Howard ADA

Successful Strategies for Creating Attractive ADA-Compliant Signage

Bill Schiffner is a freelance writer/editor based in Holbrook, N.Y. He has covered the imaging industry for 25 years and has reported on many evolving digital imaging technologies including wide-format printing and newer electronic digital signage. He was the editor for a number of imaging publications and websites. He can be reached at

More than 25 years ago, when the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was first signed into law, it necessitated massive changes in the sign industry. The new laws—which aim to increase accessibility to public spaces for those with disabilities—demanded signage that was both easy to read and easily understood through the tactile touch—Braille. More recent addendums and modifications to the ADA law have tightened up and clarified many of those specifications.

Keeping up with today’s guidelines and regulations for ADA-compliant signage might seem like a difficult task for sign shops looking for new design options for their clients. However, by keeping a few simple rules in mind while designing your signs, it’s still possible to create attractive, great-looking signs that also fully meet all ADA regulations.

What’s Trending?

When considering ADA signage trends, right now “we’re seeing more visual text on permanent room signs,” says Hank McMahon, president,, Chattanooga, Tennessee. "This works very well stylistically, but can sometimes force an increase the size of the sign and therefore the cost. We’re also seeing a lot of wood grains and metallic materials being used in conjunction with acrylics. The other trend is of course the outsourcing of ADA signs.

"If I were starting out in this business today," McMahon continues, "unless I was going to make a huge financial commitment to supporting ADA signs—specifically, dedicated staff, machines, regulation compliance, and design work. Personally, I would outsource the work as a first resort. It can be a tough business model to support.”

Bill Freeman, vice president of architectural sales at Howard Industries in Fairview, Pennsylvania, says he is seeing more use of user-friendly paper insert signs with removable ADA-compliant lens covers being utilized. “This allows customers to print and upgrade their own sign content. Also popular are interior signs constructed of multiple layered substrates offering custom looks that complement/match interior décor. ADA-compliant room identification signs accompanied with industry specific applications have also increased in demand. For example, healthcare signage that displays vital patient-specific information for improving hospital staff communication.”

More Branding Options

Gary Harder, director at Duets by Gemini, Canon Falls, Minnesota, says that many customers are looking for more creative ADA signs that incorporate design, branding, and also meet the ADA requirements. “This is often driven by corporate rebranding, new construction, and consolidation/takeovers. Many buildings have multi-purpose rooms, or utilize modular designs, which demand more flexible signage,” he explains.

Jessica Heldman-Beck, marketing manager at Rowmark LLC, Findlay, Ohio, also reports that the biggest trend that they are seeing in ADA signage is the incorporation of branding into the overall signage plan for environmental spaces. “Customers are seeking more architectural aesthetic options to fit their corporate branding and image. For nearly 30 years Rowmark has been manufacturing matte, eggshell products that meet the requirements for ADA-compliant signage. Our offering has grown to include over 100 ADA-compliant material colors for sign makers to select from when designing ADA-compliant signs. Today’s ADA- compliant signs have style and design and just a touch of flair for a custom branded look,” she points out.

Heldman-Beck says that Rowmark has been responsive to market demands for new substrates to be used in ADA sign making. “We have introduced a variety of compliant product lines, including ‘industry staples’ like our ADA Alternative Appliqué and Substrate and Ultra-Mattes Reverse, to appeal to ADA sign makers and fabricators.”

Keeping Up with Online Resources

Terri Bristow, marketing specialist at Gravotech—an engraving and cutting equipment manufacturer in Duluth, Georgia—says they provide a number of great resources that are available to keep sign shops current on the latest updates in ADA signage. “Gravotech is a great resource for ADA specs and guidelines. We created an easy to use guide (available for download at that walks a new user through the intricate specification requirements, the type of materials to use, and even compatible machines to allow for automatic bead insertion, saving you time and money. For the architects, we have also created an easy to use guide (download at that outlines everything you need to know to keep your new building’s signage ADA compliant. Simply print the document, and hand it to the designated sign fabricator on your project.”

Other Resources

McMahon adds that there are several resources required to continually check on updates and refinements or interpretations to the ADA. Here are a few that he recommends:

"Some states, such as California, have exerted local governance over key parts of the ADA," McMahon says. Sign shops in those states would need to do their research on state ADA-related websites. "The SEGD—Society for Experiential Graphic Design (—is also an excellent source for this information,” he adds.

State by State Issues

McMahon says that keeping up with all the individual state regulations is vital. He reports that doming is a big issue for them as they do not use photopolymer. “The last thing we want to happen is an over-scrupulous inspector get into a conversation with us about turning a photopolymer cylinder into a domed dot. With our ADA compliance guarantee we have to make sure our Braille dots are properly domed and not simply a function of how much paint we apply. Another issue is that the state of California now requires the Braille to align either flush right or centered below the text. California also has a regulation against the use of vertical text even if it is just visual. Those two regulations required an immense amount of work to certify our ADA signs for that state,” he points out.

Adding Some Sizzle

McMahon says that with the large number of sign lines and color/material combinations that you can online you can see is what you get when ordering, you can truly add some sizzle in your interior signage package. “Again the use of visual text can add that last design aspect to make your signage super attractive and well thought out. We also work with a lot of patterns like wood grains, metallics, vegetation and flowers as accents. Dimension gained through material thickness and layers of varied acrylics and metallics can also add an elegant touch.”

He adds that the key is to read, read, and read some more through the regulations. “Learn deeply about contrasts and stroke width to spacing ratios and never accept a good guess. While it’s true that the inspector community runs about a year behind the current regulations, the last thing you want is a customer coming back to you after a year or two complaining about an inspector report of ADA non-compliance,” he points out.

