Street Graphics Continuing Tragedy

The revision’s major purpose is skirting First Amendment rights.

The following article originally appeared in the January 24, 2005 issue of Signs of the Times magazine.

By now, you may be sick of reading about the American Planning Assn.’s (APA) third version of Street Graphics. This will be the third consecutive month with coverage (the previous two featured “Editorially Speaking” columns), and my article is buttressed by an excellent article within this issue’s ISA Report (see page 91).

However. I can’t overstate the importance of refuting the tenets of Street Graphics. Because it appears to have the tacit endorsement of Andy Bertucci, the executive director of the United States Sign Council (USSC). and includes his name on the cover, the casual reader could reasonably conclude that he endorses the entire book. The fact that Andy has told me otherwise, and said so in last month’s “Editorially Speaking,” is largely irrelevant. The reader won’t know that. You don’t need a college degree to know that perception is reality. It appears that the sign industry endorses the book.

Street Graphics is fatally flawed, and the sign industry should recoil from it as if it’s a hot flame, because of its basic tenets:

  • It erroneously espouses that signs do little more than index the environment, i.e., there’s a barber shop here. Signs’ advertising function is essentially dismissed.
  • It completely ignores the benefits of illuminated signage.
  • It erroneously twists research to say that signs can cause accidents, when the only available research says the exact opposite — that signage deficiency has been cited as a primary or contributing cause to 22% of accidents, based on a Pennsylvania Dept. of Transportation study.
  • It bastardizes other research to suggest that the stimulus overload of signage incites driver confusion and causes traffic accidents.

When such underlying beliefs constitute the core premise, and only set out to promote a pet theory, the result can’t help but be scientifically corrupt. The APA doctrine is crystal clear and consistent, despite no research documentation, that signs are nuisances that need to be controlled, rather than bastions for a democratic, capitalist society.

For these same reasons, the APA’s Marva Morris, under oath in federal court, admitted she has no expertise in the valuation of signs, and that she had received information from two people who are recognized experts in that arena, but that she didn’t include it in the Context-Sensitive Signage Design book because she didn’t want to. Doing so would have countered APA’s closely held convictions.

Amazingly, in the aftermath of having written my November 2004 “Editorially Speaking,” Andy forwarded me a November 10 e-mail from Daniel Mandelker, the principal author of all three Street Graphics books. On page 78 of Street Graphics, Mandelker writes “As Chapter 2 indicated, signs, under certain circumstances, can increase traffic accidents.” Yet, in the e-mail, he states the opposite, “Signs that do not follow the recommendations contained in Chapter 2 (i.e., the Sign Standards) can, under certain circumstances, increase traffic accidents.” Andy states, “I believe it speaks for itself.”

If Mandelker is now saying that if signs don’t have at least the minimum-size letters suggested in the Penn State studies, then they may cause traffic accidents, he now professes a 180-degree turn from the stock APA party line that signs can cause traffic accidents. If that’s his belief, how could he possibly have made such a fundamental mistake in his final reading prior to printing?

The book’s philosophy hasn’t changed a bit. It only changes specific information to help planners circumvent constitutional freedoms. In the book’s initial chapter, a section is entitled, “The Purpose of Street Graphics,” (page 3). The first sentence reads, “The primary function of on-premise street graphics is to index the environment; that is, signs should tell people where they can find what.”

Not once does that three-paragraph section even casually refer to the advertising or economic value of signs and their critical need for the individual merchant. If Mandelker can’t grasp this underlying, fundamental principle, how can he possibly be so presumptuous to suggest proper signage “control”?

Another sentence (page 4), apparently meant to be all encompassing, reads, “They [street graphicsl can announce or scream or mumble, inform or confuse, delight or depress, infer or insult, stimulate or irritate, designate or obfuscate. But most of all, they index.” Street graphics are also described as art forms in that first chapter, which is correct, but even within this broader definition, the advertising/marketing function is completely ignored. Only later is it given a perfunctory nod.

Yet, it’s even worse that Mandelker is aware of this concern, yet continues to summarily reject it. Later, in the chapter on legal issues. he writes, “They lcriticsl complain the Street Graphics Model Ordinance does not recognize a right to advertise because its on-premise sign regulations are intended only to index the environment and do not allow signs adequate for selling purposes.” Bingo.

Further on, in Chapter 3, “The Street Graphics Concept,” this limited understanding is once again reinforced, The first sentence reads, “The basic function of all street graphics is to index the environment by communicating a message to the observer.”

Similarly, Street Graphics still clings tenaciously to the belief that signage can present a stimulus overload that confuses drivers and may cause accidents. To do so, it bastardizes the research of Lemer in this same chapter (see the ISA report page 91). Lemer’s words are accurately quoted (page 31), but the context has been greatly altered. Lemer was studying the effects of “necessary” highway signage, such as directional signage. But Street Graphics tries to take this same argument and apply it to commercial signage. Drivers don’t read commercial signage (sign industry members excepted, perhaps) unless they are looking for a specific (or type of) business. Street Graphics relies greatly on Lemer as its fundamental scientific research, yet even he denounces the way it has been applied.

Chapter 4, which explains the principles of the Street Graphics system, finally uses the words “image” and “identity” to describe street graphics, and purports to understand. Principle 1 reads (page 34): “The street graphics system is flexible and allows businesses to express their identity.” But this clearly becomes lip service when the other principles are viewed: subjective words like “compatible” and “appropriate” abound. Principle 2 espouses “displays appropriate to use.” Principles 3 and 4 “promote compatibility.” Yet the most legitimate principle, legibility, only warrants five sentences as a tagalong at the end.

