Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Content for LED Signs/Digital Signage: ENSURE your WORDS have IMPACT!

-Deacon Wardlow

I came across a great article written by Kevin Larson Titled, The Science of Word Recognition or how I learned to stop worrying and love the bouma. This was written for Microsoft in 2004 (who would’ve thought, Microsoft has personable articles which are easily read and enjoyed by non-geek individuals). Today’s blog is abbreviation of the article (and some other research) with an eye towards digital content creation.

My curiosity was peaked when I was debating whether people should use all caps or sentence case (words with upper and lowercase) on a display for text or perhaps a mix of both. Solely all caps is a no-no because it takes longer to read/comprehend while mixed case allows for faster reading because we’re more familiar with words containing sentence  case as opposed to all caps. In 1886 a psycholinguist (great job title) named Cattell suggested we read by associating shapes with words:

Zip ahead about 100 years and further research found the way we read is by recognition of a word’s component letters and then use visual information (the first and last letters in a word) to recognize the word. This is why you can read the following paragraph:

I cnduo't bvleiee taht I culod aulaclty uesdtannrd waht I was rdnaieg. Unisg the icndeblire pweor of the hmuan mnid, aocdcrnig to rseecrah at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dseno't mttaer in waht oderr the lterets in a wrod are, the olny irpoamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rhgit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it whoutit a pboerlm. Tihs is bucseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey ltteer by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Aaznmig, huh? Yaeh and I awlyas tghhuot slelinpg was ipmorantt! See if yuor fdreins can raed tihs too.

What does all this have to do with content?
The ability for your target audience to quickly read, imprint and recall the message is based on how you present your content. If you’re in an average situation, you’ve got a 5 second window to make an impression. Weird font choices aside, the more legible, short and to-the-point your message, the easier the target gets the message and recalls it. Coming back to CAPS. A message in all CAPS will force the target to slow down to read the message. Great if you have a 10+ second window of opportunity, if you have the 5 here’s the best way to go about it:

Think of it like a Monster truck ad:

Or a sale notice::
SALE! 2 days only, Fri. and Sat..

Because of current technology (i.e. email, Twitter, Facebook, etc.), you likely read the CAPS as a shout with the mixed case as a “regular” level voice. CAPS definitely have a place in content as both an emphasis and combiner. The human mind likes patterns and order and groups things. Whatever is in CAPS will likely be grouped in the mind (SALE! - STOP IN NOW!) the lower case is set in the background impression.

When you’re putting together that new message, try out the mix and have someone take a quick look at the display (less than 5 seconds) and see what they remember. The CAPS will stand out, the rest will likely be there. Short, powerful, direct and to-the-point messages will leave the imprint you’re hoping the target walks away with. What they remember, is up to you.

If you like to dig even deeper, this is the article the blog was based on:http://www.microsoft.com/typography/ctfonts/wordrecognition.aspx

*Always feel free to comment here and/or email me directly with requests at deacon@vantageled.com. Vantage LED has white paper resources and more educational material on the website (http://www.vantageled.com), please check it out when you have a moment.

**Note all posts/thoughts/writings are strictly the viewpoint of me and me alone and do not reflect nor speak for Vantage LED’s beliefs, attitudes, thoughts, etc. unless specifically stated.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

On site service warranties - Make sure your investment is adequately protected!

-Deacon Wardlow

Underwriting has been around in one form or another for centuries. Lloyd’s of London is perhaps one of the most famous underwriters (with policies insuring trade goods dating back to the 17th century). Having an underwritten insurance has been a standard “must” on trade, isn’t it time the same rules applied to underwritten warranties for on-site service?

A common complaint in the Digital Signage industry (specifically relating to Programmable LED Signs) is the concern on dealing with manufacturers and vendors who are around one day and gone the next (usually around the time when warranty-related issues start cropping up). With so many fly-by-night resellers and manufacturers coming-and-going, there’s a standing distrust of manufacturers and the companies selling the systems. Even companies who’ve been around for more than a decade have fallen to the pains of an ever tightening economic downturn. These pains are, unfortunately, no stranger to the sign industry.

