From exterior pylons and parking directionals to electronic message boards announcing stores and events, signs play a crucial role at shopping centers and malls. Absolutely critical, however, to ensuring a consistent message at each center is tenant signage.

"Signage plays a very important role for everybody, from consistency for the landlord to not bombarding the shopper," says Judy Murtaugh, director of tenant coordination for Indianapolis-based Simon DeBartolo Group Inc. "There is a fine line we all walk in being able to draw attention to the retailer but not overwhelm the property."

While exterior signage is directed by design of the property as well as local zoning regulations, indoor signage becomes a question to resolve between landlord and tenant. Shopping center owners and managers want a look that complements the center as a whole yet also is inviting to shoppers.

Tenants, on the other hand, are concerned about creating their own image and designing signage that conveys an individual look, feel and style. Their goal is to stand out and be remembered in the crowded, competitive field of retailing.

"Signage is vital, and you can't run a project without a lot of input," says Ken Jacobs, vice president of retail planning and design for Chicago-based General Growth Properties Inc. While each developer has its own criteria and its own bag of tricks for maintaining overall image, each retailer wants as much exposure as possible. "There is give and take from both sides, but retailers usually get what they want as long as it's in good taste," he says.

Retail property owners and managers typically set tenant signage criteria based on the style, theme and location of the shopping center or mall. Tenants typically send in drawings of their proposed signs while lease negotiations are under way. Owners say creativity is appreciated and actively encouraged within the set limits.

The boundaries imposed by center owners, Jacobs says, are a way to avoid a completely unstructured look. "There would be nothingbut huge competition among retailers if there were not limits," he continues.

Brad Smith, director of tenant coordination for Cleveland-based Forest City Management Inc., says the extreme in letting signage speak for itself is Las Vegas. "You can see what the competition among establishments there has done," he says, "and no one wants a mall to look like that. You have to have limits."

No rules vs. rigid rules Whatever the limits are, however, they often vary from site to site even within each company.

Debra Warner, design manager for The Mills Corp., Arlington, Va., points to The Block at Orange in Orange, Calif. "Guidelines are very flexible there because signage is inherent to the attitude and theme of the center," she says. "We have very few limitations as to the type of signs and are instead looking for signs where the quality and design are of a high standard."

Expected to open later this year, The Block is an 800,000 sq. ft., open-air center with more than 60 percent of the space designated for entertainment and dining uses. The project incorporates Main Street tradition with the energy of a big city.

"At The Block at Orange, signage is an integral part of the architecture," says Jerry Engen, vice president and development director for The Mills Corp. "There are different levels of signage, and each retailer will have more than just a sign over the doorway.

"At a typical Mills property," he continues, "signage is more informational and directional. [The Block at Orange] is a completely different project that demands different things."

At the opposite end of the spectrum is The Irvine Co.'s 120,000-acre Irvine Ranch, a group of planned communities with housing, schools, office space and more than 2 million sq. ft. of retail space.

"We are very much in control," says Chuck Trevisan, vice president of architecture and planning for Irvine Community Development Co., a subsidiary of The Irvine Co., Newport Beach, Calif. "We see ourselves as a community and, therefore, look at a much larger picture than a tenant view. Retailers have to come around to our way of thinking or they don't come into our centers."

Each village within the Ranch has a planned theme or style, and retailers must adhere to that look.

"We don't want to plop something down here in Irvine that is appropriate for Poughkeepsie, [N.Y.]," Trevisan says. "We have 20 or so shopping areas within Irvine, and when we establish a theme, we expect our tenants to come in and respect that theme."

While some retailers balk at his company's signage criteria, he says, many national chains have adapted in order to be a part of the complex.

Not just lettering atop a doorway Most national retailers spend a great deal of money, time and designer talent searching for and creating just the right image for their stores - a look revealed not only in signage but also in each store facade and throughout the entire retail space. And as retailers strive to carve a niche for themselves, the trend today is for owners and managers to be more flexible in their criteria.

"Typically, we will leave it up to each tenant to do what is best for their own purposes," says Forest City's Smith. "With the national retailers, the rules are generally not a problem, but those new to the market might need some help and guidance."

Most developers don't hesitate to ask retailers for alternate tenant signage if necessary, but more often changes are requested based on physical conditions of the particular space, which can affect the size, length and type of sign.

"Mostly it is size more than style that affects whether a sign is accepted or not," Murtaugh says. "We try to be as flexible as we can, but we don't want to look like we're playing favoritism in not requiring all our retailers to follow the same format."

And size is an even bigger issue as signage becomes more than just lettering atop a doorway.

"Often, tenants with themed stores or restaurants use signage in a more architectural way, making it integral to the design of the building or store," says Warner of The Mills Corp. "Signage is not necessarily more important than in the past, but it has become more elaborate and tenants seem to spend more money on it."

One reason tenant signage has become more critical is that retailers now compete with other entertainment-type options, as shopping center owners and managers strive to create family entertainment destinations at their centers. Ice rinks, movie theaters, food courts, children's play areas and even children's museums all vie for the consumer's dollars.

Consequently, retailers are creating more entertaining storefronts and ones that project into the mall, beckoning the shopper to come inside. The Disney Store, Warner Bros. Studio Store and FAO Schwarz are all using three-dimensional concepts to grab shoppers' attention.

"Entertainment is absolutely key to what retailers are doing with signage," Jacobs says. "With the mall being entertainment as well as a shopping destination, sometimes people see everything but the retailers."