Conversations about Signage

Regulatory Signs and Messages


An Introduction to Regulatory Signage Solutions that Meet ADA Guidelines and EMTALA Standards

Regulatory signs and messages are designed to instruct visitors on what they should or should not do both inside and outside of facilities. Regulatory signs can be found in almost any place, but when considering architectural or built environments, they are commonly associated with stairwells, safety and critical access points, and facility management and maintenance areas. Vehicular or transportation signs also fall into the category of regulatory signs, and common examples include traffic signs (e.g., one way, stop, yield, speed limit). However, for built environments, this information piece will focus on the following regulatory signs:

  • ADA-Ready™ Signage, Messages and Symbols
  • Emergency Exit, Egress and Luminescent Signage
  • EMTALA Signage and Messages


Function, Location and Message Determines What Kind of Regulatory Sign is Needed

There is no all-encompassing standard or rule for governing regulatory signs and messages when it comes to architectural environments. Instead, best practices are established through professional industry experts and local building code requirements. When determining the form, message and location for a regulatory sign, the best place to start is with the most current Department of Justice ADA Guidelines and work with an experienced signage and wayfinding company to determine what solution will work best. Under the section that governs signage, the current ADA guidelines establish the recommended size and placement of messages and symbols on ADA regulatory signs.

For regulatory signs and wayfinding plans to be effective, it is recommended that regulatory signs and messages serve the language needs of at least 75% of the people who visit the facility. One of the best means of breaking through communication barriers is through the use of pictograms or symbols. For healthcare facilities, a series of universal symbols designed to facilitate wayfinding has been created and adopted by the International Standards Organization. There are 28 symbols that were proven to be most effective at conveying the appropriate information to visitors and patients and also conform to ADA guidelines. For more information and to see the list of symbols, visit


ADA-Ready™ Regulatory Signs

While English is the majority language spoken in the U.S., the number of ESL (English as Second Language) people has grown dramatically. In addition, more than 9 million adults in the U.S. are illiterate and rely on pictograms and symbols to find their way. Therefore, the most effective solution is to integrate multilingual messages and pictograms on key information and regulatory signs.

Although there are a number of universally recognized symbols used in ADA signage, there may be symbols that may have different connotations in other cultural and ethnic backgrounds and thus may offend certain users. Therefore, it is recommended to stay with commonly used and established pictograms for ADA-Ready™ regulatory signs.

ADA-Ready™  Regulatory Sign Recommendation:

  • Meet the latest ADA Guidelines
  • Clearly communicate a regulatory message
  • Integrate pictograms whenever possible
  • Consult local codes to ensure the regulatory sign and message meets the facility’s needs
  • Match the architectural environment/design


Egress and Self-Illuminating Signs

For decades, egress signage and emergency exit regulatory signage was commonly seen as the ubiquitous emergency escape plan by an elevator and the overhead “EXIT” sign at key door ways and stairwells. These are still important regulatory signs for egress, but since 2001 regulations for egress and emergency escape signs and messages integrate a power-failure resistant component: self-illuminating signs through luminescent materials.

These new power-failure resistant regulatory sign codes are most commonly found in new construction for large commercial structures, but many built environments with several floors are choosing to retrofit the egress and emergency escape regulatory signs with self-illuminating signs. In addition, facilities are also choosing to apply self-illuminating strips to stairs along emergency exit routes.

EMTALA Signs and Messages

EMTALA stands for the Emergency Medical Treatment & Labor Act, and it ensures public access to emergency services regardless of ability to pay. Section 1867 of the Social Security Act imposes specific obligations on Medicare-participating hospitals that offer emergency services to provide a medical screening examination (MSE) when a request is made for examination or treatment for an emergency medical condition (EMC), including active labor, regardless of an individual’s ability to pay. The EMTALA Operations Manual specifies signage requirements at medical facilities to properly communicate the individual’s right to treatment:

  • Specify the rights of individuals with EMCs and women in labor who come to the emergency department for health care services
  • Identify participation in the Medicaid program
  • The wording must be clear and in simple terms that are understandable by the population served by the hospital
  • Signage must be posted in places likely to be noticed by individuals entering the emergency department, as well as those individuals waiting for examination and treatment