How can a company ensure parts and warranty are covered through the lifetime of a Programmable LED Sign? Where should dealers and end-users turn when they need help with their system? A third-party underwritten service warranty is the answer. No company can say with 100% assurance they’ll be running strong 5 years from now. Businesses change hands, financial issues occur, some companies close their doors and others are merged with larger corporations. A 3rd party underwritten warranty protects both dealers and end-users against future issues.

While many reliable (and several not-so reliable) manufacturers offer a five year parts warranty, few follow-through with a standard option for an underwritten on-site service warranty. Often when they offer the service warranty, it’s through a division of the manufacturer’s own business. The problem with this is the contract resides with the manufacturer and if something happens to that manufacturer, the warranty is meaningless.

Having a third-party company come into the mix allows for everyone to be covered. Should something occur to the manufacturer which made the display or the sign business which sold the LED system, the third party company will be around to ensure the parts and service warranty is covered. Should something happen to the third party underwriter, there are several other qualified companies who will pick up the contract and continue coverage.

When you’re looking at your source for Programmable LED Signage, do they work to ensure you’re covered in every possible way? Check their standard policy with on-site warranties and make sure they have this offered through a third party. A reliable Programmable LED Sign manufacturer should be looking after the interests of your investment for its lifespan and working to ensure you’re covered should even the worst situation occur. This is the difference between being just another vendor and an active partner for your success. Make sure there’ll be someone answering that phone several years down the line should there be a problem. Make sure your choice of manufacturer offers the option for a 3rd party underwritten on-site service warranty. The underwritten policy is your life jacket when treading the uncertain waters of business.

*Please comment here and/or email me directly with requests at deacon@vantageled.com. Vantage LED has white paper resources and more educational material on the website (http://www.vantageled.com), check out the site periodically as we’re constantly adding new material.

**Note all posts/thoughts/writings are strictly the viewpoint of me and me alone and do not reflect nor speak for Vantage LED’s beliefs, attitudes, thoughts, etc. unless specifically stated.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Permitting LED Signs - Part 3: Research the Code Yourself

This post is a continuation of my Permitting LED Signs series. Part 1 can be viewed here and Part 2 here

In this post, I will focus on obtaining and researching the code yourself. This will take a bit longer than calling the city but it can allow you to learn things that the city planners may not know, or just not tell you. I have personally come across this multiple times, usually in larger cities where I had to correct the planner on the code and confirm the right information.

Google is a major resource when getting this done. Be sure to get all the information listed below before diving into the sign code. It will save time in the long run.

1. Determine your property’s Zoning District:
Many cities now have zoning maps online. They are not always up to date, but serve as a good guide. Find your city website and look for any link that has to do with Zoning or Planning. This will usually guide you to the zoning map. If you have trouble, you can always just google “zoning map” and “city name”, or call the city as detailed in Part 2. Most maps will have a Key, that will let you know your zoning code. (like GC for General Commercial, or R1 for Residential - Type 1).

2. Determine who regulates your sign code:
When you look at the zoning map, you may find that your property isn’t actually in the city boundaries. You will then need to contact the County and determine your Zoning District and get the sign code and regulations. Counties usually have a website too with this information.

3. Get your property “Plat Map”:
This is a map of your property lines and measurements. It can usually be found by calling your County Tax Assessor/Collector or going to the website and doing a “property search”. Many counties have a direct link to online mapping services (sometimes call GIS) that will allow you to search a live/updated property map.

You are now ready to get the sign code.The City or County websites will usually have a link in the Zoning, Development, or Land Use section. Search google for “Sign Code ‘city name’ “ or “ Municipal Code”.
There are also two very common code providers online. Both sites have many codes hosted and are used by many cities to host the code directly.

Most codes have 3-5 main areas that deal with the sign code specifically:

  • General Regulation.
  • Rules Specific for Zoning Districts
  • Rules Specific for “Special Districts” like historic areas or “downtown” areas.
  • Prohibited Signs.
  • Exemptions and Misc. Regulations.

Different cities organize these differently, some examples:

Example #1 Some may have a large General Regulation section, that covers every type of sign. It will only list “exceptions” to the main regulation for each zoning district. Each zoning district has its own “prohibited” signs section.

