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Outdoor Signs for Business: An Introduction

When it comes to outdoor signs, there are so many choices that it can be confusing to know what to look for. Here are some of the most common types of outdoor signs, how they are used, what you can expect to pay for them and how long they take to make.

Channel Letters

Front Lit Channel Letters by SRP Sign
Cost: $ many thousands+
Time: 1 month+

Fabricated by commercial sign companies, these formed, illuminated letters are typically made from aluminum or stainless steel. Channel letters have traditionally been lit with neon, but now are usually lit with Light Emitting Diodes, commonly referred to as LEDs. LED sign lighting is more expensive up front than neon, but it is safer, quicker to fabricate, lasts longer and is more economical to run over the long term.

Channel letters can be front lit, meaning the letters light up, or there are reverse lit channel letters that cast a halo of light on the wall and the silhouette of the letters are visible at night. Another name for reverse lit channel letters are halo lit letters. Channel letters can be applied directly to the face of a building, applied to a raceway or attached to architectural signage. You will often see these outdoor signs at the top of buildings, allowing them to be seen from as far away as possible.

Like most outdoor signs, you will most likely need a sign permit to install channel letters, and unless your sign company has a licensed electrician, you  will need to hire one to do the final electrical hookup.

Light Boxes

Outdoor Signs Light Box Illuminated Signage by http://signaction.com.au/
Light Box Illuminated Signage by http://signaction.com.au/

Cost: $ Low Thousands+
Time: 1 month+

One of the most common and versatile lit outdoor signs, light boxes are fabricated of an aluminum extrusion with a face made of a plastic known as Lexan. Larger light box signs may have a flexible vinyl face known as Flex-Face instead of Lexan. Occasionally light box faces are made of metal, with cut outs for translucent acrylic letters known as push through letters.

Lighted sign boxes are most often lit with florescent tubes, but recent improvements in LED lighting technology have made it possible to use LEDs to light sign boxes. Sign boxes can be mounted to a building and are often seen on one or two story retail locations. Double sided light boxes can be mounted to poles to create Pylon Signs- a very common form of outdoor signage. Illuminated sign boxes typically cost from upper 3 figures to lower 4 figures, and you can expect completion in a month to 6 weeks. If your location has an existing sign box that is in working order, just the lexan sign face can be replaced, bringing the cost down significantly.

Like most outdoor signs, you will most likely need a sign permit to install a light box for your business even if just replacing the face, and you will need a licensed electrician for the final electrical hookup.

Post and Panel Signs

Outdoors Signs Carved Post and Panel Sign
Beautiful carved post and panel sign by Garland Graphics

Cost: $ Upper Hundreds – $ Few Thousand
Time: 3 weeks +

Post and panel signs are one of the great values in outdoor signs. Whether placed out by the road or in front of your building, a well designed post and panel sign can make a big impact on your business’ visibility.

Typically these site signs are mounted on two wood or metal poles with a center panel. Post and panel signs can be made of flat aluminum covered plywood sheets known as Lusterboard, carved or sandblasted wood, or fabricated out of metal. Post and panel signs can be single or double sided, and are often used to temporarily advertise large available spaces in industrial areas.

Like most other outdoor signs, you may need a sign permit for a post and panel sign, but because there are no electrical components, a licensed electrician won’t be necessary.

Pylon Signs

Outdoor Signs pylon sign
Pylon Sign by Sign Media

Cost: $4000 and up. WAY up.
Time: Months

Most people relate pylon signs to car dealerships and strip malls. Placed out by the road, these outdoor signs advertise the businesses like a giant post and panel sign. The largest of the outdoor signs, pylon signs can be hundreds of feet tall. The tallest sign in the world, the pylon sign at Aria in Las Vegas is 265 feet tall!

Pylon signs can contain any or all of the other types of outdoor signs that we’ve listed; some feature electronic message centers, others have channel letters, and most are large light boxes. Pylon signs are erected over concrete footings and are less of a sign project and more of a construction project.

You will definitely need a permit for a pylon sign, and if there are any electrical components, you can be sure that you’ll need an electrician. There are very few companies that are qualified to design fabricate and install a large pylon sign, so make sure to review the sign company’s portfolio for similar projects.

Monument Signs

Outdoor Signs Monument Sign
Monument Sign by Big Mouth Signs

Cost: $ Few Thousand +
Time: 1-2 Months

One of the most elegant outdoor signs, monument signs show that design, quality and elegance are important to your business. A fabricated base is made of metal, wood or stone, with a logo applied to it.

It’s not uncommon to see dimensional letters or channel letters make an appearance on a monument sign, and electronic message centers have become more commonplace. Placed in front of a residential development, industrial park or corporate campus, a monument sign can set the tone for how people perceive your business.

Permits are likely needed for monument signs, and electricians will be necessary for any electrical connections.

