Street Graphics and the Law: Fourth Edition

PAS Report 580

By Daniel Mandelker, John Baker, Richard Crawford

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Signs do more than guide people; they help create safe and vibrant places.

Street Graphics and the Law, Fourth Edition, points the way to a better system of designing, displaying, and regulating signs. Completely updated, the fourth edition of this influential text has the latest on the evolution of digital signs and the last word on legal points every planner should know.

Introductory chapters cover the elements of street graphics systems and five criteria for successful signs. Readers also will find best practices from the United States Sign Council and a new model street graphics ordinance, along with a primer for protecting sign regulations from attacks.

Every community, from crossroads to major metro area, needs effective, aesthetic street graphics that tell people where to find what they want and send them safely on their way. This must-read report shows planners how to steer their street graphics programs in the right direction.

Executive Summary

Street Graphics and the Law is a new edition of an innovative and effective system for regulations for on-premise signs. Introductory chapters explain concepts behind the system, including best practice standards developed by the United States Sign Council that specify how signs should be displayed. A Street Graphics Model Ordinance provides the text of regulations, with commentary, that translates these concepts into workable format. This report also examines the legal issues in regulating street graphics, including nonconforming uses and issues under the free speech clause of the federal constitution.



This new edition of Street Graphics and the Law updates earlier editions and offers new guidance on emerging issues such as the regulation of electronic signs and the control of illumination. The primary function of on-premise street graphics is to index the environment — that is, to tell people where they can find what. This report presents a street graphics system and a Street Graphics Model Ordinance that allow street graphics to serve this function by contributing to effective communication between people and an environment that is aesthetically pleasing and that contributes to traffic safety. Street Graphics, the original edition of this report, introduced for the first time the concept that signage on ground graphics on streets and highways should be based on legibility.


The basic function of all street graphics is to index the environment by communicating a message to the observer. The system for regulating street graphics proposed here is based on three elements: (1) the regulatory issues the system must address, (2) the built environment in which street graphics are displayed, and (3) the regulatory framework that governs their display. Several issues are key to street graphics. Allowable land uses as defined by the zoning ordinance are the first consideration in drafting a street graphics system. Design is also a key issue, and the regulations in the Street Graphics Model Ordinance encourage good design by providing the essential regulatory framework within which communities can consider design. Balance is an important factor in a street graphics system. For street graphics to communicate effectively, they must neither be too large nor too small, neither too numerous nor absent altogether, neither too garish nor too bland. Landscaping is another important element that affects the visual quality of a street graphics display. Finally, "driver information overload," is an important concern, and the model ordinance encourages businesses to limit the amount of copy on a sign in order to encourage good sign design.

The following five criteria determine the effectiveness of a street graphic within the commercial development context in which it will be displayed:

  • Is the street graphic expressive of the identity of the business? A street graphic originates with the business it identifies. A street graphics system should give a business the freedom to express its personality and clearly identify the goods or services it is offering.
  • Is the street graphic appropriate for the business it identifies? A business should be easily distinguishable just by the style of the signs that announce it. Creative use of color, lighting, and materials in sign design and fabrication can contribute to quick and easy identification and sorting out of a function or activity.
  • Is the street graphic compatible with the visual character of the surrounding area? Street graphics can be displayed so that they are the hallmark of a community, giving it a distinctive appearance and reinforcing the character of the place. A community may also want to recognize the distinctive character of special areas in the community that required their own special set of street graphics regulations. These can include architectural, historic, and scenic areas; commercial areas; and urban places of special character, such as town centers.
  • Is the street graphic legible under the circumstances in which it is seen? The effectiveness of any street graphic is a function of dynamic visual acuity — how people see when they are in motion — which depends on driver speed and orientation, letter height, and other factors.
  • Is the street graphic likely to distract drivers to a dangerous degree? Traffic safety is an important justification for a street graphics ordinance under the U.S. Constitution, including its free speech clause. Although the empirical evidence of a causal connection between differences in street graphics and driver distraction is generally not conclusive, studies and other professional work can assist communities to create a street graphics system that addresses concerns about dangerous levels of driver distraction.

Developing a street graphics system that can take all of these issues and factors into account requires decisions on a number of options to determine how the street graphics system will be implemented. The key elements are performance standards or a set of regulations that include area, height, and spacing requirements that are optimal for sign legibility. This comprehensive street graphics system is conceived and derived from the function of perception and based on visual performance standards. It is intended to stimulate variety and high-quality design that provides effective communication for each enterprise and reinforces a sense of place. It also is flexible and easy to administer.