Example  #2 They might have a very small General Section but each zoning district has a full description of what is allowed, and what is not allowed. It also has a Special Exceptions section where certain entities are allowed different regulations. Typically this will apply to Churches and Schools.

Example #3 Some codes only include specific sign regulations for specific Zoning districts. Any districts not listed falls under the General Regulations.

I always start with the prohibited section. Sometimes this only applies to certain districts, but sometime it can apply to the entire city. Unfortunately some places do try to prohibit LED signs altogether. You can save time by reading this section first.

Read through the General Section, and your specific regulations for your zoning district. You are trying to answer the following questions:

  • What types of signs are allowed?
    • Common terms for general signage:
      • Monument Signs: Low lying signs, usually with a wide base no visible pole or structure. Think neighborhood subdivision entrance sign.
      • Pole Signs, or Pylon Signs: Signs on poles, usually higher up off the ground.
      • Building or Roof Sign: Identification signs mounted to the building itself.
      • Multi-Tenant Signs: Signs with multiple business advertised. Think strip mall, or shopping center.
    • Common terms for LED signs:
      • Electronic Message Center
      • Electronic Changeable Copy Signs
      • LED Message Center
      • Electronic Marqee
      • Scrolling Message Center
      • Scrolling Sign
  • Are there any specific restrictions to LED signs?
    • This can be display time, animation, or brightness restrictions. Some cities require a “Special Use Agreement” that you must sign, agreeing to adhere to the restrictions.
  • How is the allowable surface area calculated?
    • This is usually done by the amount of street frontage your property has. This is the reason you have the “Plat Map” to get an official measurement of your street frontage. Typically this is something like: “...2 square ft allowed, per linear foot of street frontage, not to exceed 50 square feet...”
  • What is counted as “sign” surface area, and what is counted as just “structure”?
    • See my post in Part 2 regarding this. Signs vary greatly in shape size. How does your city measure oddly shaped signs?
  • How high can the sign be?
  • How many signs (of each type) can you have on the property?
    • If you have more than one “street frontage” you are often allowed signs on each frontage.
  • Where can the signs be located?
  • How far back from the property line does the sign need to be?
    • This is often called setback. It is usually in the General Section. If you can’t find it, ask the city planner.
  • If LED signs are not allowed, is there a variance process?

Often, the code will reference other sections like: “...these signs are allowed per section 11.202.3, with the following restrictions...” This can be tedious, but stick to it and read through the sections.

Write down each section number and reference that pertains to your situation so you can quickly find the information later. The Copy and Paste functions on your computer can be very helpful with this. As you see a section that pertains to you, just copy and paste the section into a word doc, or email. This will help you greatly if you need to call the city to confirm something, or verify your information.

I recommend to always verify with the city planner. Write down any questions as you are reading, so you can be prepared when you call. Most planners are very nice and easy to talk to, but as I said in the previous posts, they MUST give you a specific reference in the code for any restrictions. It is not rude to ask nicely for these references, even if it sounds like the planner may not want to take the time to look it up. Make sure you are 100% comfortable with the answers, and your understanding of the code. Its worth the extra time to talk with them to make sure you are clear on everything.

Remember to always be polite. Arguing with a planner on how the code was made, or why it was written a certain way will not do you any good. Get the facts, and if you disagree with the regulations bring it up with the city council. If you feel that the planner isn’t very familiar with the sign code, politely ask to speak with someone who is.

Getting into the sign code itself can be a challenge but it is worth the extra effort to make sure you know the regulations for your property. Hopefully this series has provided good insight into the task, and can be a resource for a variety of people in a variety of situations.

* I welcome ALL constructive comments. Please feel free to comment and add anything I’ve missed, or additional tips you may have regarding this topic. Please visit www.vantageled.com for many other resources, white papers, and of course: Great looking LED Signs

**All posts/thoughts/writings are strictly the viewpoint of me and me alone and do not reflect nor speak for Vantage LED’s beliefs, attitudes, thoughts, etc. unless specifically stated.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The hidden cost of "free."