Dimensional Letters

outdoor signs dimentsional letters cut metal letters plastic letters 3 dimensional logo
Dimensional letters by Impact Signs

Cost: $ Few Hundred – $ Few Thousand
Time: 2 – 3 Weeks

Affordable, distinctive and quickly made, dimensional letters are a very popular outdoor sign choice. Letters and logos can be cut out of flat sheets of metal or plastic, formed from plastic into 3 dimensional letters or fabricated from metal like channel letters without the lighting.

Dimensional letters can range from just a few inches tall to 10 feet tall, and have many different uses. Flat cut letters can be applied to monument signs, pylon signs, or mounted directly to your building. Dimensional letters can be painted nearly any color, or metal letters can be polished, brushed or anodized for a high end finish.

Sign permits might be necessary in your town, but not necessarily.

Flat Sign Panels

outdoor signs flat wall sign
Flat outdoor sign by Forrest Signs

Cost: $100+
Time: days to weeks

We’ve discussed some pretty intricate and involved outdoor signs up to this point, but the flat panel sign can be a work of art in itself.

Fabricated of aluminum skin and tube, painted MDO plywood or a newer material called Lusterboard that is MDO plywood with a thin sheath of aluminum on both sides, this simple sign can be a blank canvas for your branding. Digital graphics or vinyl lettering can be applied to the sign face or dimensional letters can be added for depth and a 3d effect.

The CNC router has made it very easy to cut panel signs to shape, so don’t feel like you’re stuck “inside the box” with a rectangular sign. Any shape is possible, and with a little design work you can have a sign that stands out, catches eyes and brings customers in the door.


Parking Signs / Directional Signage

Cost: $ 1-2 Hundred (with pole and install)
Time: Around a week, a few weeks for whole facilities

Everyone is familiar with the handicap parking sign- a flat metal sign seen in parking lots across the world. The use of parking signs is so much more than just handicapped signs!

Whether used to denote loading zones, no parking signs or one that is becoming more popular- electric vehicle parking only signs, parking lot signage has become very important. Parking signs are typically made of aluminum, but be careful that the shop you’re talking with doesn’t use .040 gauge aluminum for your signs. .040 aluminum is too flimsy for use as a parking sign and won’t be a good value. This is one place where cheap signs aren’t necessarily good signs.

You most likely do not need a permit for parking signage.

Safety signs

outdoor signs safety sign keep out sign no trespassing

Cost: +/- $100
Time: days

Safety signs are so ubiquitous, you don’t even realize they’re around. Some facilities might store hazardous chemicals, and those need to be clearly marked in case something goes wrong. Every building has signage that lets fire departments know where the sprinkler controls and hydrant connections are. Yellow warning tape keeps people out of harms way. Door signage may warn that the door is alarmed and should not be open, or that behind this door is the elevator maintenance room. Keeping your facility safe and secure is the main goal of all safety signs, so opt for more permanent aluminum or dibond signs instead of less expensive options.


Wall Wraps / Asphalt graphics

outdoor signs wall wrap textured wall graphics
Brick wall wrap by 40 Visuals

Cost: $400+
Time: a week or 2

If you’re looking to create personality, an artful appeal or grab the attention of people with something novel, wall wraps are just the ticket.  A high tack vinyl can be applied to any rough surface; brick, concrete block, stucco or even pavement that instantly transforms any space into a work of art.

Years ago you would hire a muralist to spend weeks on site painting a mural, now you can work with your designer, and have a mural printed and installed in just a couple of days.  


Window Lettering

outdoor signs gold leaf window lettering
Exquisite gold leaf lettering by Dan Seese

Cost $ Few Hundred and up
Time: 1 Week

Those big glass things in front of your store aren’t just for letting light in- they can bring customers in too! Window lettering and graphics are inexpensive, quickly made, easily changed and can be eye catching if well designed.

One of the keys to designing window lettering is that less is more. Opt for bigger letters, bolder graphics and less content. We’ll discuss the 7 second rule in depth elsewhere, but the main concept is that you have 7 seconds to take in all of the graphics. If it takes longer than that, some of the message will be missed.

The finest of all window lettering is made of gold leaf. Although very expensive, the look is like nothing else on the market. This old world technique is applied by seasoned craftsmen and still painted by hand.

Lighter colors typically perform better than darker colors for window lettering due to outside light being brighter than the light inside. Many sign designers consider windows to be black when designing window lettering. Check it out for yourself on your way out of work this afternoon!  

Bronze Plaques

outdoor signs bronze plaque brass metal signs
Bronze plaque by Inspired Bronze

Cost: $ Upper Hundreds+
Time: 6-8 Weeks

Class. Status. Permanence. Bronze plaques can last hundreds of years. Machined from solid brass, bronze or aluminum, bronze plaques are typically used to commemorate an important event. You may see brass plaques used to denote the retirement or passing of a founder, the dedication of a new building, or the celebration of a milestone event. The addition of a bronze plaque can make something as simple as a large rock into a permanent memorial.

Vinyl Banners

outdoor signs vinyl banner
Vinyl banner by Signs of Seattle

Cost: $100+
Time: a few days

Vinyl banners are like sales gold; inexpensive, easy to install, and eye catching. Vinyl banners can be used to announce sales or specials, drive membership signups or raise awareness about events.

