Today's retail signage is telltale in a number of functional and sometimes psychological ways.

Sigmund Freud would say, "I told you so." When it comes to retail signage in the 21st century, the Freudian belief in an underlying significance in society's use of everyday objects is alive and thriving.

Retail signs are often loaded with meaning - never quite so simple as they seem. Signs must convey a multitude of messages to shoppers, from telling them where they are and how to park, to grabbing attention, to offering inviting warmth and decoration. Clearly, however they're used, signs are much more than mere place markers.

As Michael Burch, project principal at Scott AG (formerly Scott Architectural Graphics) of Santa Rosa, Calif., says, "One trend in signage is to help create part of the fabric of the urban landscape, and at the same time get a clear message across about the retail presence there."

Retail signage is even somewhat of a media-advertising vehicle. From his office in Atlanta, Matt Smith, director of sales for Oceanside, Calif.-based Federal Sign, says, "Retailers are more conscious of their image. That's probably due to the competition, but it's also because signs are used more in advertising - both in TV and print."

Many big-box retailers are also looking to banner signage to add warmth to venues as shoppers drive into parking lots and walk into stores. Diana Aurigemma of Highflying Banners Inc., Seattle, says, "Many of the big-boxes are looking to humanize themselves a bit, and we're finding that they're using banners."

Yet, whether banners or traditional signs are chosen, many sign professionals report more of an emphasis on pure aesthetics. As Michael Palesny, president of Elk Grove, Ill.-based Charleston Industries, says, "We're seeing more and more custom-type looks, and less off-the-shelf signage."

Some signage professionals point to a trend toward their businesses becoming one-stop-service shops for their clients. "Firms like ours are now expected to assist in the design, engineering and even concept phases," says Adam Beatty, president of Los Angeles-based DSA/Phototech. As such, Beatty's company has taken on the role of team member in working with retailer Sunglass Hut.

Other signage professionals point to a trend toward local governing communities and even landlords getting more involved with what types of signage are installed on retail buildings. Craig White, president of Sheboygan, Wis.-based Priority Sign, says, "Landlords are trying to make sure the aesthetics of the signage fits the architecture of the facility itself, and that signs match up with the surrounding area."

However signage is used, it's clear that its significance is deeper than meets the eye. In the case studies that follow, signage professionals disclose the goals and challenges of their latest retail signage programs.

Instant recognition is key At least for freestanding onsite exteriors, oftentimes a big sign is the best choice. In order to be effective, retail signage must be seen. Yet, sometimes, visibility is a challenge when retail projects or freestanding retailers are positioned at the bottom of a hill, sit off to the side of a bustling interstate, or simply get lost by blending in with the surroundings.

Oceanside, Calif.-based Federal Sign recently encountered just such a visibility challenge.

"One of our clients is Kohl's department stores," says Federal Sign's director of sales, Matt Smith, from his Atlanta office. "Most of their buildings are freestanding, so they're looking to maximize their signage."

One Atlanta-area Kohl's store rests at the bottom of a hill below Interstate 400 in Cumming, Ga. "We're putting up a sign that's about 165 feet tall at that location," says Smith. "We have to work with the city officials to be able to put up a sign that tall, and it takes a lot of coordination. Then we have to use specialized equipment and a crane truck for the installation."

Icon Identity Solutions, headquartered in Elk Grove Village, Ill., delivers a consistent identity solution for many national retailers such as Walgreens. It is Icon's goal to be the client's single-source solution, managing all aspects required to implement a consistent brand image nationwide. Icon Identity Solutions enjoys a 60-year relationship with Walgreens, manufacturing and installing signs at over 300 sites per year within the Midwest, from Michigan to Florida, and Puerto Rico. "Walgreens displays a retail image to the public that is easily recognizable, and the signage is consistent throughout their entire program," says Vince DeSantis, Icon vice president/senior project manager.

Walgreens' signage displays both its name and services, such as photo developing and 24-hour pharmacy. Many Walgreens' stores also feature readerboards listing daily product specials that correspond with print advertising. The readerboard allows people in drive-by traffic to see what's on sale that day. As Sharon Tascher, corporate supervisor of exterior sign programs for Walgreens, notes, "Our customers like to know what the specials are for the week, and we have a lot of traffic that we draw in by drive-bys. Our readerboard pulls people in who normally might not stop."

Tascher and DeSantis together form a successful team management program for Walgreens. "Our customer-focused philosophy has changed how we do business," says DeSantis. To meet Walgreens' goal of having primary signs installed 90-days prior to store opening, Icon Identity Solutions restructured its project management process. Today specialists within its organization are responsible for specific functions and tasks such as permit approvals, sign installation and inventory management.

