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New Model Sign Code for Municipalities Created by the United States Sign Council

The USSC Model Sign Code represents the culmination of over 14 years of research on the design characteristics of On-Premise Signs to help municipalities incorporate sound and tested principles into practical Sign Ordinances.

By Rick Crawford -USSC Legislative Consultant

The United States Sign Council is pleased to announce the publication of a new Model On-Premise Sign Code (2011).

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  • The new USSC Model Sign Code was released to Members in February 2011 and will be available in both printed and electronic forms. This Code replaces the Guideline Code for the Regulation of On-Premise Signs (2001). Although the 2001 document was scientific for its time, based on existing research, the new USSC Model Sign Code goes many steps further. What is unique about this new USSC Code is that it represents the culmination of over 14 years of research on the design characteristics of On-Premise Signs.

    Since 1998, the USSC, through its research arm, The United States Sign Council Foundation, has published fourteen major academic studies covering the full range of on premise sign legibility, placement, illumination, community impact, and traffic safety issues. This work has enabled the USSC to develop guideline standards and models based on this empirical research, which have also been used and published by other professional organizations. The new USSC Model On-Premise Sign Code synthesizes this research and incorporates its principles into a practical Sign Ordinance format.

    Because of this research, the USSC found it possible to craft sign regulations that were both objective and in concert with observable human factors performance criteria. The Model Code is based on the objective observations and measurements that are the result of this research effort, in that on-premise signs function as a principal means of roadside communication and situational awareness for motorists.

    In addition, the Model Code offers the added benefit of providing reasonable assurance that when questions concerning the constitutional integrity of its provisions arise, the use of quantifiable objective measurements and other performance criteria can be a firm buttress to guard against attack on the Code based on apparent subjectivity or lack of sustainable performance evidence.

    This new state-of-the-art code contains these features:

      1) The new USSC Model Sign Code is a document that can be used by any community "off the shelf". The Model Code was written with the intention that a Town could simply add its name and make a few cosmetic changes, and could use the USSC Model Sign Code as presented. Based on actual industry experience, the writers drafted the Code to conform to the way that Codes are typically written and applied across the country. 2) The new Model Code tackles two major issues that communities often have difficulty in addressing, in an objective and practical way: on-premise sign area / sign height and on-premise sign illumination levels at night. These are two topics that local municipalities and the planning community often are forced to search for answers on, and the USSC Model Code provides much-needed guidance.
        A) The USSC Model Code offers On-Premise Sign Sizes and Sign Heights that are appropriate by zoning district and traffic conditions. The research that USSC has performed forms the basis for the determination of the dimensional characteristics of on-premise signs, in the interests of the Motorist and traffic safety. This is a science-based approach supported by already recognized USSC guidelines and standards. Both freestanding signs (perpendicular) and wall signs (parallel) are covered.

        B) The USSC Model Code uses a Luminance standard to determine appropriate lighting levels for illuminated On Premise signs at night. In light of the fact that communities across the United States are increasingly becoming interested in regulating outdoor lighting at night, the new USSC Model provides a clear and easy-to-understand method of determining allowable on-premise sign lighting levels at night, or so-called sign brightness. The USSC Code is the first to incorporate the research findings of five on-premise sign lighting studies, all completed since 2004.

        The Luminance standard advanced in the USSC Code applies to all types of illuminated on premise signs: internally illuminated signs, externally illuminated signs and even Electronic Message Centers. All would be covered by the Code standard. That does not mean that all signs will have the same brightness; it does mean that all signs will have a maximum brightness as set by the Model Code, thereby eliminating the need for different standards for different types of signs. This simplicity makes the USSC Model Code user-friendly, easy to understand and simple to apply.

        The brightness or Luminance of a sign can be determined before the sign is installed, or in the field after installation. It is anticipated that signs of the same manufacture and design will not require individual testing. Complicated and subjective concepts such as "lighting zones" and the need to determine "ambient lighting conditions" are therefore not necessary in the Model Code, because the Motorist's demonstrated need for a certain sign Luminance level at night is independent of other lighting conditions.

        Implicit in this standard is the fact that on-premise signs are not lighting fixtures or outdoor lighting devices and are not used to illuminate a task or area. The lighting is used to properly display protected First Amendment communication at night, at a lighting level that complies with the needs of the intended viewer, which is, in 99.9% of all cases, the Motorist. Any arbitrary diminution of on-premise sign illumination at night based upon other outside factors could interfere with this Communication, and could have serious traffic safety consequences for Motorists. This is not to say that on-premise signs cannot be "green", but it is to say that they must always provide the proper Luminance for Motorists, to insure traffic safety.

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      3) The topic of Electronic Message Centers (EMCs) is thoroughly addressed in the new USSC Code. EMCs are allowed by zone and operational parameters are included to allow EMCs to function to their fullest capabilities. 4) Throughout the Code, "author's clarification notes" are included wherever additional description or clarification is needed. This commentary is intended to explain the suggested Code language or give more background information to the community that may be reviewing the document. In its final form, we anticipate that these sections would be removed by a community before final adoption. 5) Color illustrations are included in the Model Code itself, so that any layperson could read and understand the concepts and various types of signs being regulated - wall signs, roof signs, determination of sign area, and so forth. These illustrations are also included to avoid any possible confusion at the municipal level, when the zoning or building department is asked to implement the new Code. In addition, gray scale illustration images are provided in the Code appendix, so that if a municipality is publishing or printing in black-and-white only, they have ready access to these diagrams.

    As mentioned above, all USSC Members will receive a copy of the new USSC Model On-Premise Sign Code. The Code will be available in electronic form in particular, as this will facilitate its use by municipalities and make editing a simple task. The USSC will be traveling to Boston in April 2011 to attend the American Planning Association's national conference and at the USSC booth in the APA Exhibit Hall, the new USSC Model Code will also be distributed on CD to planners and attendees. We look forward this opportunity to interact with these planning professionals, and USSC is committed to maintaining lines of communication with the APA in the interests of the sign industry as a whole. You may contact the author at:

    To find the entire list of publications from the United States Sign Council visit:

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