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Sign Design Tips & Guidelines

Design Tips

Less is More 
Less can be more when designing any sign! Leaving space around the edges and not filling the space completely with your text will add impact to what you do use on the sign. 

Your sign is your "first impression" with the public, and first impressions are lasting impressions. Your sign should project a positive image for the public to have of your business. Potential customers will judge the inside of your business by how it looks on the outside. Don't attempt to sell them with information on the sign - save that information until they are in your business.

Ideally, the design and the colors of your location or building should reinforce the design and colors of your sign (or vice versa). Color is probably the easiest and most cost-effective device for this coordination of design for business identification. 

"White-space". This is the surface area of a sign's face that is left uncovered by either text or graphics. The proper amount of white-space is just as important for quick readability as are graphics, text and colors. In fact, 30% to 40% of the sign's face area should be left as white-space for optimal readability. Having your letters too close to the edge of the sign always looks bad.

Keep the border width and distance from the edge proportional to the size of the sign. Larger signs should have wider borders spaced further from the edge of the sign. Remember, a border is decoration and can be overdone.

Choose contrast colors for your lettering. Blue on green for example is very hard to read. Choose gold or silver letters on a black or dark green sign. Avoid light backgrounds because, while extremely visible, they create glare when illuminated.

ColorSign_Contrast Contrast:
Take a look to the image to the left. Which of the two looks larger... the white one? They are both the same size! The use of a light colored letter against a dark background lends to it seeming larger. Light letters tend to come forward, where dark letters tend to recede.

Cluttered or over-busy signs are irritating to look at. The human eye needs something to focus on. If all the elements of the sign are vying for attention, the design will look bad. Crowding the sign with too much text makes it impossible to read from a car, or at a distance. Therefore, the fewer words the better. Keep It simple.

The Sign Ordinance provides the maximum allowed area by sign type or a maximum size based on linear frontage in combination with the business floor area. The maximum size allowed by the Sign Ordinance does not constitute an entitlement. Certain shopping and business centers have a "sign program" that contains specific requirements such as sign type, copy and background colors. Please consult Sign Ordinance Sections 10-8.104 and 10-8.105. or the Sign Programs web page for specific limitations.


1. All signs should be architecturally integrated with their surroundings in terms of size, shape, color, texture, and lighting so that they are complementary to the overall design of the building and are not in visual competition with other signs in the area. 

2. All signs shall complement their surroundings without competing with each other, shall convey their message clearly and legibly, shall be vandal-proof and weather resistant, and if illuminated, shall not be overly bright for their surroundings. 

3. New signs proposed for existing buildings shall provide a compatible appearance with the building signage of other tenants. With multiple signs on a single building, attempt to bring in a unifying element (such as size), even where no sign program exists.

4. New construction design shall anticipate signage and, where necessary, a sign program. New building design should provide logical sign areas, allowing flexibility for new users as the building is re-tenanted over time. Designs which provide for convenient and attractive replacement of signs are encouraged. 

1. Signs shall be proportionate to the dimensions of their location. Cabinet signs or individual sign letters which overwhelm their location on a parapet or other designated area on the building are not allowed. Existing over-sized cabinet signs shall be replaced with more appropriately sized signage at the time of a sign application. 

2. Wall mounted signs shall be framed to create a clearly defined edge, provide shadow relief and a substantial appearance. 

3. The minimum distance a sign may be placed from the vertical edge of a wall is 18 inches. The minimum distance between tenant's adjoining signs is 36 inches. 

4. Repetitious signage information on the same building frontage shall be avoided, regardless of the sign area square footage allowed in the zoning code. 

5. Signs which are replaced on stucco exteriors can result in unattractive "patched" areas. These potential maintenance problem shall be addressed during the design phase of the project. 

1. Signs composed of individual letters are encouraged. Back-lit (halo-lit, or reverse pan channel) letters are generally desirable for logos and wider individual letters. 

2. Individual metal letters are often the best choice for office identification signs. Cabinet signs are generally not appropriate for office buildings. 

3. The use of roof signs shall be avoided where possible. Alternate locations where the sign can be hung parallel to the store front or facade shall be considered. Where roof signs are the only feasible option, ensure that the bottom of the letters or sign are mounted closely to the roof. Mounting details shall be provided in the application to ensure that the roof sign will be mounted in accordance with this guideline. 