The street graphics system has three elements:

  • Performance standards for street graphics, including ground, wall, projecting, and special graphics
  • The opportunity to designate Areas of Special Character within which a community can adopt specially tailored regulations for street graphics
  • The opportunity to approve Programs for Graphics that contains specially tailored regulations for a business or group of businesses


Since 1996 the United States Sign Council Foundation — together with traffic engineers, human factors researchers, and statistical analysts of the Pennsylvania Transportation Institute at Pennsylvania State University — has published a series of research studies. The results from this work provide a body of work for understanding the ways in which motorists receive and respond to the information content of private, roadside sign systems. This research gives designers and regulators of signs insight into the legibility, size, and placement characteristics necessary for effective roadside communication. Other researchers — including teams studying the impact of sign systems serving the needs of an aging population on traffic safety — have arrived at conclusions similar to the sign legibility and placement parameters that emerged from the work of the Pennsylvania State University researchers.

The viewing of a roadside sign by a motorist involves a complex series of sequentially occurring events, both mental and physical. Research has now been able to quantify the viewing process, such that measurement of the time necessary for a motorist to view and react to a roadside sign, while driving at a specified rate of speed, can be calculated. Using this time frame, or Viewer Reaction Time, and the amount of distance from the sign represented by that time frame, the optimal sign size required to transmit the message and allow sufficient time for detection, comprehension, and maneuvering can be calculated reliably. Standards are also provided for sign height.

The standards also provide for parallel sign legibility and letter height. Parallel signs are often referred to as wall signs, building signs, and façade signs and denote onpremise signs that are affixed to a building structure. They are typically presented in an orientation that is parallel to the roadway and the driver's line of sight, instead of perpendicular to it.


There are two basic types of street graphics: freestanding ground graphics or graphics attached to buildings. Graphics attached to buildings include wall graphics, roof graphics, projecting graphics, and awnings. Regulations based on traffic speed and legibility can specify the size, height, and spacing between ground graphics. Regulations for wall graphics can provide a signable area for walls that will allow for graphics displays that are both proportionate to a building and based on traffic speed and legibility. This is a more satisfactory way of regulating wall graphics than basing the signable wall area on lineal front footage, an approach that is common in many sign ordinances. Regulations can be presented in text or table formats.

Digital signs require special treatment. The best digital display element of the street graphics policy for any particular community will often reflect the degree of risk-aversion, and aesthetic and policy preferences, of the elected and appointed officials. Whether and how to regulate digital signs are discretionary choices. Those choices should be made in light of safety, aesthetics, planning, and other policy considerations. Regulators should consider factors such as dwell time and sequential messaging.

Much of the character of an establishment, a street, a place, a neighborhood, or a community is expressed by design factors that include color, illumination, and movement. The style and subtle useful enhancement of street graphic communication to a large extent are determined by these design elements. When coordinated to help achieve recognition of distinct types of activities, control of these design elements of street graphics can be very helpful in indexing the environment and can make significant contributions to the visual character of a place.


This report contains the text of a Street Graphics Model Ordinance that applies to commercial uses. It is a revision of the model ordinance in the last edition of Street Graphics and the Law, which the American Planning Association published in 2004, and it retains the format of that model. It is not a one-size-fits-all set of regulations. Communities will need to decide which recommendations they can use and which they need to adapt to local conditions. The model ordinance is limited to street graphics displayed by commercial uses. Communities will need to incorporate its provisions for commercial uses into the sign regulations that are part of their zoning ordinance and their comprehensive sign ordinance, which includes additional regulations for political and other signs.

Counties and municipalities of all sizes have adopted all or part of the Street Graphics Model Ordinance, and how a community uses the model ordinance may depend on its size. Smaller communities with limited commercial areas may decide their signage problems can be handled adequately by a set of regulations for each graphic. Larger communities may have areas of special character that require special attention, or they may want to provide for design review. The model ordinance contains recommendations for these alternatives.


Communities must consider a number of legal issues when they adopt a sign ordinance modeled on the Street Graphics Model Ordinance. They include a reliance on aesthetics as the constitutional basis for sign regulation, the constitutionality of sign regulation as applied, and the validity of distinctions between different kinds of signs. They must also consider restrictions that apply to company logos and trademarks. Traffic safety is another important government interest that can support the constitutionality of sign ordinances. Although signs do not create traffic safety problems by their mere presence on a street or highway, the design and placement of signs are important factors in improving traffic safety. This report also reviews state court cases where plaintiffs challenged on-premise sign regulations like those contained in the Street Graphics Model Ordinance. Most courts have relied on the usual justifications for aesthetic regulation to uphold on-premise sign regulations included in the ordinance. Design review is also a consideration as are the requirements for billboard regulation in the federal Highway Beautification Act.