- Deacon Wardlow

Is anything really free these days? When the word “FREE!” appears on an advertisement, is there some part of you which questions, “Ok, but what’s it really going to cost me?” I’m a partial pessimist on things like this and I often wonder where the catch or cost is. I can walk into my favorite ice cream shop for a “free” taste sample, but both the store and I know the chance is good I’m going to leave having bought something and you can rest assured those free samples have been factored into the cost of my cone.

“Free” software for a Programmable LED Sign is a dangerous thing. I’ve been around the block a few times with Electronic Message Centers (EMCs, LED Signs, EDS, etc.). I’ve seen a lot of manufacturers take the route of the generic control system (but the software is free for download). The software may be free to download, but it’ll cost you a lot of time and effort to learn it well enough to support it (you’ll find free support lacking with your free software), and an even larger amount of time to track down someone responsible when something in the software doesn’t work the way it should. All this time (money) wasted because a manufacturer wanted something “free” and didn’t want to spend more to develop their own software. That bit of free will cost you in the long term.

Another issues with the word “free” is it's often masked by the word “included.” Anything that’s included is paid for by you, it’s just not itemized. Make sure the real cost on non-standard add-ons is given to you up front and a manufacturer can show you what is really “included” and what’s not. Do customers need wireless radio communications “included” if they’re going to use a direct-connect cable? A good manufacturer (and their sales reps) will work with you to ensure an end-user gets what they need and doesn’t end up pay for an awning on a submarine.

The last bit on free I have is the “free” support offered by many manufacturers. That support isn’t free, it’s included in the cost of your message center. Things like this shouldn’t be labeled as “free” or “included” they should be standard. Finding a manufacturer who will stand behind and support their product line is a must. If they list something as “free” or “included” be wary because they may one day decide that option comes at a higher cost than you want to pay. Remember, the first taste is free, but one way or another you’ll end up paying.

*Please comment here and/or email me directly with requests at deacon@vantageled.com. Vantage LED has white paper resources and more educational material on the website (http://www.vantageled.com), please check it out when you have a moment.

**Note all posts/thoughts/writings are strictly the viewpoint of me and me alone and do not reflect nor speak for Vantage LED’s beliefs, attitudes, thoughts, etc. unless specifically stated.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Permitting LED Signs - Part 2: Calling the Local Government

This post is a continuation of my Permitting LED Signs series. Part 1 can be viewed here.

In this post, I will focus on calling your local government. This is usually the best method to start with. You can still run into problems and mis-information but it can save some time and effort and get you pointed in the right direction.

In most cases either the City, or County will regulate the sign code for your property address. However, there are some areas where you may be located in the County, but the City still regulates the sign code. This is usually called an ETJ, or Extended Territorial Jurisdiction.
  • Start with the City Planning Department. Every city will have an organization like this in some form or another. They are in charge of zoning, and land use regulations. Go to your city website and look for any links that have to do with Planning and/or Zoning. Most sites will also have a “General Information” line to call if you can’t find the direct number on the website. 
  • Tell them you are interested in permitting an LED Sign, and need to know who governs the sign code for your address. If they do not govern the sign code, they should be able to tell you who does (usually the County) and give you a number for their planning dept.

When you are talking to the planner, use the following guide and keep a pen handy to write down any important information:
  • Determine your Zoning District and write it down for verification.
  • Determine if LED signs are permissible in your district. If not, ask them to point out the specific reference in the sign code.
  • Determine the restrictions required so you can make sure to design and purchase the right size LED sign.
  • The planner may also have access to your property “Plat Drawing” information. This land drawing shows property lines and measurements. If they have it you can get the length of your street frontage. If not they should be able to refer you to someone who can.

If LED signs are allowed, there will be certain restrictions based on square footage, height, content, and display times.
  • The permissibility, height and square footage are usually determined by the Zoning District of your property, then by the linear street frontage of your property line.
  • Be sure to ask them what makes up the "allowable sign area" or "sign square footage". Signs are not always rectangles. They can incorporate many shapes, sizes, trim, pole covers, etc...You need to know how these are dealt with in the city code. Some examples are shown below:
This method only counts the actual signage with text.