“Our strategy has revolved around having a full- time Regulation Specialist on staff to investigate not only the ADA but also the ICI, NFPA and ANSI regulations. Many times we have to contact and work directly with an individual regulator at the state level to get the exact interpretation of a local code or regulation. It’s a tough job and takes a special individual to get it done on time and correctly,” McMahon concludes.

Outsourcing Advantages

Harder says there are a number of benefits for shops that are using an ADA sign wholesaler. “One major key to service is that they monitor sign regulations on a daily basis. They also provide the manufacturing capacity so the sign shop can concentrate on their core markets and products. This allows for increased market reach within the sign company's geography, providing growth that they may not otherwise be able to capitalize on. Many projects are one-time, so the sign shop doesn’t need to add expertise or capacity that will not be utilized long term.”

Gemini’s main product is Tactiles, which is an ADA-compliant acrylic sheet stock, Harder says. “We also offer free samples for testing, color guides, and color chips. Often, proposals require actual color chips be submitted for approval. In addition, Gemini also produces ADA-compliant metal plaques. These products feature one-piece, all metal construction and are available with full-color printing and custom shapes for enhanced design. The integrated braille means these signs are virtually tamper proof offering an upgraded sign to the customer, and a nice up-sell for the sign company."

Keeping Up on Regulations

Freeman says that as a signage provider, learning the guidelines for interior ADA signage can prove lucrative since these types of signs are required by law. “The better a sign shop can present their ADA interior signage expertise the more apt they will be at solidifying the sale.”

He says that 90 percent of all of their interior signs sold last year were ADA compliant. “The convenience and ease of changeability the paper insert sign provides offers the customer years of worry-free compliancy.”

He adds, “With our HID system you can have the ADA lens with the tactile copy and Grade 2 Braille but still have your custom printed attractive paper insert behind it. A layering of colored acrylics can take many creative shapes with required ADA compliant tactile copy and Grade 2 Braille applied to the surface.”

Some Other Things to Consider

Bristow says that when producing signs, the Braille message should accurately represent the tactile message, and things such as spacing change the meaning of letters and numbers. “For our customers, it is important to use GravoStyle software to accurately translate the braille. It is also very important to proofread the braille translation to ensure accuracy.”

 She says that ADA signage is a great way to bring extra profit into your shop. “An average ADA sign commands a mark-up of about 300-400 percent. These signs can be very profitable!”

Gravotech provides all of the products for the ADA sign process, Bristow adds. “We manufacture the machines to cut tactile lettering while also drilling holes and automatically inserting the Braille beads. We also manufacture ADA substrates that are FDA compliant. By purchasing the ‘ADA Braille Kit’ we provide customers with everything they need to get started using the Raster Braille system.

Diversifying and Designer-Friendly

Heldman-Beck points out that the interior signage and wayfinding market is also diversifying and becoming increasingly designer-friendly as sign equipment and processes are more accessible. “Signage is a natural extension for many businesses, including trophy and award shops. Sign shops are in great position to offer ADA-compliant signage, because they have the necessary equipment and materials as well as the customer base to which these products are marketed. That same loyal customer who has been purchasing corporate awards or informational signs more than likely has a public building where ADA-compliant signs are required by law. Businesses can benefit by marketing themselves in their area as a sign-making professional that offers ADA-compliant signs that meet local signage regulations.”

Using UV-LED Printing Technology

Heldman-Beck also reports that UV-flatbed printers are ideal for producing ADA applications. “One of the most innovative features of UV-LED printing technology is its unique ability to create raised or textured images and shapes including ADA-compliant Braille. As the ink does not absorb into the substrate, it gets higher with continual passes of the print head.”

She says creating ADA signage with UV-LED printing saves significant time when compared to other typical ADA sign production methods, with less manual work and fewer steps involved. GoVivid, Rowmark’s UV printer and consumable division, offers a versatile line of DTS (direct-to-substrate) UV-LED digital printers that can produce ADA-compliant signage.”

Rowmark Output Options

She points out the two most popular methods for creating ADA-compliant signage with Rowmark materials is the Raster Braille method and the UV-LED printed method.

“To create an ADA-compliant sign with the Raster Braille method you will need to use a rotary engraver with Accent Raster Braille Spheres, Rowmark ADA-compliant substrate and ADA applique. The plastic substrate serves as the background and will be drilled to secure the Raster Braille spheres in place for the Braille text. Rowmark’s ADA Alternative applique has an adhesive backing, which is used to adhere the pictogram and letters to the Rowmark plastic substrate.”

She feels the most technologically advanced method to create legal and attractive ADA signs is with Rowmark ADA-compliant substrates and a UV-LED printer. “We recommend starting first with Direct Color Systems (DCS) Direct Jet UVMVP Series printers, where you can print a combination of raised, visual text, pictogram and Braille directly onto a piece of Rowmark matte finished acrylic. DCS UV-LED printer will print all of the compliant elements with a 1/32-inch thickness to meet ADA compliant standards. DCS manufactures Braille UV-LED printers that offer users the option of either first-surface or second-surface graphics when creating raised-texture signage on Rowmark acrylic substrates. Standard 6" x 8" signs can be output in less than 4 minutes, with a full digitally printed background, raised letters and Braille spheres,” she adds.

Other Educational Tips

Heldman-Beck recommends attending trade shows where seminars are typically presented at no cost to the attendee as another way to keep up on this market. “There you can learn from industry professionals how to properly use the equipment and materials available to produce signs that sell. For example, National Business Media (NBM) regularly hosts regional tradeshows.”