Signs have been a fundamental element in trade, industry, and commerce for centuries. Ever since humans began to create tools, products and provide various services, they had to make their business visible to the public. Few marketing products have been used longer than signs; they are basically the first thing that comes into contact with your possible customers and makes your business known. They also act as the foundation stone for your branding campaign and your company’s identity, setting you apart from your competition. Your business becomes visible, easily identifiable and unique, thus shaping its own personality as a fearless competitor and powerful player in the industry.
To understand how signage has become one of the most important factors in our modern economy, we need to see how it evolved through the ages. How did the early signage tools look? How were they made? What types of materials were used to create the first signs and how they evolved during the centuries?
Let’s try to answer these questions and tell the story of signage through the ages:
The early days of signage
Humans have used proto-signage tools and devices for hundreds of thousands of years, even before the invention of writing or record keeping. Symbolic advertising, as experts call it, was rudimentary – tribesmen scribbled or drew symbols that indicated to others that they had certain products to exchange or sell. Although scarce and not exactly reliable (at least from an archaeological standpoint), some tablets, dating back 40,000 years, were found in the Nile delta area, suggesting artisans and craftsmen frequently advertised their products (bows, arrows, pots and other everyday utensils).
As the tribal economies grew, craftsmen and tradesmen started to advertise their products and services on a more regular basis. Trade fairs and merchant towns were created as places to exchange, sell or buy various goods produced by different tribes. As trade further developed, tradesmen had a fixed location and needed to advertise their products and services by hanging or installing an identifying insignia. The oldest reliable advertising insignia dates back to 3000 BC and was found near the ancient city of Ur, located in the Middle East.
During Antiquity, from 3000 BC to 500 AD, signage evolved tremendously. They were widespread in Ancient Egypt, Rome and across the Greek city states. Often the only advertising medium employed by craftsmen, tradesmen and artisans, the signs were made of simple materials – wood, brick or stone, and had simple designs. Some services that were catered for the affluent, like bathhouses or luxury merchants, were made of expensive materials, like marble, alabaster, bronze or copper, and employed intricate designs and drawings. Almost all stores and workshops had some sort of sign and many of them have been unearthed in the ruins of Pompeii and other cities in an almost perfect condition.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, Europe slumped into the Dark Ages, a period mired with economic hardships, a decline in trade and widespread destruction of cultural symbols. During this period, the signs were minimal, featuring crude designs and basic symbols. After the 11th and 12th centuries, the new trade expeditions created a period of both economic and cultural revival. Rich merchants, renowned craftsmen, and workshops had their own signs which often featured sophisticated designs and symbols. Most of them also featured elaborate carvings, paints, gilt and expensive materials. The most prestigious craftsmen and workshops had a symbol of their own, easily identifiable among customers (some experts may call it an early type of logo). During this period, advertising was done strictly as an outdoor medium, mainly to designate the point of sale or the types of products or services sold. Some products manufactured by famous artisans and workshops, like the Murano glass, were advertised through word of mouth. Branding, as we understand it today, was during its early stages and, even though some artisans were particularly popular and admired for their work, their products were never advertised and basically unknown outside their towns or cities.
By the 17th century, English laws required that every craftsman or tradesman exhibit a sign that presented the products and services provided. The symbols employed varied greatly, but were effective nonetheless: a Bible symbolized a bookseller, a key symbolized a locksmith, a shoe was the symbol for shoemakers, while apothecaries were easily identified by their mortar and pestle sign. These signs were made of common, everyday materials: wood, wrought iron and other metals, but also porcelain and textiles. Many of them were quite artistic, the drawings were complex, the colors were vibrant and some even featured humorous situations. Names and letters were rarely used, as few people knew how to read, even in major cities like London or Liverpool.
