Let's Talk Channel Letters

As I begin typing this article, I am standing in the Sign Business booth at the USSC Sign World Show. A topic that continues to come up at trade shows is channel letters. In fact, a good percentage of the floor space is taken by companies that manufacture or support the manufacturing of this particular sign product.

As advertising, signs have a tangible value. They also have definable costs. When a business plans a marketing strategy, the quantity and type of advertising is examined, a budget is prepared, cost of advertising per impression is calculated to determine the value of the advertising.

Many detailed studies have been conducted to determine the relationship between the number of impressions and the motivation to buy a product. Because it takes a number of repeat impressions to result in motivation, most advertisers will seek to maintain a consistency of message in all advertising media.

Another issue of advertising is the success in converting motivation into action. If a consumer is sitting at home and sees an advertisement, the resulting action may be to try to remember to buy the item the next time the consumer is visiting that store. Another consumer, traveling on the interstate highway sees a billboard for a gas station. The resulting action is to look at the fuel gauge. If the gauge shows a need for fuel, the motorist will probably pull off at the appropriate exit and purchase fuel.

The television ad may be a high-tech computer generated extravaganza; a simple 16-sheet billboard located near the appropriate exit can be more effective in producing the desired result of a purchase.

Extending this analysis, an on-premise sign can be the most effective form of advertising a business, in that when it is viewed, the consumer is virtually on the doorstep. Very little motivation is required for the consumer to stop, provided the advertised message or the establishment’s name is visible and readable at sufficient distance that the consumer may negotiate himself or his vehicle to the premise without incurring an accident.

Even with the proximity of the on-premise sign to the front door of the business, it is vital that the copy on the sign be effective. It must be sized so as to be readable at a sufficient distance to permit the consumer to respond. In many code jurisdictions, the allowable size of a freestanding or wall mounted sign may be so restrictive that the resulting copy size is insufficient to meet the requirements of noticeability and readability. By using individual channel letters to identify the premises, a larger copy size can be achieved within the permitted size allowances. In this manner the effectiveness of the on-premise sign can be multiplied many times over.

To explain this fact more specifically, most sign codes limit the size of permittable signs based on the number of square feet of graphic area. For a standard box sign, the calculation of graphic area includes not only meaningful copy on the sign face, but also the background areas as well.

For channel type letters, the copy is fabricated as individual letters and/or logo signs. When these are mounted on a building, the building’s façade becomes the background for the sign. This form of background is usually not included in the calculation of square footage, only the actual area of the graphic faces. In this manner, a business that might get its name displayed in 12'' copy on a 4' x 8' box sign, might get its name displayed with channel letters several feet tall under the same sign code.

Obviously, the channel letters would be more noticeable and more readable than the same copy displayed in the smaller size on the standard sign face. This enhancement adds value to the business location far above the cost of the channel letters.

The sign industry has been slow to incorporate valuation techniques used throughout the business community to accurately value on premise signage.

Most businesses must advertise to attract their customers. Advertising seeks to motivate a select group of individuals to conduct transactions with the advertiser. For a large percentage of businesses, customers must visit the business premises at some time to conduct or fulfill the business transaction. For these customers, the advertising must motivate the customer to leave whatever location in which they are currently, and to travel to the business premise. Upon arrival within the vicinity of the business, these potential customers must be able to easily and safely identify the business location. With an on-premise sign, the hardest part of the motivation has been accomplished; the customer is in the vicinity of the advertiser’s business premises.

Channel letters, presented in a larger copy size than regular sign graphics will make the process of notice occur more quickly, permitting the potential customer to plan and then negotiate to the business site more easily and with less hazard to himself or others around him or her.

So they are better for the customer, but what about me? Another benefit of channel letters is the significant number of experienced letter manufacturers that are available to supply product to sign shops. Even if your customer desires a custom logo as a part of the identity, channel letter manufactures, aided by the latest computer technology, can provide dimensional logos as a part of a total identification package.

Tackling a new project or specifying a new product often moves us out of our zone of comfort. We are often not sure of the process for identifying the proper product for a given application. We may have difficulty communicating our order to a wholesale fabricator. We may be unsure of the proper method of installation and service for the specified process. We may even feel uncomfortable trying to sell channel letters to a customer. With all of these concerns, what is the benefit to us to venture into selling channel letter?


By purchasing from a wholesale fabricator, a sign shop can avoid the high capital costs associated with manufacturing. In a smaller shop, these costs for equipment and the necessary skilled labor cannot be adequately absorbed over the number of channel letter projects sold each year. The wholesaler has many more jobs over which to spread these costs, allowing you, the sign company, to make a larger margin on the selling price for the job.

So, we find we have a strategic opportunity. What I mean by this is that all of the parties involved in the transaction benefit. With a channel letter identity, the businessman gets his or her business noticed and recognized sooner, generating more traffic to the business location. The wholesaler increases the number of jobs across which his or her manufacturing costs are absorbed, resulting in a better margin. And the sign shop is able to provide product to the business that has a fixed cost, thereby ensuring the planned profit margin is achieved.

The initial survey is the single most important step of your design and marketing effort. Without the information garnered by the survey, the most impressive signage can be rendered ineffective by existing conditions not otherwise recognized. When conducting the survey, the following conditions should be documented:

Approach — The distance measured along a line of travel from the point where the signage display first becomes visible to the point where copy is no longer readable (having passed perpendicular to the line of sight). Consider the approach to the business. What speed is permitted on the street(s)? What obstructions are along the approach? How clear is the line of sight?

Exposure Time — Exposure time is the amount of time an observer has to view the content of the sign. Exposure time is a function of the approach, noticeability of the sign, legibility of the sign, and rate of travel along the approach path.

Noticeability — This term is actually a combination of detection and conspicuity.

Conspicuity — The quality of an object (sign) or a light source to appear prominent or to stand out in its surroundings. The depth associated with the individual channel letters contributes greatly to this quality.

Detection — The quality or state of being perceivable by the eye. In many outdoor applications, visibility is defined in terms of the distance at which an object can be just perceived (I.e. detected) by the eye. Since channel letters can be spaced without an associated cost in square footage allocation, a spread pattern can often be used to increase the distance at which the letters can be discerned and read.

A study of the business premise, identifying the visual presence currently presented to the public needs to be blended with identifying the type audience which will be viewing the sign. Within this study, the approach must be identified and well defined.

The study of the approach will identify such information as the line of sight, typical travel rate of the average target audience, and provide a good feeling for the competing images and visual presence of other businesses along the approach.

Establishing the approach and the travel rate will allow the calculation of exposure time. Exposure time and the identification of competing visual presences will provide the designer with an idea of the needed size and images to compete with the visual environment to provide a conspicuous image.

We are at the point where we have determined that it can be profitable and effective to sell channel letter signs. We have defined the needs of a site survey to assist us in specifying the appropriate type of channel letters for a project. And at this point, you have probably been interrupted several times.

I am going to let you consider the information presented here until the next installment of this series on channel letters. With the next article, we will look at an example of an actual survey and begin to identify appropriate options for a channel letter project. We will incorporate some of the observations and wisdom of channel letter manufacturers as they assist us in developing the right mix of product, lighting, and mounting to satisfy our customer’s needs.