Icon's team management, customer-focused approach has resulted in an "on-time/early installation record" and consistent brand imaging. "Their team management philosophy has enabled us to meet our primary objectives," says Tascher.

Looking at signs as graphic art Sometimes, signs don't bear retailer names, logos or lettering of any kind. They can simply add warmth and decoration to retail destinations, both inside and out, setting a particular tone.

At Cavendish Square shopping mall in Cape Town, South Africa, Seattle-based Highflying Banners Inc. created banner signage to mimic the seasons. As the company's co-owner and head designer, Diana Aurigemma says, "Cavendish Square has different themes for different seasons. So we covered the cables of an elevator that goes up eight stories with seasonal banners that ride up and down with them."

The 85-foot-long banners are functioning as strictly decorative elements at present. "They're a complex pattern, a plaid with leaves in it," says Aurigemma. "They look fantastic. Right now, they don't contain any advertising, but that could open up a whole new market."

Highflying Banners also provided decorative banner images for the light poles at Charter Oak Factory Stores, as well as a series of decorative banners for Pan Pacific Properties of Vista, Calif.

"We did a whole series of banners for Pan Pacific that are decorative," says Aurigemma, "but on one narrow panel there's the name of each store within a particular center, such as Wal-Mart or Fashion Bug. This type of signage helps make the center look both attractive and distinctive."

Traditional retail signage also is blending more with art, becoming very thematic, reports David Chapman, director of 3D Group Environmental Graphic Services in Tampa, Fla. As Chapman says, "Retail signage is getting away from the typical look of just identity and getting into an entire themed feel."

For a recent job, Mission Viejo mall in Mission Viejo, Calif., 3D Group created signage that blurs the line between sign and art. "The design company created an icon of a large pineapple in the food court, and the theme was carried throughout the project," says Chapman, "including a large metal sculpture of a pineapple in the food court. The major sign created for the food court was what you'd classify as artwork."

Richmond, Va.-based Ad Vice Inc. also is creating more art-worthy signs for its clients. As David Goodwin, president, says, "More lively and colorful things are going on now, as opposed to just straightforward box signs or channel letters."

Last year, Ad Vice created a graphic masterpiece in its signage for Coastal Way Shopping Center in Spring Hill, Fla. The signage is so eye appealing, Goodwin reports, that it is helping to promote the center.

"It has great shapes and simulated faux finishes," he says. "The signage is helping put up some big numbers - it gets a lot of response with no additional cost to the developer or the tenants."

"Signage isn't about just labeling entrances anymore," Goodwin adds. "It's trying to create an inviting aesthetic."

Adam Beatty, president of Los Angeles-based DSA/Phototech, agrees signage is about more than place marking these days. Many of the firm's clients use signs to set a tone.

"A lot of our customers, such as Guess?, Polo and Quicksilver, are using signage not just to convey a mood and message through graphics, but through the fixtures themselves," he says. "These respected retailers install large, bold, eye-catching illuminators to help set their desired mood."

Signage can convey subtle information Retail signage professionals today must create products in line with the increasing inflow of Main Street and infill retail projects.

"I don't know if it's a trend as much as keeping up with what the development industry is doing," says Michael Burch, project principal with Santa Rosa, Calif.-based Scott AG. "We're seeing sign programs just like the developments - trying to create a sense of place that feels like downtown or a very familiar place."

Along with the trend toward creating a Main Street feel with signage, keeping pace with many of today's retail projects, Burch sees a need for subtlety to help enhance authenticity.

"The trick with these projects is letting them be unobtrusive in a way," he says. "Yet, you're still dealing with a retail project that needs identity - that somehow needs to say to people that there's a group of retailers there, along with available parking."

At Bay Street, Emeryville, a mixed-use development located in Emeryville, Calif., Scott AG is working on just such a project. The complex, which includes retail with residential above it, theaters and restaurants, is slated to be an authentic urban shopping district for the city.

"For Bay Street, we're creating a signage system that really makes Bay Street look like an area of town," Burch says, "almost like Union Square in San Francisco."

One challenge Scott AG is facing with the project is directing people to designated parking, instead of visitors trying to pick a parking spot along the street in front of a particular store. Parking signage plays a key role in creating a profitable parking flow throughout the project. "You really want to get people captured and working through the project," says Burch.

Subtlety in signage is also a component Scott AG is bringing to traditional mall projects. Westside Pavilion in Santa Monica, Calif., was a recent re-imaging project for Scott AG. The indoor mall was filled with a jumble of signage containing tenant names hung randomly within a three-story atrium.

"The architect for the project cleaned it up and made it very elegant, taking out the clutter," says Burch. "Then we came back in and added the jewelry to the center, essentially, in a very subtle and sophisticated way."