The constitutional basis for the Street Graphics Model Ordinance is reasonably secure, as many states hold that aesthetics alone is a sufficient basis for sign regulation. Even in the minority of states holding that aesthetics may be only one factor, other factors such as the improvement of traffic safety will usually support the constitutionality of the ordinance. The courts have approved regulations usually adopted for on-premise signs, such size, height, setback, and spacing regulations. They have also approved ordinances that provide different regulations for on-premise signs than for off-premise signs. Design review procedures in sign ordinances can present problems if design standards are not carefully drawn, but courts uphold standards that are drafted to provide reasonable guidance for design review decisions.

Street-graphics laws, like other forms of land-use regulations, are usually subject to the nonconforming use doctrine, in ways that can make it difficult to apply updated laws to existing street graphics. Nonconforming signs can present a difficult problem for a street graphics program, but an effective program for the removal of nonconforming is essential. Nonconforming signs should be inventoried and registered, and the decision on what signs will be designated as nonconforming should be carefully made.

The removal of nonconforming signs through amortization is a possibility in many states, though state legislation adopted to comply with the Federal Highway Beautification Act may prohibit the amortization of nonconforming onpremise signs as well as billboards, even if these signs are not located on federal highways. Alternate methods of removing nonconforming signs, such as a determined program to remove abandoned signs, can also help remedy the nonconforming sign problem.
Information conveyed by signs is free speech protected by the free speech clause. Because sign ordinances regulate signs and the information they display, courts must determine whether they violate the free speech clause of the federal constitution. This report provides a primer on how to protect a Street Graphics ordinance against attack under the free speech clause and includes a review of the Supreme Court cases and guidance on how a sign ordinance should be drafted, with references to the Street Graphics Model Ordinance.

About the Authors

Daniel R. Mandelker, one of the nation's leading scholars and teachers in land-use law, is a professor at the Washington University School of Law in St. Louis. His publications include Planned Unit Developments from APA's Planning Advisory Service as well as three past editions of Street Graphics and the Law.

John M. Baker is a founding attorney of the Minneapolis law firm Greene Espel, known for his work in constitutional law and land-use litigation. He teaches land-use courses at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Richard Crawford is a legislative consultant with the United States Sign Council, an educational resource for the sign industry based in Bristol, Pennsylvania. He also serves as president of Mercer Sign Consultants in Greater Philadelphia.

Product Details

Page Count
Date Published
Sept. 1, 2015
Adobe PDF
American Planning Association

Table of Contents

Executive Summary

Chapter 1. An Introduction to Street Graphics
The Purpose of Street Graphics
What the Street Graphics System Does
Other Features of the Streetscape
To Sum Up

Chapter 2. The Street Graphics Concept
Key Street Graphics Issues
The Settings for Street Graphics
The Five Criteria of Good Street Graphics
Developing a Street Graphics System

Chapter 3. The Street Graphics System and Its Principles
Elements of the System
The Five Principles of the Street Graphics System
Compatibility with Adjacent Residential Areas

Chapter 4. United States Sign Council Best Practice Standards for Commercial On-Premise Signs
Overview: Seeing and Reading Roadside On-Premise Signs
Determining Sign Size Using Driver Reaction Time
Factors Affecting the Way Drivers See, Understand, and Respond to Signs During Movement
Sign Factors Affecting a Driver's Perception of a Sign
Putting It All Together: Calculating Sign Area
Sign Height: Minimum Standards for Vehicle-Oriented Environments
Parallel Signs
Sign Illumination

Chapter 5. Street Graphic Types
Street Graphic Types
Special Street Graphics

Chapter 6. Street Graphic Types: Digital Signs
Safety and Driver Behavior Issues

Chapter 7. How Street Graphics Are Displayed
Illumination, Movement, and Color
Items of Information

Chapter 8. Street Graphics Model Ordinance
Street Graphics Model Ordinance Table of Contents

Chapter 9. Regulating Street Graphics: The Legal Issues
Sign Regulation as a Constitutional Problem
Aesthetics as a Basis for Sign Regulation
The Constitutionality of Sign Regulation as Applied
The Traffic Safety Justification
On-Premise Sign Regulations
Design Review
A Summary of Legal Issues

Chapter 10. A Strategy for Dealing with Nonconforming Street Graphics
The Nonconforming Use Doctrine in a Nutshell
Applying the Nonconforming Use Doctrine to Signs: Recurring Issues
Regulating Nonconforming Uses
The Amortization Option
The Compensation Requirement under the Federal Highway Beautification Act
Alternate Methods for Removing Nonconforming Signs
Nonconforming Signs: A Summary

Chapter 11. Street Graphics and Free Speech Issues
The Free Speech Problem
The Supreme Court's Free Speech Law Doctrines
Questions to Ask When Drafting a Street Graphics Ordinance That Can Meet Free Speech Law Requirements

Appendix A. United States Sign Council Best Practice Standards—Additional Resources