If you’re buying a short term banner (3-6 months lifespan) that’s less than 40 square feet, 13 ounce banner will usually be sufficient. For large vinyl banners or if you need your banner to last for a longer term, opt for 18 ounce banner material.

If you are going to use a series of banners to advertise, it’s best to make sure that each banner is significantly different from the current one. If all of your vinyl banners look similar, people will become blind to them and miss the new message. Change the color, size or layout with each new banner and they will continue to drive sales for a long time.


outdoor signs commercial canvas awnings
Awnings by Northop Awning

Cost: $ Low Thousands
Time: 3 weeks+

If you’re looking for a subtle, upscale way to incorporate your branding, awnings might be just right for you.

Fabric or vinyl material is stretched over metal frames, which are then installed on your building. Fabric awnings, made from a material called Sunbrella, come in hundreds of colors and patterns and can be painted with your logo. Vinyl awnings can have the color removed with a special liquid and vinyl lettering can be applied.  Vinyl awnings can be lit from underneath, allowing the entire canopy and all the lettering to light up at night, creating a light box effect.

One tip for more modern looking awnings; don’t have the sides wrapped in fabric, just the faces. Although it might be more costly because the frame will have to be painted, it creates a really upscale look.

Electronic Message Centers

outdoor sign electronic message board center
Electronic Message Center by Harvey Signs

Cost: $ Few Thousand +
Time: 6 weeks+

What time is it? Boy it sure feels hot today, how hot is it? Look around for an electronic message center and you’ll find out.

When they initially came to market, electronic message signs were limited to just time and temperature displays. Now EMCs have grown to so much more. Electronic message boards can display multiple lines of text, have a scrolling message, even display high resolution digital graphics.

Electronic message centers are usually used as a portion of another outdoor sign, such as a pylon or monument sign.

Carved Signs

outdoor signs carved sign wood mahogany hand carved
Carved sign by Hassan Sign

Cost: $1000+
Time: 3 weeks +

The timeless, classic beauty of carved signs will never die, especially in the Northeast where Sign Buyers Guide is located.

Carved from either mahogany or closed cell foam, CNC routers have streamlined the process of creating carved signs compared to the old method of hand carved signs. The best shops will do a bit of both, roughing out the design on the router table and bringing out the chisel to refine the details.

Wood signs can also be made of sandblasted redwood or cedar. A thick masking film is applied to the areas that will remain raised and the background is sandblasted down, revealing the very attractive grain of the redwood panel.

Carved signs are amongst the longest lasting of the outdoor signs and are meant to last a lifetime. Many carved signs are refinished over and over again due to the durability of the materials used to make them.


outdoor signs billboard roadside sign

Cost: $1000’s per month+
Time: a few weeks

You’re driving in your car, and suddenly you want a cheeseburger. You don’t know why, but chances are a billboard just did its job. If you’re looking for a way to reach a lot of people for a low cost per view, billboards are the outdoor sign for you.

Billboards are such a ubiquitous form of outdoor signage that they have their own advertising term; they’re known as distraction advertising. The role of a billboard is to steal your attention for a few seconds and plant its message before you drive past it. Chances are you aren’t going to see a billboard, pull over on the side of the road, take out your phone and buy what it’s selling. Billboards simply nudge you to drink milk because it does a body good, or to buy a new car or attend an event.

Billboards are typically placed in high traffic areas, and although they are expensive, when viewed at a cost per thousand views they become an incredible value in outdoor signage. Let’s say a billboard in a major city costs $6000 a month, and 50,000 cars drive by it every day.  You will have generated 1.5 million LOCAL views for $6k- a CPM (cost per thousand views) of $4. Talk about value! It doesn’t take many sales to show ROI on $4. Sure you could pour that $6k into google ads at $4 a click, but you’d just be one of hundreds of online ads people see every day. You could be one of 4 or 5 billboard ads people see day in and day out, and any advertiser will tell you the benefits of repetitive views.

There are a very few companies that own the lion’s share of the billboards and outdoor advertising space in the US. Electronic billboards have allowed for easy fractional billboard purchases where your ad only shows for a portion of the time, bringing the cost of entry into this form of outdoor advertising down even further.

The building cost and permitting involved in fabricating a new billboard can be extremely high, and the established players can be very territorial about the creation of new advertising space. Although it can be a great source of passive income if you have a building with highway side frontage, expect a lengthy and expensive process if you wish to erect a new billboard.

Need more help choosing outdoor signs? Let our consultants help.

We covered a lot of material in this guide, and it is meant as a primer to get you familiar with the types of outdoor signs that are available to you and your business. For more information on personalized suggestions for your outdoor sign needs, design consulting or permitting assistance, as well as indoor signs and vehicle graphics, please see our sign consulting page.

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About Kevin Bergin

Kevin is a 20 year veteran of the sign business, having worked in every facet of the industry from sales to installation. Kevin now shares his earned knowledge with you on SignBuyersGuide.com

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