Design Strategies: Getting the Right Solution at the Right Price

Design Strategies: Getting the Right Solution at the Right Price

Graphic designers, architects and signage providers are all dedicated to providing the best service and the best solution for their clients. In order to create the right solution that complements the architectural environment, the decision makers must consider the role signage will play early in the overall design and construction process and not wait until the end. The four biggest factors that drive every design strategy and architectural signage solution are:

  • Budget (all costs for design, fabrication, installation)
  • Timeframe (deadlines)
  • Function (updateable, built to last, reorder-friendly)
  • Design (brand integration, complement the environment)


Getting the Right Design Solution for the Client is More Important than Budget and Timeframe

Signage is traditionally addressed at the end of a construction project. Because projects rarely stay on schedule, the end result is typically not enough time or money left in the budget to get the signage solution the client wants before the project is scheduled to end. When projects are rushed or not properly planned, the chances that a fabricator will cut corners to meet a deadline increases. The consequence is that the signage program usually does not stand up to the test of time. To get the design solution right the first time, the client and any of the key contributors should follow these steps:

  • Consult with a fabricator before a design solution is approved by the client
  • Consider alternatives to one-of-a-kind design solutions that require expensive materials
  • Consider how challenging future signage re-orders will be before approving a custom design
  • If the signage solution cannot be fabricated and installed by a hard deadline, make use of temporary signage to ensure the right solution is ultimately delivered.


Use Standard Systems as Custom Solutions

Taking advantage of the inherent design engineering of a standardized, modular system is a smart move because it allows for easy message updates and makes reordering more efficient. Start with a standard system and consult with the signage provider to explore what design modifications can be made without sacrificing functionality.
Review the system family and take advantage of the pre-defined sign types and sizes and design the custom solution to match the standard sizes.

Improve Delivery Time, Reduce Costs

For custom signage solutions, the biggest challenge and often resulting in increased design costs is the time spent to figure out how to build the solution. By taking a design-lite approach — meaning to make simple modifications to an already built and installed signage solution — clients can improve the delivery speed and reduce the costs associated with a completely custom design, often resulting in the sourcing of several components.
Review existing partner portfolio’s and see select examples of previous design solutions and explore modifications and how that drives budget and timeframe.

Functionality is Key to a Long Lifecycle

When the signage solution is completely custom, the best result and value can be achieved when the designer works in concert with the fabricator.
When working in partnership, decisions can quickly be made based on the best solution for the signage program. Whether incorporating modular components or using alternative materials or finishing processes, clients can see a return on the investment through reduced costs and faster manufacturing times.


What Makes a Good Sign?



What Makes a Good Sign?


No matter where it is located, the number one job of any sign is to communicate information as quickly and effectively as possible. This is often easier said than done. In order to be a good sign, these four key points should be considered when designing an interior or exterior signage solution:

  • Audience (primary and secondary)
  • Message (brand, location, desired visibility)
  • Environment (location, architectural features)
  • Function (requires updates, durability, elements)


Audience — Identifying the Primary and Secondary Users is the Most Important Factor for a Good Sign

The way in which information is conveyed is perceived differently from person to person. In order to craft a message and a design that can be understood by the majority, you need to identify the language(s) spoken by the target audience.


Displaying Multi-Lingual Messages and Pictograms

While English is the majority language spoken in the U.S., the number of ESL (English as Second Language) people has grown dramatically. In addition, more than 9 million adults in the U.S. are illiterate and rely on pictograms and symbols to find their way. Therefore, the most effective solution is to integrate multilingual messages and pictograms on key information and regulatory signs. Although there are a number of universally recognized symbols used in signage, there may be symbols that may have different connotations in other cultural and ethnic backgrounds and thus may offend certain users.



The messages should be brief, accurate, and comprehensible for an 8th grade reading level. The letter heights and Braille on regulatory and fixed room signs should conform to the latest ADA Guidelines, and by achieving a 70% Light Reflectance Value (LRV) contrast between sign text and background colors will make for an ideal guideline.



You should utilize other architectural elements to assist as visual cues to avoid over-signing a facility, which may create confusion. The signage should be placed in locations identified in a completed wayfinding analysis, as well as the shape, color and design of the signage should complement the architectural environment.



