Signgeist 3: Signage as Brand

First (and lasting) impressions

I was probably about 12 when a friend and I snuck out of the neighborhood and rode our bikes to the local hamburger joint. It was called The Red Barn—the building looked like a barn, and its sign was shaped like a barn. The restaurant is long gone, but I still remember its visual impact, if not the hamburgers.

We associate events in our lives with many things—sights, sounds, smells, people, and places…including buildings and signs. While the Red Barn chain is history, its hamburger competitor is now a Fortune 500 company recognized the world over. Just two words—“golden arches”—and you immediately know the chain to which I am referring. It took another year or two before my “illegal” excursions out of the neighborhood took me to the McDonald’s many miles away.

To me, the golden arches and red and white buildings were as distinct as the Eiffel Tower and were representative of my life and small world at the time. Today those arches, now joined to form a stylized letter “M,” are an instantaneous symbol of fast, easy food, a family-friendly environment, and a reliable, predictable product—the McDonald’s brand. Golden arches = brand identity!


Fast food restaurants and hotel chains are particularly fond of using iconic sign forms to reinforce their brands. Signs for Bob’s Big Boy, KFC, Motel 6, and Quality Inn proclaim their presence and extend a sense of welcome, relief, and refuge to motorists on highways nationwide. Not to mention one of the most iconic hotel chain signs of all time, the now defunct swoosh arrow and starburst twinkle of the original Holiday Inn. (These were enormous!)

Courtesy Postcard from Birmingham, AL; Collection of David Cobb Craig, Louisiana. Sign designed by Gene Barber and Rowland Alexander of Memphis's Bolton & Sons Sign Company in 1952

We  find comfort and security in the form of familiar icons. Recognizable objects and surroundings can relieve stress and anxiety. In an unfamiliar landscape, you suddenly find something you know.



Signage is a powerful brand extension. Aside from a logo, it is often the most recognized component of a company’s image. Think of how many examples come to mind quickly: Exxon, FedEx, Nike, Target, UPS. An exterior sign can reach a million people simultaneously; an interior sign can reinforce the brand image to every visitor looking for the elevator, the bathroom, a room number.

Apple Computer’s logo is so simple, elegant, and precisely rendered that the word “Apple” is not needed. The company’s store in Grand Central Terminal has two small, white logo signs at the base of the central stairs leading to the mezzanine: no words, flashing lights, bold colors, or image saturation. The mere presence of this symbol signifies something special. Apple is in the house!

Courtesy Flickr Richard Velasco, xpressbus

The W Hotel Times Square visually speaks to millions of tourists and New York City residents annually. And it accomplishes this with only one letter atop its building. The “W” represents hip, stylish, sophisticated. Sign as lifestyle. Style by association. Signs can even become brands unto themselves. The “Hollywood” sign is a great example of a single graphic image becoming a brand for Los Angeles and the film industry. The sign and word are so associated with films that “Bollywood” has become a descriptor for films made in India. Signs can also become brands for neighborhoods. The signs in Times Square completely define it. No signs—no Times Square. No single example defines the area, but rather the sheer abundance and exuberance of them—signs as definition of a place.

Of course, not all signs are reassuring and comforting. One of the most notorious examples of this was the ENRON sign. On top of the world in the late 1990s, ENRON had money, power, and influence. Its logo was designed by Paul Rand; its headquarters by César Pelli. When the company came crashing down, it wasn’t a printed logo or the building facade that people remembered—it was the ENRON building’s sign, used over and over and over to accompany nearly every news broadcast and magazine story.

Courtesy Craig Hartley/Bloomberg 



Personally speaking, while I certainly don’t remember much about hamburgers from when I was 12, I do remember the Red Barn sign. It not only represented food, but it was also associated with the ubiquitous juvenile pastime of sneaking off, disobeying mom and riding my bike out of the neighborhood. As moms always do, she eventually found out, and the Red Barn was officially off limits. Grounded. Until the golden arches came calling.

Editor's Note: On November 5, 2013 the SEGD announced that its board of directors voted to change the organization's name to Society for Experiential Graphic Design, thus keeping the acronym SEGD while broadening its mission.



David Vanden-Eynden, AIGA, FSEGD, and his partner Chris Calori, AIGA, FSEGD, lead Calori & Vanden-Eynden (C&VE), an internationally recognized, New York-based design firm specializing in the planning and design of signage, wayfinding, branded environments, identity, and user navigation systems. Chris literally wrote the book on the subject—Signage and Wayfinding Design: A Complete Guide to Creating Environmental Graphic Design Systems—which was recently published in Chinese and will be issued in a second English edition in 2015.

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