Signs and Signage

When you first think of signs and signage for schools, you might be inclined to think of the name of the school carved in granite over the entrance, or maybe interior wayfinding signs painted on the wall, now peeling, if not covered with graffiti. Not much to think about, really.

But all of that is changing, thanks to two different forces — technology, which has its main effect upon external signs, and the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), which impacts signage within the school.

The main technology at play is light emitting diodes (LEDs). These are the flat electric signs that have largely replaced neon. They are now cheaper, last longer, consume less power and have much greater flexibility.

The main benefit of LEDs, says Christine Mercado, marketing manager of Stewart Signs in Sarasota, FL,“is they can be programmed from a central office.” Not only that, she adds, but the trend now is not simply for an administrator in a single school to program one or more signs on the premises through his computer, but now, districts are increasingly doing the same for all of their schools.

Moreover, the reader boards can convey different scrolling messages throughout the day. The district might want to send out messages through every school for fund raising, vote for the levy, or half day or no school on a particular day. Individual schools may want to advertise specific events, whether an athletic game, a play or a PTA meeting. ‘LEDs are a dynamic communication that reaches not only the students and parents, but also the community,” Mercado says.

Unlike the older changeable black letter tiles set in grooves against a white background (similar to those you used to see on movie marquees and still see in many churches) that take time to insert and remove, the LED signs can be changed any time throughout the day by someone sitting at his or her computer, or they can be programmed to change at different times of the day. Perhaps the messages may be directed toward students in the morning and at people driving by later in the day.

A more recent development is that the LED signs that you see passing malls or car dealerships, that contain not only text, but images, including moving images, animation and even cartoons, are now finding their way into school signs.

“The cost of digital signs has really come down,” says Ron Teeple, marketing director for Robson Corporation in Sarasota, FL. “The software is easily upgradable, and the technology has been simplified a lot. Superintendents, principals, school boards or PTAs can control the signs or have different time slots or spaces in the reader board.”

Teeple explains that the letters, which of course, can be lit in the evenings, are generally set at matrix pixels set a 1.25 in. apart, with three LEDs per pixel. The boards can come in different sizes, 24 by 88 ft. being one of the larger ones.

“These signs can be used to create an image identity for the school,” Teeple says. “A lot of schools create signs with their logos on them. We can cut the frame to the size they want, the shape can be circular or rectangular, etc. and make them varying heights.

Other considerations, Teeple continues, is distance from the road and the type of traffic. If your school is in a 30-mph zone, it can be smaller than it might be if you want it seen from a highway where the traffic is 55 mph. The distance between the letters comes into play here. And, local laws regarding sign permits, in terms of location and size, need to be investigated.

Looking at a LED sign, you might get the impression of a glass-like, fragile structure that would not fare well in an environment where there is vandalism and graffiti. But dur¬ability has been taken into consideration, at least in the better products.

“Our signs are cut from 6O61-T6 aluminum, the same material that goes on airplanes; it can’t rust,” says Teeple. “It won’t stop a bullet but it would stop someone swinging a baseball bat at it.

Mercado speaks along similar lines. “Our signs are made from Lexan SGC 100, the same premier-grade material that is put around hockey rinks that are smashed into all of the time. You can hit it with a baseball bat and it won’t break. If, after the equivalent of 400 hockey games, it does break, it’s covered by warranty.” The material is such that spray paint can easily be removed. “The sign has a DuPont powder coat, which is basically like that which goes on a car. It will stand the test of time and will not fade or peel or crack.” Another feature, Mercado adds, especially important in Florida, is that the signs have hurricane force wind protection up to 120 miles hour and can be built to withstand 150-mile winds.

LED signs convey a modern look and they can easily, with the moving graphics, convey a hip contemporary style to appeal to any particular youth age group or preserve a traditional red brick, stone or other architectual look. The reader board can be designed to fit within this traditional look.

In terms of cost, though digital signs have generally come down in price, Mercado says, “Everybody wants to look at price. But the old saying is true — you get what you pay for. If you buy just on price, you can end up with a sign that will look used up within two to three years. If you want something that will reflect the school’s pride, you want to buy a good one.”

Putting together the cost estimates from Mercado and Teeple, they appear to range from $7,000 to $50,000. There are many variables — whether you have the sign on one or both sides, whether it’s a one-line text board or five lines, multi¬color or not and so on.

Teeple cautions educational buyers to determine whether or not you want the sign assembled and installed, which can add $2,000. “If you don’t check this aspect out, you may find it arrives in bits and pieces in a box.”

Although LEDs are primarily designed for outdoor signage, they can also be used for inside, says Mercado, such as a welcoming sign which asks you to check into the office or for a luncheon menu which changes daily.

To turn to an entirely different type of signage, Teresa Cox, president of APCO Graphics, Inc., concentrates mainly on inside the school. A small part of her offerings go toward the outside, in the form of traditional changeable letter tiles in very durable vandal proof aluminum or fiberglass. The fact that they are not electric offers a different type of flexibilty and freedom from outages or other factors affecting high-tech. In other words, there is still a place for both high-tech and traditional signs.

APCO’s main focus, however, is the result of the Americans with Disabilities Act. When this law passed in 1991, it targeted new schools, but existing institutions did not have to change until renovation. So, there is now much being done in this area.

“Our modular sign system is popular in schools,” says Cox. She explains this type of sign as consisting of more than 100 injection-molded parts. At the simplest level, the holder, with integrated colors, is fastened onto the wall. The message pops in and can be popped out easily, changing the message without having to deal with the holder. The new part that goes in does so without an exposed fastener. It is easily secured and vandal proof.

Two ADA requirements this sign system relates to are for the hard of seeing and the blind, which requires special features in permanent rooms and spaces, such as on a classroom door. For the hard of seeing, the permanent information, such as the room number, has to be tactile. For the blind, this information has to be braille.

Wayfinding signs do not have these requirements, but most states require lettering at least 4/5 to 5/8 in thick.