The Slippery Slope to Glitter Gulch

Oct 19, 2012

I spend a lot of my day immersed in sign code. Not just for city of Portland, my home city, but over 170 different jurisdictions in the area. Anywhere we’ve put up a sign. It’s gotten to the point where I can rattle off whole specifics of code from the top 10 or so cities we work in. It’s almost embarrassing when I do it at networking events when the person I was talking to only wanted to know if I’d been to Durham lately and my response is something like, “oh yes, lovely town, however they don’t allow illuminated signs.”

One of the questions that I mull over often, but people rarely ask me, is which city has my favorite sign code. My top city: Seattle, Washington. (I can also rate cities by available parking, the nicest bathrooms, creepiest stairwell and smelliest city hall but that’s a different blog post.) Seattle is a bit of a distance from the main office but we have a great satellite office in the Emerald city that’s increasing our presence. Why is Seattle my favorite? Seattle basically doesn’t have a sign code.

Amazing, such a large, vibrant and lovely city as Seattle basically has no sign code! How is this even possible? There are restrictions in Seattle’s downtown core, but that’s a very small portion of city and amazingly, the city doesn’t look like the Vegas strip. This must come as a shock to the sign code authors and committees out there. Every sign code meeting and council planning session has been specifically targeted to keep their town from turning into the Vegas strip. The assumption is that without strict and specific rules signage would spring up like weeds, glowing neon obnoxious weeds! And yet this hasn’t happened in Seattle where their code is so liberal, why is that?

Seattle hasn’t turned into a glitter gulch for two main reasons, glitter is expensive and glitter is gaudy. A sign has to fit into the cooperate branding scheme; a bank for example wants to come off as classy, professional and trust worthy. They aren’t going to go for blinking lights and exposed neon. Nor are they going to want to pay the expense of such a sign. All that glitter can double or triple a standard signs cost. Because of the sign cost, when a business does go a bit glittery they do so strategically to make their dollar count. Tully’s is a great example of this. With great visibility to the freeway they topped their building with an exposed neon ‘T’. If you’ve seen it while driving into town then you are aware of this great addition to the Seattle skyline. And yet, you wouldn’t be able to permit anything similar in the majority of other jurisdictions in the area. It’s really too bad we don’t trust business owners to invest their money in smart and creative signs.