Innovative Sign Lighting Techniques

John Baylis is the Marketing Manager at Direct Sign Wholesale, a wholesale channel letter manufacturer located in Denver, Colo. Contact John at jb@directsignwholesale.com, or visit Direct Sign Wholesale’s website at www.directsignwholesale.com.

Many signage producers and designers are experimenting with innovative illumination ideas, particularly with LED. This article reviews some product and design developments for both channel letters and other signage types.

New LED Capabilities

A major trend within signage illumination has been the introduction of single LED modules which are capable of a greater degree of illumination coverage. This development has impacted many signage types and has permitted the use of LED lighting in structures that previously required other types of illumination.

One of the specific changes which made these applications possible is a wider viewing angle. This viewing angle is the “cone of light” generated by a single LED module (see diagram below.)

Within the channel letter field, a broader viewing angle may decrease the number of modules necessary to properly illuminate a letter face. A wider viewing angle also means that letters with thinner returns may be evenly lit without “tiger striping” or dark spots on the letter face.

This three inch return depth can provide another important benefit to a channel letter design: It removes two inches of sign protrusion. This can be a helpful in obtaining a permit in an area where sign protrusion codes are restricted to a relatively low level.

In addition, this increased LED capability has applications in other signage types as well. Thin signage panels (i.e., a short distance from LED mounting surface to illuminated surface) may have previously required multiple modules (or a different type of illumination) to be brightly and evenly lit. Some can now be properly illuminated with a single LED module.

For example, Bryan Vincent of Principal LED states, “We had a client who needed to illuminate some very thin signage panels for food trucks. The units were required to operate off battery power from the truck itself and the available power was limited. In addition, the panels were only 2” deep from the back panel to the face in order to maintain the low profile design the customer required.”

Solving this design issue required a special LED optic that was ultra-wide to distribute the light laterally, along with a module that had both a long life and constant light output (even at 14.2 volts.) So this new LED technology permitted this customer to create an ultra-slim design factor which is capable of running off of battery power. The customer was pleased with the results.

A final LED development is the introduction of modules which run directly off a 120V circuit – they do not require a separate power supply or transformer. This configuration can be useful for signage projects where physical power supply access and mounting is more difficult. They may also be useful in small illuminated signage applications where only a few modules are needed and an internal power supply space is unavailable.

In sum, a major trend in signage illumination is the ability to place LED modules in smaller and/or tighter environments which previously required a different illumination type or a greater quantity of modules. This is partially due to the wider viewing angle and special optics that are available from this latest LED generation.

Branding through Illumination/Architectural Accent Lighting

Another evolving practice is the usage of structural illumination to complement the lit signage plan. Some developers are now designing illumination mounted on and into the actual building structures in addition to the signage plan.

This technique can be an excellent adjunct for generating attention to the signage in a retail development. If the building illumination initially draws the attention of someone in a passing vehicle, the signage then communicates the available business offerings.

For example, Denver’s CitySet development incorporated accent lighting into and on many of the development’s buildings.  

The developer in this case not only accented some buildings with LED tube type illumination—they also integrated entire lit window panels (see image below.).

This technique also has branding value. A consumer who cannot remember the name of a restaurant (or the development in which the restaurant is located) may recall the unique accent lighting. The development may then be referenced in the consumer’s mind by, “You know that place that has the green lighting? That is where it is.”

Window Signage Illumination

New signage illumination technology alone is not always sufficient to create a compelling lighting effect. It is also sometimes necessary to understand the manipulation of light and combine that understanding with illumination technology to create a distinct and vivid signage presentation.

For example, the Sleep Number Bed window signs below have a compelling and eye-catching appearance.

According to Michael Jeske at Select Comfort, these signs are constructed using sheets of ¼” P95 acrylic. The ring is then flooded with illumination by LED light tape to create the glowing appearance.

The actual sign numbers are etched into the acrylic and “catch” the light that is coming in from the edge, giving the actual numbers a brighter appearance compared to the adjacent surface area.

Sleep Number has incorporated more elaborate number displays into some of their in-store branding presentations.

Lit window signage is certainly not news, but a strong design combined with an innovative use of illumination can result in a compelling handshake with the signature (primary) facility signage.

Light Flow Control

Another current illumination practice is controlling the appearance of channel letter faces through the usage of light management film. This product provides a method for a channel letter sign to have a differing face color when illuminated (i.e., night face color appearance is different from day.)

This practice can be helpful when the optimal day channel letter face color is not the best night color. This situation can be solved by the use of perforated vinyl applied to the letter face, and it may also involve the use of diffuser film on the letter face interiors.

This material allows sufficient emitted light to change the night color appearance of the letter face. What this creates is a sort of optical illusion—the brightness of the light emitted through the perforations overpowers the visibility of the sign face color itself. The “field of light” created in front of the letters creates the illusion of a color.

Mixed Color Halo Illumination

Another interesting lighting practice is to vary the halo color among differing letters in the sign. Many reverse-lit letter sets are illuminated with a single color. However, the specification of a second halo color can increase a sign’s capacity to generate attention. This design may also be useful in projecting a primary brand color through the sign halo.

For example, see the image below for a sign that uses both red and black halo colors. These multi-colored channel letter halos create a distinct appearance.

Using the same principle, this reverse-lit channel letter set has the business name illuminated in basic white, and the business type illuminated in yellow.

This is a simple yet significant design and illumination practice. The mixed color scheme may draw further attention to the reverse-lit letter set.


Both new products and new ideas can result in a compelling sign illumination plan. New LED has increased illumination capability and may now be used in locations which previously required a differing illumination type. Developers may also specify accent lighting to further enhance a development’s branding capacity. Last, both innovative use of existing illumination technology (such as window signs and indoor displays) and the placement of additional lighting colors into a letter set may also be effective signage configurations.