Scott AG reworked the mall's former tenant sign blade program with similar-looking tenant blades that contain uniform black tenant logos. "Before, all of the tenants were responsible for doing their own blade signs, and the result was a conglomeration of everyone's different ideas about how big and bright they could make it," explains Burch.

"We took out the visual clutter," he says. "We created an elegant sign fixture, with metals and colors coordinating with the architecture. It's more effective than when tenants go out and create their own."

The signage firm also created directional signage that had not been a part of the former mall. "Again, it's very elegant," Burch points out. "Some of the hanging directional signs also double as light fixtures. There are actually quite a few signs, but you don't realize it. Yet, the shopper probably has 10 times the information for using the center than before the renovation. It's a real success."

Scott AG also found success in its update of a 1950s shopping center in Santa Rosa, Calif., known as Montgomery Village. The firm took the aging neighborhood center and, through redesign of its signage, brought it into the 21st century.

"The center took a big step forward," says Burch, noting the quality and make of the signage Scott AG created was critical for drawing both new visitors and potential tenants.

Digital technology comes to the forefront Today, traditional printing and design are beginning to give way to the latest technologies - digital printing and digital imaging. And many sign professionals are finding these new technologies to be liberating.

Harmon Sign, which recently merged with Planet Neon, a creative group known for its conceptual and unusual sign design work, is making use of the new technology. As Jeff Kasper, vice president of Toledo-based Harmon Sign/Planet Neon, says, "We're seeing more unique sign work today, with a lot more use of color, along with an increase in digital printing in the industry."

Diana Aurigemma, co-owner and head designer at Seattle-based Highflying Banners Inc., concurs. "One of the newest trends is in digital printing. Digital printing is the new way to get graphics onto fabric, as opposed to silkscreen or applique."

Digital graphics also are coming into play in retail sign design. "From a retail end, we're certainly seeing a move toward digital graphics, which add an element of enhanced flexibility," says Lara Fedele, marketing communications manager for Rochester, N.Y.-based Empire Forster.

"Digital graphics also give retailers the opportunity to change signage every three to six months, according to their promotions," Fedele continues. "It's just a more cost-effective option than traditional print advertising."

On the flip side of improved printing and imaging processes in the signage industry is improved fabrics on which to print. Pawtucket, R.I.-based Cooley Sign Systems Inc. works with national chains, end-users and architects and is making strong advances in the creation of fabric. It's now able to warrant its products up to 10 years in some instances.

"We recently did a Subway sandwich shop at Trump Tower in New York," says Peter A. Douglas, national sales manager for Cooley. "They traditionally use yellow fabric, but we created a special black fabric for them."

Increasingly, whether signage will last is a concern today. "We're seeing people become more conscious of longevity in terms of the aesthetics," Douglas notes. "Nowadays, we have the pigments and inks that will last longer."

Yet, despite all the advances new technologies are bringing to the retail signage arena, many signage experts report that digital printing, in particular, is lacking in longevity. The inks used for digital printing have yet to hold up to the rigors of outdoor conditions.

"In digital printing right now, the inks won't hold up well for exterior work, but that's beginning to change," says Aurigemma. "A number of large companies, such as Hewlett Packard, are now developing inks that will hold up outdoors."

A new signage frontier? Perhaps signage of the future won't be "signs" at all. Visual messaging is the wave of the future, according to Dan Cole, vice president of marketing and sales for Wilsonville, Ore.-based Clarity Visual.

"Digital technology has become faster, better and cheaper over the past several years," Cole says. "It really avails itself to the application of replacing printed signage in retail environments."

While printed signage clearly has been the mainstay in retail merchandising for the past 150 years, some retailers have begun to replace visual merchandising signage with television screens in the past 10 to 15 years. Yet, Clarity Visual holds the position that TV is not well suited to the retail environment.

"First of all, people equate television screens with TV, which many people are turned off by," says Cole. "Plus, the whole idea of a television in a store doesn't work well from a technical standpoint. It's too small and has a curved screen that glares.

"In addition, merchandisers tend to run video on it," he continues. "And when you have a person passing a site with only seconds to get a message across, video messages are usually too long."

In response, Clarity Visual puts together special messages that are tailored to retail - messages that oftentimes replace traditional interior merchandising signage.

"We put together fast-paced, very animated messages that not only catch people's attention, but that they can grasp in a very short amount of time," says Cole. "We provide these messages over a network, so that more than one store can get the same message, or a variety of messages."

To benefit from the idea of TV but without the drawbacks it holds for retail, Clarity Visual manufactures special digital screens. "One is a glass plasma screen, which is very thin," he says. "The other is a special kind of screen we make that is a self-contained rear projection video cube."

The screen is "very flat, so it can be tiled together and makes as large a screen as a retailer wants," says Cole. "And, because it's digital, it's very easy to network these units from one location to another."