have a relatively fixed area from which business is derived. In general, the trade area is either the residence or work locale of the potential customer or client. The trade area for most small businesses is three to five miles; however, the high mobility of the consumer population makes it difficult to establish all sources of business or clearly define trade-area demographics and boundaries.

Trademark (Also Service Mark): Used by a business to distinguish itself and its products from the competition. A trademark may include a name, symbol, word or any combination thereof. Trademarks are protected by the federal government and considered to have financial value. The circled “R” or “Reg. T.M.” printed with the mark indicates that it is a registered mark. See United States Trademark Act 15 U.S.C.

Transformer: Electrical equipment that converts input voltage and current to a different output voltage and current.

UL: Underwriters Laboratories, Inc., a nationally recognized testing laboratory.

Under-Canopy Sign: A sign mounted underneath a canopy.

Variable-Message Sign: A sign that includes provisions for message changes. Also called changeable copy panel, changeable-copy sign, time-and-temperature sign, electronic message center, or menu board.

Variance: Special administrative procedure by which one may obtain an exception to zoning rules such as height, setback, and type of use.

Vinyl (Flexible Face): A substrate upon which an advertising message is rendered, either by computer production or hand painting.

Visibility: The physical attributes of a sign and its contents that allow for detection at a given distance, although legibility may be uncertain. Visibility is considered an objective stimulus.

Visual Acuity: The acuteness or clarity of vision (which depends on retinal focus ability, nervous sensitivity, and the brain’s ability to interpret incoming visual information) that allows one to perceive the message on a sign at a given distance. attract attention, that includes signature buildings and product displays and dispensers, as well as traditional projecting, wall, roof, and freestanding signs.

Wall Mural: An advertising display applied directly onto the exterior surface of a building. Painting directly onto the surface is the most common application method; however, a painted or printed vinyl substrate can also be applied to a wall surface, depending on the location.

Wall Sign: A building-mounted sign either attached to or displayed or painted on an exterior wall in a manner parallel with the wall surface, and not projecting more than 16 inches from such surface. (See fascia sign.)

Wave Posting: A concentration of poster showings in a succession of areas within the market, usually coinciding with special promotions in the designated areas.

Wayfinding: A term used to describe the task of finding one’s way to a given location using information found along the travel path.

Window Sign: A sign that is painted on, attached to, or suspended directly behind or in front of a window or the glass portion of a door.