Mastering the Maze: Taking Ownership of Your Sign Program

You have just wrapped up major installation of a new interior and exterior sign and wayfinding program on your campus. Installation was spread out over several months, but the process itself began several years earlier.

After the Installation

The signs look great, but this was a substantial investment of both time and money. For realizing the importance of signage on your campus and making the project happen, I commend you. It’s a huge step forward. However, what happens next? You’ll need to consider what the signs will look like next year, and you’ll need to determine who will make sure everything stays current and up-to-date. Those factors are what many fail to consider on the front end of sign projects, which is why so many programs fail even after a successful initial installation.

Having just returned from a conference of university facility managers, the one message I heard most is that absolutely no one likes dealing with signs. Some of the reactions I received when inquiring about signage on campus were priceless, ranging from generally negative to downright sour.

Admittedly, signs require a lot of attention to detail, but there are three steps you can take that will make the ongoing maintenance of your signs less painful and-perhaps more importantly- better protect your initial investment.

Step 1 – Choose a Modular Solution on the Front End

If your institution is like most, the one constant is change. College and university campuses are always expanding and renovating, so you should choose a sign solution, both interior and exterior, that will easily adapt. For exterior signs, certainly for those providing direction, choose a solution whereby graphic panels can be updated without having to replace the entire sign.

For your interior signs, consider a solution that incorporates paper inserts that can be printed in-house, especially for personnel and directional signs. There are some very nice paper insert solutions on the market today, and they will greatly facilitate and expedite sign updates.

It is true that not all signs need to be modular, as some are not likely to change. These might include certain types of exterior building identification signs and interior signs such as those for restrooms, stairs, room numbers and regulatory information. In those cases, you might save a little money on the front end by sticking with a non-modular solution.

However, modularity also allows for easy replacement of damaged sign faces and easier mechanical fastening for certain types of wall surfaces not compatible with adhesives, so take these considerations into account. If mixing modular and non-modular products, it is still essential to maintain a consistent design throughout the entire program. By selecting a modular solution, your sign program will be easier and less expensive to update, thus better maintaining the design integrity of the initially installed solution. It will also greatly facilitate step 2.

Step 2 – Designate Someone at the School to Take Ownership of the Sign Program

At the end of the day, someone (or a team) on campus, generally in the facilities or design departments, has to be charged with maintaining the sign program. There has to be some ownership! Depending upon the size of your school, this may even be a full-time position, involving responsibilities such as monitoring the condition of all signs, coordinating lighting replacements for any illuminated signs, managing replacement sign inserts, ordering new signs, coordinating installations, etc. It’s a very long list and generally longer than most would think. I realize no one may really want this job, but if you want your sign program to be successful, having someone in charge of this role is imperative.

I’ve always thought it funny that no one likes dealing with signage, yet when a sign update is needed quickly, everyone becomes an instant graphic designer, wanting to throw their own bit of creativity into the mix. When this happens, the end result is never good. Therefore, you must have procedures in place clearly defining who is authorized to order and/or create updates for signs. And, whether printing signs in-house, using a local sign fabricator or reordering from the initial sign provider, it is critical to adhere to all established signage design guidelines, including fonts, colors, and layouts.

Your sign fabricator, or graphic designer if applicable, should provide you with a comprehensive signage manual at the completion of the initial project that details all of the necessary information. Any inconsistencies on campus will greatly deteriorate the overall image and effectiveness of your sign program.

In designating a signage leader, having that person spend some time on the front end with the sign fabricator and/or designer will be important to obtain a basic understanding of how the signs work, the critical aspects of the design and considerations regarding code compliance, wayfinding, etc. Your school may have its own sign shop, so if you already have someone with an actual signage and design background, that’s even better.

Step 3 – Clean Your Signs

You would never consider parking your car outside in an exposed environment and not washing or waxing it for several years. You would not only sweep, vacuum, or mop your floors once every six months. I can’t tell you how many campuses I’ve toured to check up on an installation, and the signs have never been cleaned-ever.

For exterior signs especially, if you want them to look good several years after installation, you must take care of them and wash them routinely as you would your automobile.

Exterior coatings and finishes can vary, so obtain specific cleaning instructions from your sign fabricator. Interior signs generally just need a dusting from time to time, but sometimes a proper cleaning is in order. Before doing so, be sure to reference the cleaning instructions provided by your sign fabricator as there may be special considerations for certain signs. I imagine your school already has a cleaning program in place for other aspects of the campus and buildings, so if signs aren’t part of that program, have them included immediately upon installation.

Protecting Your Investment

With signs having such a significant impact on a school’s brand and image, moving forward with your investment in a new sign program was a great first step forward. Putting more focus on those signs after that initial installation must be your second step and will help protect that investment for years to come.

About the Author
Dillon Cobb is the VP of Marketing & International at APCO Signs and has twenty years of sign industry experience. APCO has been providing innovative sign and wayfinding solutions since 1966. For more information, visit or contact Dillon at