This method includes the entire sign design and pole cover

  • Remember,  the methods used will vary so make sure you know how your specific city/county determines sign area.
Sometimes LED signs are specifically prohibited and sometimes they are prohibited by a general description -  I.E. “No signs shall be installed that change messages or color by electrical means...”
  • Be sure to ask the planner to kindly to direct you to the specific ordinance text that forbids them. There are usually multiple references; write them down so you can verify later.
  • Many areas have “special use” permits and/or a “Variance Review” process that can allow organizations with disadvantages or special needs to use signs that wouldn't be allowed otherwise. Be sure to ask the planner about these options and any required paperwork.
Verify the information you receive, good or bad. Humans do make mistakes, and if you feel in any way that the planner isn’t familiar with the sign code, ask to talk to a supervisor and verify. Always be very polite.

Sometimes trying to contact the city government can look overwhelming on the surface, but usually all it takes is a quick call to the general information line to get you in touch with the right person. The people you need to speak to are almost always in the Zoning/Planning department.

My next post (Part 3) will be about researching and verifying the code and regulations yourself. This is usually a good idea, even if the city planner tells you the sign is permissible. Nobody wants to be in a situation where they’ve put down good money for a sign, only to find out that the planner gave you incorrect information.

-Scott Hofheins

* I welcome ALL constructive comments. Please feel free to comment and add anything I’ve missed, or additional tips you may have regarding this topic. Please visit www.vantageled.com for many other resources, white papers, and of course: Great looking LED Signs!

**All posts/thoughts/writings are strictly the viewpoint of me and me alone and do
not reflect nor speak for Vantage LED’s beliefs, attitudes, thoughts, etc.
unless specifically stated.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Virtual Resolution (VR) Demystified

-Deacon Wardlow

Virtual Resolution (VR), Pixel sharing, Enhanced Pixel Performance, whatever you want to call it, the technology has been around for more than a decade, but has only recently begun to truly shine with regard to performance.

A Pixel is a grouping of LEDs (1 red, 1 green, 1 blue aka 1R1G1B, sometimes 2R1G1B). A pixel pitch is the measurement from one center point of a pixel to the next center point. The tighter the pitch, the closer the pixels and the higher the resolution of the display. As you can see from the images, virtual pixel technology improves the resolution of letters and images.

         20mm Non‐Virtual                 20mm - 10mm Virtualized

Virtual Resolution (VR)
Virtual Resolution: LED pixels are able to share LEDs between them, thus halving the distance from one pixel to another and virtually doubling the resolution of the display (ex: If you have a 20mm display with a 48 x 96 matrix, its virtual resolution would be double at 96 x 192). This results in smoother graphics (less blocking) and extremely dynamic and fluid video.

This improvement is achieved by sharing individual LEDs between pixels. While a “regular” pixel only has single red, blue and green LEDs available, a virtual board can use blended LEDs from any other nearby pixel thus making a sharper, cleaner image. With any technology which is hard to reproduce, there are the nay-sayers and rumor-mongers.

A few of the biggest myths out there regarding virtual resolution:
  1. The technology overdrives LEDs and causes them to burn out faster.
  2. LED Signs using VR has blurry text and static images don’t look clear.
  3. VR puts a strain on the system causing the controller to fail prematurely.
  4. VR makes a 20mm sign look exactly like a 10mm sign.

There is a small amount of truth in the best of lies and it's important (as always) to pay attention to the details. In brief:

1. LED Early Burnout Some unscrupulous manufacturers overdrive their LEDs to make them brighter. Unfortunately these same manufacturers also utilize VR technology. The overdriving of LEDs has nothing to do with VR. Overdriving LEDs is a poor choice for a short-game sale which causes a display’s LEDs to depreciate faster and the sign to lose performance over time; a sign which should have been good for five to ten years is only good for two or three (at best). Because the two were coming hand-in-hand when the technology first was in use, people still associate VR systems with overdriving.

2. Poor Resolution

Take a look at the picture above, if anything the e is vastly improved and not “fuzzy" at all. The same is true with images. VR helps tremendously with animated content (especially video). Video runs at 25 frames per second and often has a slight "blur" with heavy motion. Real Pixel displays often have issues replicating the blur where a VR display can smoothly duplicate the effect. Some people mistakenly associate the "blur" explanation with VR overall and thus the fuzzy understanding.