The 18th century and the beginning of sign regulation
During the early 1700s, outdoor signs were getting more elaborate and heavier than ever. Many weighed up to 100 pounds and were dangling dangerously above the streets. After a series of tragic accidents, Charles II decreed that no outdoor sign should hang across streets or pedestrian walkways. Other regulations across Europe were enforced to limit the size, weight and extension of these signs. This stage, although limiting, was instrumental in the development of outdoor signs as we know them today.
The age of electric signs
The 19th century brought new technology that changed outdoor signage at its roots. In 1840, the first gas illuminated sign was created for P.T. Barnum’s Museum in Chicago, Illinois. The display could work for more than 5 hours straight, mesmerizing passer-byers. Gas lighting was further used for other signs across North America and Europe. They were particularly popular for theater marquees, retail, and drug stores, as well as banks and public institutions.
The first incandescent light bulbs were launched in 1880 and, by 1882, the first electrical sign was built in London. It featured tens of incandescent light bulbs and it spelled the word “EDISON”. Further on, the Americans created the famous night sign (display type), starting the era of illuminated signs. By the 1900s, light bulb signs were extremely popular in the United States, many stores using signs that featured thousands of lights and covered hundreds of square feet.
During the early 1900s, Georges Claude and other physicists worked with neon, a recently discovered rare gas, to create light. The new invention, called a neon tube, quickly became a phenomenon. By the mid-1920s, almost every city in the United States had at least one neon tube outdoor sign.
Neon tubes, although extremely versatile and impressive, had a limited color range. A new invention further improved the signage industry in the mid-1930s, when the fluorescent tube was launched. The new colors were powerful and fresh, and the tubes could be modeled into any shape imaginable. By the end of the 1940s, the development of the electric sign industry changed outdoor advertising completely. The industry grew enormously: in only five years, from 1924 to 1929, the industry grew from $50,000 to more than $18 million annually.
The age of plastics
After World War II, the sign market wanted something new, both in terms of design and materials. The 1940s and 1950s was a time of economic boom and a new material was quickly becoming ubiquitous – plastic. The major plastics manufacturers vastly improved their technologies and were able to produce quality plastics that could be easily malleable, versatile and durable.
The use of plastics in signage was quickly embraced by the public because they were cheap, easy to create, extremely versatile and required little to no maintenance. Also, plastic signs could be combined with neon and fluorescent tubes, as well as light bulbs, to create a complex outdoor sign. By the early 1960s, plastics signs, especially acrylic ones were everywhere. Virtually every small store or public institution had a personalized plastic sign. Various other signs, banners, A-frames, flags as well as inflatable signs were also developed. The availability and success of the plastic signs spawned the creation of thousands of companies that designed and manufactured signs across the country.
The latest technology in signage
Now, more than 95% of outdoor signage is made of plastics, but the technology has vastly improved over the last two decades. New modern printing technology allows designers to create cutting edge designs, employing fresh, powerful colors on any type of medium. Many signs are made of composite materials (reinforced plastics, fiber-polymers), modern plastics (polyurethane, polyethylene, PVC) but also a huge variety of metals, ceramics, and textiles.
UV-resisting paints and new laminated printing technology allows designers to create signs that can withstand extreme weather, extending the lifetime of outdoor advertising elements. Thanks to these new technologies, the colors remain strikingly fresh for decades without any additional maintenance. 3D printing, although only in its early stages, is expected to have a powerful impact on outdoor advertising. Previously extremely expensive and difficult to manufacture, 3D silhouettes, complex outdoor figurines, and sculptures are now easier to create and are becoming increasingly popular for select clients.
The signage industry today
Signs have always been recognized as symbols of economic activity. From the earliest bow-makers in Ancient Egypt and all the way to the high-tech start-up in Silicon Valley, every business needed a way to promote, advertise and make their products known to the public. Now, the signage industry is composed of more than 3,000 sign companies in the United States alone and generates and estimated annual revenue of $2 billion. Thanks to the technology improvements which continuously shape the industry, this figure is only expected to rise, especially as more and more business owners understand the importance of having a great outdoor presence.