The History of Signage

As with anything in the world, there’s an origin of where it all began. It’s interesting to look at how something has evolved over the centuries into what we see it as today.

Since the dawn of history, humans have been interpreting signs and using them as a form of communication. Whether it be tarot cards, the stars or even caveman drawings on the walls of caves, signs have always been a huge part of basic human communication.

Firstly, let’s define the term “signage” before we delve into the history of how the phenomenon came about.

According to the “all knowing” Wikipedia: “…. signage is the design or use of signs and symbols to communicate a message to a specific group, usually for the purpose of marketing or a kind of advocacy.”

Caveman drawings are considered to be the first examples of what we can call very basic signage.

Around 40 000 B.C. early humans used dirt, charcoal and animal fat to make cave drawings. There have been many theories over the years for the purpose of these paintings. Some believe they were religious iconography, where the cavemen made the drawings to communicate with their religious gods.

Others believe that the cavemen used the drawings to communicate hunting patterns and lessons to future generations.

Regardless of what cavemen really used these cave drawings for, they still served as a form of communication to the generations of that time and even today.

Skip to a few centuries later, and where we can consider modern signage began to emerge …..

During Greek and Roman times, many people were illiterate, so the signs were carved into stone using mostly imagery.

The Ancient Egyptians had hieroglyphics which they carved into stone and onto scribes and used this as a way to communicate with each other. The Greeks and the Romans carved imagery onto stone or terra cotta to identify businesses such as taverns and workshops.

As commerce expanded after the Dark Ages, the need for signs grew some more.

King Richard III passed a law in England stipulating that all establishments which sold ale had to place a sign up outside its building. Later these signs began to have what we can call “logos” on them as shop owners began to add images of lions, dragons and swords to represent their businesses. This is when business owners began to realise that their signs need to become more elaborate to be able to surpass their competitors in advertising their business to the public.

The invention of the Guttenberg Press in 1452 saw the popularity of sign-making rocketing. This new technology enabled the ability to include complex ink creations onto signs.

The printing press also enabled businesses to make flat signs as opposed to carving them out of wood or stone. This solved the inherent issue of signage-overcrowding in city centres as more people began to congregate in city centres. The invention of the Guttenberg printing press also saw the cost of sign making decrease as more people began using this form of technology in making their signs.

However, the real surge in the signage industry came in the wake of the twentieth century.

Modern technology was introduced and evolved with the creation of neon, incandescent and LED’s that made signs more flashy and attention-grabbing. It is at this point that businesses and artisans began to see how creativity played a definitive role in attracting customers.

The current digital era has seen the invention of digital signage, which is also making huge waves in the signage industry. Digital signage is even said to threaten the existence of traditional print signage.

Companies now create elaborate billboard signs, incorporating the latest available technology – and have purchased the most modern large format digital printers which present them with a vast array of ink choices which enables them to produce signage that covers the full spectrum of colours. Billboard advertisements are designed to catch a person’s attention and create a memorable impression very quickly, leaving the reader thinking about what they have just seen on the advertisement long after they have driven past it. Billboards have to be readable in a very short time because they are often read while driving at high speeds. Therefore, they often utilise very few words in the advertisement in large print and feature a humorous or interesting image in vibrant colours.

There are even special vinyl and other printable media which have made it possible to either partially or completely wrap motor vehicles in the advertisement arena.

Today, the sign making industry is an estimated 50 billion dollars a year industry that shows no sign of slowing down either.

With all the advancements in technology that have allowed for the growth of the signage industry, one thing still remains constant: signs are an effective way of communicating.

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