The environment will largely drive the needed performance and functionality of a sign. Another thing to consider is durability based on environmental elements and/or the facility users. If change occurs frequently, signage should be implemented to accommodate the change


Functionality is Key to a Long Lifecycle When the function is part of the evaluation process, signage can be implemented to create efficiencies and alleviate maintenance of the program. From considering the re-order of a sign to the need for frequent updates, several sign options are available to choose from. Consider options that would utilize a variety of signage types and product applications to create a comprehensive solution. This can be derived from a combination of custom designed signs to digital room displays to a modular system.










Signage is a word that is obviously pervasive in our industry as are words such as Wayfinding, Branding and so forth. We constantly debate, especially amongst ourselves, about what business are we really in. Is it Wayfinding, Branding, Signage, Communication, Graphics and so on. If you were challenged with the “elevator conundrum” what would you say – that is if you got in an elevator and someone asked you to tell them what business you are in, what would you tell them in the 30 second ride?

Recently, on LinkedIn there was a discussion which was initiated by Sean Brereton, Creative Director at The Velvet Principle regarding the use of the word signage. Below is a transcript of the dialogue on LinkedIn which clearly reflects that there is little agreement or unanimity on the topic.

The dialogue went as follows:

Sean Brereton “Hi – I am after some help regarding the use of the word ‘signage’.

Personally, I have always resisted using it – to me it always sounds like something you buy by the pound/kilo and a little bit unrefined. I say, we design signs. Increasingly though, we are being briefed on signage requirements or referred to as signage people.

Do I need to just get over this bugbear and accept that it is common parlance?
What are your views – do you use the word?

Thank you.”

Deborah Burgess “I prefer the word signage because it refers specifically to a system of visual pieces that are designed, fabricated and installed. A sign or signs can mean a multitude of things – omens, hand gestures, symptoms, etc. It is therefore a word that is confusing in its multiplicity of meaning. But hey, they are both just words. I say use whatever you prefer because after all, they are your ‘signs’ or ‘signage’.”

Liz Ruff “Signs, Signage, Sign Systems, Wayfinding even Environmental (nay! Experiential !) Design…all work for me. The broader remains: What is most meaningful to the client. I adopt their terminology – that way, we’re all on speaking the same language. More and more, I find clients using the term ‘signage’ vs. ‘sign’.”

Tony Moore “I tend to call it branding unless it serves a specific purpose i.e. way finding H&S etc… however even if covering the latter maintaining brand is still key.
Signage covers so many variations I guess there is no definitive answer.”

Sean Brereton “Thanks all for your input, comments and feedback so far on this. The variety of response is what I suspected would be the case. I think it is fair to say, that as a sector involved in the communications industry, there are times when our terminology is not as clear as it could be – especially to those outside of the business and does not always communicate what we think.

My question was specifically around the word signage but this brought wayfinding into the discussion (unsurprisingly given the name of this group). Perhaps off at a tangent but wayfinding is not just about signs (or signage). Coincidentally, our earlier blog piece on this can be found here….

I will continue to resist using the word signage and be more descriptive with terms used to ensure that my audience fully understands what I mean. I am always interested to hear different points of view and take on new learnings.
Thanks again

Richard Miller “Hi Sean, we were always told back in the 90’s that it’s a French word for signs and using it will help us sell into continental projects when we had a chance to work with European contractors!!”

Craig Berger “Ah and now Liz brought up Environmental versus Experiential. A great conversation in of itself. Not that I would like to start one!”

Coco Raynes “The French word for what we do is ‘signalétique’. However, as we are American Designers, to know the word does not help us. Sometimes, if the interlocutor does not have attention disorder, I reply that I design and implement signs and information systems!”

Curtis Roberts “I use ‘signage’ more often than not. But I don’t think there is confusion between the terms, so it’s ultimately about personal preference.”


The above dialog seems to confirm what was said in the introduction. There is no unanimity in describing what we do. The question then becomes, does it matter? We think it does because, as mentioned above, we should be able to communicate in a 30 second elevator ride exactly what we do.

Which of the contributors to the discussion do you think has the most persuasive argument?


Selwyn Josset 2017



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