4. Signs which incorporate a mixture of media, such as a cabinet sign with a rim of neon, are not encouraged. 

5. Freestanding monument signs are appropriate for certain office and retail locations within the city. The freestanding sign shall be a low height wherever site conditions allow for visibility. Monument sign materials shall reflect the character of the use and the building the sign identifies. Free-standing sign bases shall be made of permanent, durable materials such as concrete or brick. Bases made of texture-coated sheet metal are discouraged. 

6. Landscaping and irrigation shall be designed around the base of freestanding signs to integrate the sign with the ground plane and screen out any low level flood lights. Irrigation shall be designed so it does not damage the sign. 

7. Freestanding signs on poles which have a top-heavy appearance are discouraged. 

8. Driveway directional signs shall only be used for projects where circulation is complex and traffic must proceed through the site along a specific path for service. Where the layout of the parking lot and driveways are obvious and clearly apparent to the driver entering from the street, directional signage is not appropriate. When not appropriate or needed, such signage can visually clutter the site and will be discouraged. 

9. Where traffic control signage is used it shall conform to the standards found in the State of California Traffic Manual and City of Walnut Creek standard plans. 

10. Skyline signs placed on the upper portions of buildings shall be constructed of individual halo-lit letters if illumination is desired. 

Design & Materials
1. Dark colored backgrounds on signs are generally encouraged. Stark white or extremely bright background colors such as bright red, orange or yellow are discouraged. 

2. Where the design of the sign results in a large field of illuminated background, the use of white or off-white as a background color shall be avoided in favor of a more suitable color. 

3. Visible raceways and transformers for individual letters are strongly discouraged. Sign installation details shall indicate where the transformer and other mechanical equipment will be located. 

4. Exposed supports or guy wires to stabilize signs are strongly discouraged. 

5. For cabinet signs, the use of opaque backgrounds which only allow illumination of the cut-out letter or graphic area is encouraged. This can be accomplished with a metal routed sign face using plexiglass behind (the preferred method) or with a vinyl-coated plexiglass. 

6. When designing a cabinet sign, an ample border around letters shall be maintained. Standard proportions should be 1/4 border, letters, and 1/4 border. 

7. When using reverse pan channel letters, avoid small printing as it does not read well at night. 

8. The color of the trim caps shall match the color of the letter face or the cabinet return. 

9. The use of plastic foam letters is allowed only if used 8 feet or higher above ground level. Each letter must be properly capped with plexiglass. In addition, each letter must be studded and glued to the wall to provide a more secure sign connection. 

10. Flat sheet signs (such as plywood) shall have a trimmed edge or frame to improve the finished appearance of the sign. 

1. Signage which contains business slogans or advertising is not permitted. However, signs may include information describing the products sold or services provided. 

2. Signage must be designed to fit properly into the sign location. In some cases, the corporate identification and/or logo must be split into two or more lines to fit attractively into the space. 

3. Extremely small letters on the sign face (or very small individual letters used as part of a sign) do not read well and are discouraged. 

1. Arrange any external spot or flood lighting so that the light source is screened from direct view by passersby, and so that the light is directed against the sign and does not shine into adjacent property or blind motorists and pedestrians. 

2. Halo-lit or back-lit letters are highly encouraged for both office and retail use. Such signs convey a subtle and attractive appearance and are very legible under moderate ambient lighting conditions. Face illuminated letters may be appropriate for retail use. 

3. Illumination of individual letter signs by shining light upon them is discouraged for both skyline signs and signs placed high on building walls. 

4. Where individual letter signs face near-by residential areas, a low level of brightness shall be maintained. This can be achieved using halo-lit letters. 

Sign Programs
1. Sign programs shall be designed to complement the style, color and materials of the building. The best sign programs are integrated such that they become a natural part of the building facade. 

2. Sign programs which provide attractive combinations of type styles and color are encouraged. Within the sign program, the background color, type style and print color of the sign should be consistent. However, the use of a logo which provides identification for the business can be used to bring distinction to the business within the framework established by the sign program.