The sign business began with painters wielding brushes and daubing letters on storefront windows and over building entrances. It has evolved into a $37.5 billion industry with companies capable of erecting signs that incorporate live news streams, interactive capabilities and artificial intelligence.
But the goal has always remained the same: combine words and imagery to conjure an identity for a building and market it as a piece of real estate.
Sign making evolved in the 19th and early 20th century with gaslight and then incandescent light bulbs used in addition to hand lettering, But business took off with the advent of neon and helped set cities like Las Vegas and New York ablaze with the giant, gaudy signs known as “spectaculars.”
As technology continued to advance, signs incorporated plastics, screen-printed PVC vinyl and energy-saving LEDs. Today’s enormous digital billboards, which can be programmed to cycle through an array of messages, can animate entire facades.
Regulations have also had an effect on the size and positioning of signs. In many places, building codes prohibit types popular in the past, such as rooftop and projecting signs including so-called blades, which stick out perpendicular to a building.
Some signs have become so iconic, they are permanent parts of the landscape — and sometimes stand in for the cities in which they are found.
The boldness of Miami Beach
Nothing captures the vibe of this Florida city like the pastel-colored Art Deco hotels and glowing neon signs along Ocean Drive on Miami Beach — all part of a historic district. Erected in 1935, the three-story Colony Hotel was one of the first of the properties to make its mark.
Henry Hohauser designed the structure, in the streamlined style of the day, as well as its inverted-T sign. His boxy marquee allowed the name to be seen from both sides and the beach.
Materials used in construction during the Depression weren’t of the highest quality, however, and by 1989 the marquee had to be rebuilt. Recently, the neon letters were painstakingly removed again before a new marquee made of galvanized steel was installed and the letters put back on.
“It should last much longer than the ’35 or ’89 versions,” said Debbie Tackett, the chief of historic preservation in the city’s planning department.
The quirkiness of Los Angeles
The sprawling Southern California city is home to a number of “programmatic” signs — ones shaped like the products their businesses sell, designed to flag down passing motorists. The dimpled pastry atop Randy’s Donuts in the Inglewood neighborhood is by far the best known of the bunch.
Thirty-two feet in diameter, the doughnut can be spotted from the air by those flying in and out of Los Angeles International Airport. And if people haven’t laid eyes on it in person, they have likely seen it in movies, music videos and promotions.
Dating to 1953, the sign is made of steel bars covered in gunite, a kind of concrete used for swimming pools. A fiberglass replica was recently made to top a new Randy’s in nearby Downey.
But Mark Kelegian, the president and chief executive of the company, had it scaled down to 26 feet “out of respect for” the original.
The sophistication of Chicago
The Gothic-style letters of the Drake Hotel’s famous sign stand nearly 12 feet tall and have been perched on the roof of the landmark building in downtown Chicago since 1940.
The sign was designed and made by White Way Electric Sign & Maintenance Company, a firm named to evoke Times Square in New York. Neon letters were affixed to white-painted sheet metal.
A boardwalk behind the letters allowed hotel electricians to gain access to the lights should there be any issues. And for decades there were. The neon would short out frequently, sometimes because of wind gusts coming off Lake Michigan. In 2013, the sign was restored, with neon swapped out for LED.
The fantasy of Las Vegas
Big, bombastic signs are a signature feature of this Nevada city. So important has signage been to the local identity that the state legislature named neon its “state element.”
Sometimes, the stories behind the signs are just as interesting as the physical objects. For instance, the guitar motif for Hard Rock Cafes originated with an 80-foot sign for the brand’s restaurant in Las Vegas, modeled on an instrument belonging to Pete Townshend of the Who.
The Hard Rock guitar was built by Yesco, a family-led sign company founded in 1920 in Salt Lake City that was also behind the mechanical marvel known as Vegas Vic. The 40-foot cowboy, erected in 1951 for the Pioneer Club casino, grabbed attention by waving an arm and shouting “Howdy Podner!” He was impressive enough, but Yesco soon made him a cousin, Wendover Will, who was 23 feet taller and moved both arms outside a casino in Wendover, Nev.
Although the Pioneer Club went out of business in 1995, Vegas Vic stood his ground and remains a local landmark.
The extravaganza that became known as Vegas Vickie, created by Ad Art, was erected in 1980 for the Glitter Gulch casino, across the street from Vegas Vic. In 1994, the neon cowboy and cowgirl were “married.”
The dazzle of New York
Flashy signs have been a defining feature of this city for decades, including those that adorn Radio City Music Hall and Coney Island.
New York is also home to an entire district known for signage: Times Square. Rather than identify and promote the buildings to which they are attached, most of the digital billboards that define this crossroads advertise products for other companies.
The Nasdaq digital display does both. Installed by the LED lighting firm Saco Technologies in 1999, the display wraps a seven-story cylindrical portion of a much larger office tower. Its arrival signaled the beginning of the electronic stock exchange’s march uptown from the financial district in Lower Manhattan.
The Nasdaq name is featured prominently on the second floor, with a fluid blue zigzag evocative of old-school ticker tape. The sign broadcasts the opening and closing of the trading day and features companies listed on the exchange.
But most of what appears is third-party advertising by companies that want their products to be seen in one of the most visible locations in the world. Branded Cities, which manages ad sales for Nasdaq, said monthly packages run $50,000 to $100,000 for a 15-second spot running multiple times a day.
When Interface, a sustainable-flooring company, opened its global headquarters in the capital of Georgia, it “wanted to make some noise,” said Chip DeGrace, vice president of workplace applications. With the help of the design firm Perkins & Will, the company spelled out its name in giant, free-standing letters.
The 3-D lettering stands out against a backdrop that pays tribute to the arboreal heritage of this “city in the forest” — and Interface’s own environmental ethos — with a pattern of interlaced trunks and branches.
The facade comes courtesy of adhesive-backed polyester film that was printed with a pattern that evokes the native trees that stood on the site centuries ago. The film, applied to the building’s glass, allows natural light to penetrate to interiors, protects against glare and solar heat gain — and made the building an instant local landmark.