Of course, the question arises, who decides what’s compatible and appropriate? The planners, of course, with subjective viewpoints that deny or approve sign permits. Conceptually, I’d love to see a ban on obese people in Spandex outfits, but the freedoms we enjoy in the United States just might outweigh my personal viewpoint, even if it’s a majority view. Again, Street Graphics supports First Amendment rights. . . if people exercise them aesthetically, compatibly and appropriately, according to the planners.

This version of Street Graphics again contains its primary treatise. a model ordinance, in Chapter 6. In many sign codes, definitions determine the code. Perhaps the most common mistake is utilizing definitions that aren’t content neutral. To refresh, signs can’t be regulated with regard to what they say, as the U.S. Supreme Court has reiterated numerous times.

In light of this, Street Graphics has altered some definitions so the desired prior restraint remains. However, syntactical gyrations strive to create legal loopholes, as in “Grand opening graphic: A banner displayed on a premises on which a grand opening is in progress.” Mandelker makes a point of saying that this definition is content neutral.

The longest definition? By far, it’s “Item of information,” with five paragraphs. That’s quite an emphasis for a flawed concept. Methinks he protest too much. Street Graphics’¬†fundamental concept misappropriates Lemer’s research to say that a driver can safely view only 10 items of information (up from seven in the 1988 Street Graphics) in a sign. Why not make it a dozen, as long as the number’s purely arbitrary? But again, Street Graphics must support its pet theory.

The model ordinance devotes discussion and a few drawings to mandated landscaping. In one drawing, Fig. 1 on page 58, the landscaping somehow removes telephone poles as well. It and Fig. 2 show “after” photos that include trees. Somehow, even that fundamental principle of “indexing the environment” seems to have been abandoned. Now the signs are predominantly obstructed, all by indirect mandate.

Chapter 6 includes a sidehar headlined “Lighting Standards for Signs,” written by a Colorado site-development administrator. What’s the gist of it? Not how illumination helps businesses and motorists to find each other, nor is it about safety benefits – they’re not even addressed. In typical fashion, the second sentence focuses on a “problem” and begins, “As light pollution becomes a widely acknowledged concern in many urban and suburban areas, signs have come under much scrutiny relative to their contribution to this problem.”

At the end of the sidebar, the author references the International Dark-Sky Assn., which believes that the ability to see the stars at night overrides all other concerns.

As I was writing this, Steve Aust, ST senior associate editor, handed me a copy of an Associated Press story from November 22. The headline reads, “Iowa City Rethinks Lighting.” The subhead reads, “Dark streets may be a factor in death.” So a kid got killed; at least the Big Dipper was more visible.

Similarly, Mandelker realized that, given legal judgments since 1988, the second Street Graphics now tramples the First Amendment with its endorsement of design review and prior restraint. The revised model-ordinance chapter now includes a sidebar on design review, but it advises the reader to go to the revised Chapter 9: Free Speech Issues. Perhaps as a kind of perverse, unintentional humor, the first subhead in that 1988 Street Graphics free-speech chapter reads, “The Free Speech Problem.” (Damn that First Amendment; it keeps getting in the way!)

But back to the model ordinance. Its second-to-last section (page 75) is headlined “Enforcement.” The second paragraph begins, “The responses distributed at the time of the 1988 revision of the model ordinance indicated that the enforcement of street-graphics ordinances is a serious problem.” More unintentional humor. They meant to say that communities have difficulty enforcing any sign code, but the sentence also prophesies constitutional problems to come.

In the legal issues covered in Chapter 7, the design-review section is also previewed: “As with all design guidelines, care must be taken that the criteria provided for design review of signs are detailed enough to withstand challenges that are vague or overbroad.” Again, it essentially says, “Hmm. How can we help you get past those pesky constitutional issues?” The fundamental belief remains that planners should wield unbridled power and that constitutional freedoms, like signage, are merely nuisances that need to be controlled. Kind of like political correctness.

The bottom line is, Bertucci and USSC believe that this new Street Graphics is an improvement. They believe that a flawed treatise with the Penn State legibility tables is better than a flawed treatise without them. Yes, this version of Street Graphics has been revised. Why? Because of a change of heart? Because of a deeper appreciation for the fundamental attributes signage presents to society?

No. Its nothing more than an APA CYOA – a kicking and screaming revision based on legal truths that have arisen in the past 16 years. Yet its philosophy remains steadfast.

Should the sign industry accept it, wring its hands and say, Well. at least it’s better”? Absolutely not. First Amendment rights cannot be compromised. No quarter can be given. Some people also believed that the Signage Foundation should have accepted the APA’s Context Sensitive Sign Design book for the same reasons. Yes, it was tremendously flawed, but “at least it was better,” they said. Wrong. The sign industry must thoroughly denounce both it and the new Street Graphics.


Wade Swormstedt

Wade Swormstedt

Wade is Executive Director of the Foundation for the Advancement of the Sign Industry. Formerly he was Editor and Publisher of Signs of the Times magazine.

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Posted in 1st Ammendment / Freedom of Speech, Content Neutrality (Reed v. Gilbert), Sign Codes, Traffic Safety, Universities.