Context-Sensitive Signage Design

By Marya Morris, FAICP, Mark Hinshaw, Alan Weinstein



Signs are part of a myriad of elements of the built environment that a planner typically deals with on a daily basis. Long-range comprehensive or master planning, as well as issues of residential development, economic development, affordable housing, environmental protection and management, urban design, transportation and infrastructure, zoning and land development control, and information systems are the bread and butter of most planning agencies.

For a planner, signage issues would be addressed in two ways: as part of long-range urban design planning or as part of current planning (e.g., permit review).

For some communities, the two functions are very distinct; policies and codes are developed by one set of planners and are implemented by a different section or division within the planning department.


Page Count
Date Published
June 1, 2001
Adobe PDF
American Planning Association

About the Authors

Marya Morris, FAICP
Marya Morris is a self employed planning and zoning consultant based in Wilmette, Illinois. She is also a freelance writer and editor and has authored nine Planning Advisory Service Reports, the most recent of which is Design Review, co-authored with Mark Henshaw, FAICP, in 2018. She was a member of the Glencoe Plan Commission from 2009-2017..

Mark Hinshaw
Mark Hinshaw is a Principal, Planner and Urban Designer at Walker Macy, a 30-person firm with offices in Portland and Seattle. For over twenty-five years, he has been responsible for a wide range of projects in large cities, suburban centers, and small towns including downtown development, public spaces and pedestrian facilities, design-oriented codes and guidelines, and master plans for public facilities. He has served as President of the Washington Chapter of the American Planning Association and as President of the Seattle Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. In addition, he has served on the national Board of Directors for the American Institute of Certified Planners. From 1982-1990, he was Principal Urban Designer for the City of Bellevue, WA, helping guide its transformation from a nondescript collection of strip centers to an intense, mixed use, transit-oriented urban center. A Seattle resident, he has served on the Seattle Design Commission, which reviews all public projects, and he has chaired the Downtown Design Review Board, which reviews private development in the core area of the city. He has also served on the Mayor’s Housing Levy Oversight Committee, which monitors the use of funds from a voter-approved low income housing tax. And he served on the board of directors for the Seattle Housing Resources Group (now HRG Seattle) which has developed more than 2000 units of below-market rate housing within and near downtown Seattle. Hinshaw lectures widely on the subject of urban design at conferences and workshops. He has written for a number of professional design journals, including Landscape Architecture, Places, Planning, and Architecture. And between 1992 and 2004, he wrote a regular column on architecture and urban design for The Seattle Times. Currently, we writes for an on-line magazine called He authored the Planning Advisory Service report entitled Design Review, which is still the only manual available to local governments on the subject. His has authored two books: Citistate Seattle: Shaping a Modern Metropolis (1999) and True Urbanism: Living In and Near the Center (2007). He also serves at the chief urban designer for The Seattle Housing Authority on the redevelopment of Yesler Terrace.

Alan Weinstein
<p>Alan Weinstein is Professor Emeritus of Law &amp; Urban Studies at Cleveland State University. He is a nationally-recognized expert on planning law and has extensive experience with free speech and freedom of religion in the planning law context. He also has studied the division of regulatory authority between states and their local governments. Professor Weinstein taught Land Use Planning Law in both the CSU College of Law and the College of Urban Affairs and as Professor Emeritus&nbsp;offers a seminar on Marijuana Law &amp; Policy at the CSU College of Law.</p>

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments, Author Biographies

Chapter 1. Planning for Signs
Planners and Signs
Sign Manufacturers and Planning
An Overview of the Sign Industry
Sign Technology
Art and Graphic Design

Chapter 2. On-Premise Signs and Traffic Safety
Research Relating On-Premise Signs and Traffic Safety
A Theory of Driver Behavior
General Principles of Highway Signing
Toward an Effective and Safe Sign System
Cooperative Triangulation

Chapter 3. Aesthetic Context: Designing for Place
Engaging the Public in Urban Design
Establishing a Foundation for Sign Regulation
Understanding the Components of Context
Evaluating the Place - A Typology
Characteristics of Places

Chapter 4. The Economic Context of Signs
Signs as Identification, Advertising, and Wayfinding Devices
The Complex Relationship Between Economics and Aesthetics
The Economic Context of Signs
Research on the Economic Value of Signage
The Signage Needs of Retail and Service Businesses
Signage Needs of National Chains Versus Small Independent Businesses

Chapter 5. Design Review, Permitting, and Recordkeeping
The Sign Permitting Process
Administering Design Review for Signs
The Ordinance

Chapter 6. Legal Issues in the Regulation of On-Premise Signs
Sign Regulation and Police Power
Sign Regulation and the First Amendment
Recurring Problems in Local Government Regulation of Signs
The Takings Issue: Requiring Removal or Amoritization of On-Premise Commercial Signs
Provisions for Enforcement
Provisions for Flexibility
Commercial On-Premise Signs and the First Amendment
Time, Place, or Manner Regulation of On-Premise Commercial Signs
When Is a Sign Content-Based?
Recommendations and Guidelines

Chapter 7. Reaching Consensus on Sign Regulation
Forming a Sign Ordinance Committee
Case Studies