3. System Strain

VR technology simply shares LEDs. The way it shares each LED is complex but doesn’t burden a controller with any additional computing power which it isn’t already pushing to the sign. Most of the “work” is done in the chipsets themselves and how the chips are “addressed” in a system.

4. I can't believe it's not a real pixel

A lot of salespeople will tell you a 20mm virtual looks just like a 10mm real. This simply isn’t true. The real thing will always be better. A 20mm virtual will make the display look crisper, more defined with sharper images and smoother lines. It’s an upgrade on the system which makes it stand out from the competition and usually the upgrade comes at a lower cost than buying a tighter pixel pitch (great for end-users who just can’t afford the next step up).

Virtual Resolution technology is here to stay and with the vast improvements in the technology, it’s just going to keep getting better. It’s a cost efficient option to improve sign definition for end-users and should definitely be an option carried by your manufacturer. If the manufacturer you’re looking at doesn’t offer VR, ask them what other technologies they aren't offering/integrating. Make sure they're giving you the best system options possible. Don't make the very real mistake of overlooking the virtual option for your LED sign.

*Always feel free to comment here and/or email me directly with requests at deacon@vantageled.com. Vantage LED has white paper resources and more educational material on the website (http://www.vantageled.com), please check it out when you have a moment.

**Note all posts/thoughts/writings are strictly the viewpoint of me and me alone and do not reflect nor speak for Vantage LED’s beliefs, attitudes, thoughts, etc. unless specifically stated.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Digital Graffitti, make sure you're protected.

-Deacon Wardlow

Taki 183, Cope2, Banksy, all are renowned names in the graffiti world. Some do it for fun, others as a form of social protest, regardless of the reason graffiti is prolific and continues to grow with the advancement of new technologies. There’s a new form of graffiti “artist” emerging. Graffiti taggers who have technical know-how.

One branch of technology which had been previously thought “immune” to graffiti was digital signage. This is rapidly changing as technology becomes more accessible. Graffiti “hackers” are finding ways to gain access to digital signage and are using the medium as they see fit. This undermines the large investment you (and your clients) have put into digital signage.

How can you shield your signage from digital graffiti attacks? Here are a few simple steps to check with a Programmable LED sign manufacturer to ensure you’re protected:

1. Is the software secured?
The software for the Programmable LED Sign should be protected either with an activation code, a physical USB key or locked-down to a specific computer with restricted access. This ensures only the people you want communicating with the sign can do so. Unfortunately, a lot of systems purchased from China use standardized software from a few manufacturers who make their software readily available for download online. These manufacturers have “serial codes” to activate the software, but the codes are useless as they list the activation code online alongside the download link. Anyone can download the software suites and then it’s a simple matter of testing the system to see which piece of software you’re using. Make sure the software you’re getting with the sign is specific to the manufacturer and secured.

2. Is the sign communication protected?
If you have a hard-wired communication line (ethernet or fiber), make sure the line is secured within the sign and conduit and can’t quickly/easily be accessed from the sign base. If you’re using wireless ethernet, make sure the SSID (Service Set IDentifier, the name your wireless radio utilizes) is suppressed (not showing on a search for wireless devices). Wireless radios should also be locked-in to only accept signals from a paired radio/device. Any openings allow someone the opportunity to “piggyback” on the signal and communicate with the display.

3. What steps has the manufacturer taken to secure the system?
Check with the manufacturer and see if they’ve had any problems with digital graffiti before. Any reputable Programmable LED sign manufacturer should be able to give you recommendations on securing your system properly against attacks.

Don’t let your LED Sign be a digital graffiti target. While some people find it amusing to see a sign messed with, neither you nor the end-user will be smiling if they wake to see Zombie warnings on their system...

*Always feel free to comment here and/or email me directly with requests at deacon@vantageled.com. Vantage LED has white paper resources and more educational material on the website (http://www.vantageled.com), please check it out when you have a moment.

**Note all posts/thoughts/writings are strictly the viewpoint of me and me alone and do not reflect nor speak for Vantage LED’s beliefs, attitudes, thoughts, etc. unless specifically stated.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Permitting LED Signs - Part 1: General Overview

I’ve been working on a lot of permit research lately, so I felt a concise guide to permits (if that is even possible with any regulation) would be a great resource for those who are interested in getting an LED sign, and even for those who are working in the industry and are looking for some tips.

LED Signs are a relatively new product, but they are becoming more common with businesses choosing to replacing manual copy boards, and billboard companies switching over to “Digital Billboards”. Technology evolves very quickly, unfortunately state and local regulations do not. This means it is often a challenge to determine if your sign is permissible. However, there are some fundamental tools you can use to get past the bureaucratic hurdles if you're willing to talk to the right people, and spend some time researching the actual code.

Because LED signs didn’t exist or were in their infancy when many sign codes were written, much of the regulation depends on different interpretations of what defines an LED sign in the existing code. Are they manual “changeable letter boards” or “flashing signs” like the old movie theater using light bulbs, or are they “lighted signs” that happen to be able to change the message regularly? Fortunately many local governments are now revising the codes to include specifics on LED signs but there are many who are still use outdated sign code.

Additionally, there is no standard term for LED Signs in the industry. They have been called Electronic Message Centers, LED Displays, LED Signs, LED Message Centers, LED Reader Boards, Electronic Reader Boards, Digital Reader Boards, and host of other combinations. This can make it hard when searching through the city code, even when it’s available online.

Another factor is the distinction between billboards (Off-Site Advertising), and regular business signage (On-Site Advertising). The code that governs each varies greatly in most cities and counties. This series of articles will focus on regular business signage, but can still be useful for those researching Digital Billboard permits.

There are (4) major steps that need to be taken when researching. I will go more into the details in the next series of articles, but a general guide is below:

1. Find out your zoning district.
Every city/county has Zoning Districts that have their own rules on signage. Business “districts” will usually allow more signage options, while residential districts usually restrict signage all together, unless your are a school, church, or charitable organization.
Call or go to your City/County website and look for a “Zoning Map”. Usually available in the Planning, Zoning, or Land Use areas of the website. A google search for “city name” zoning map often provides good results.

2. Get your property line locations and measurements.
Many sign codes base the allowable size of your sign on the length of your property line “street frontage” and require a certain setback from the property line for installation.
You may already have a survey or “Plat map” of your property. If not, these records are kept by your county property tax assessors office. Most offices have a website where you can search a property address. The results will usually have a link to an online version of the “Plat map”. You can always call the assessor's office directly if you have any problems.

3. Review your sign code.
Many cities post there sign code online. Some host it locally, others use websites like www.municode.com or www.amlegal.com
Researching sign code can be a challenging task. Keep the following points in mind when reading through the code.
  • Sign code is usually in the Zoning, Planning, Development, or Land Use section of the main city code.
  • If the code is in electronic form it is usually searchable. Searching for Sign, or Signage will usually point you to the correct section.
  • Most code presents the overall code first, then prohibited signs, then specific restrictions for each Zoning District. It’s always a good thing to look in the prohibited section first, to save you some time.
  • There is usually a “Definitions” section in the code. If the code says “flashing signs are prohibited” you will want to look into the definitions section to determine if LED signs are considered in this group. If not, they may have a separate definition for LED signs. (see my comment on “terms” earlier in this article).

4. Verify
You can always call the city directly. Ask to speak with a city planner and let them know you are researching the permissibility of an LED sign on your property. Remember that anything the planner says about the restrictions must be backed up by a specific part of the code. You have the right to politely ask them for the code reference for any restriction they mention. Planners are also human and can make mistakes. Verify the information you receive, and if you feel like the planner is not familiar with the sign code, ask to speak to someone who is. Always be VERY polite.

I will go into more details on calling the city and researching the code yourself in Part 2 of this series. Hopefully this will be helpful to those that might be afraid to jump into the code themselves or are stuck in the process somewhere, looking for a solution.

-Scott Hofheins

* I welcome ALL constructive comments. Please feel free to comment and add anything I’ve missed, or additional tips you may have regarding this topic. Please visit www.vantageled.com for many other resources, white papers, and of course: Great looking LED signs!

** All posts/thoughts/writings are strictly the viewpoint of me and me alone and do not reflect nor speak for Vantage LED’s beliefs, attitudes, thoughts, etc. unless specifically stated.