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How bright is bright?

David Catanach, director of the British Sign & Graphics Association (BSGA), discusses the flashing lights of Las Vegas, and how the UK could emulate the harmonic attitude towards illuminated signage

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Las Vegas is revered as the party destination and it has the bright disco lights to match the title. The city is awash with the glow of illuminated signage

Bright lights and a big city

A couple of important birthdays in the family this year and as a result, I get to go to Las Vegas for a summer holiday to help celebrate big time.

Leaving aside the sheer stupid heat such as the ridiculous 46°C daytime temperature (39°C at night), or the obligation under local Las Vegas Clarke County code that every bar/eatery/restaurant must have at least six 70” flat screen wall mounted televisions on show that must be working at all times (and restricted to sport – it’s the law apparently, although I may have made that last bit up) along with the $25 dollar a chip minimum stake at the roulette wheel – some found that too little! Or the $60 a round of four drinks at the hotel bar, I like Vegas a lot for all its gory detail behind the façade of simply trying to extract as much money from you while it can.

And the signage! Simply wow! Well, apart from the internal wayfinding in the hotels and casinos. Not easy to resolve but there must be a better way than what they have right now. But that is my personal view so move on as my personal view rarely counts.

Back to the wow! I counted 15 electronic message boards of all shapes and sizes from my 44th floor hotel room window, while looking down on the Strip towards the Venetian Hotel and northward. These, I found out later, are referred to as Electronic Message Centres (EMCs) and are not digital billboards which advertise services or goods away from the site. Rather, EMCs are a digital sign that is located on the premises and advertise goods and services at that location.

The new LINQ complex has a monolithic structure the height of the building by about three metres wide, and it is one huge tall electronic display pumping out ever-changing advertising and promotions at the complex.

Over the road from that behemoth and outside Caesars Palace and next to the faux Trevi Fountain, is a huge sign that straddles the sidewalk where you can walk under it without any fear of hitting your head. The entire archway has been clad with electronic screens that wrap the posts and the structure. The effect is just one big electronic screen in the shape of a 40ft high x 20ft wide archway that is entirely a digital screen. The three-foot-wide pillars that the sign stands on are displaying, for a couple of minutes, a fluted Doric column image to give the archway the Greek and Roman look. Next the image switches to an unfluted column covered in ivy and then off to something else with climbing roses. All done with a huge dollop of Caesars Palace and advertising everything available on site up to the hilt.

In the other direction down the Strip from Caesars stands the 51-floor tall Cosmopolitan Hotel, the roof of which is simply one giant building-wide electronic screen. All of these EMCs working perfectly well in the 46°C heat which in direct sunshine would have been over 50°C. And there is simply no way you can continue to ignore these bright moving images as your eyes are drawn back to the movement – which is exactly what the sign is designed to do.

Of course, I don’t expect this to be news to many of you and I’m not saying I’m the only one from the UK sign industry who has been to Vegas of late. So why mention all this?

Well first off, I admit I am in awe of the sheer scale of things. I lost count of the number of interactive touch screen directories in shopping malls. Giant iPads for want of a better description.

Secondly, there appears to be an anything goes attitude from the city planners and their sign codes but that is far from the truth. There is in fact a consensus in many areas as to what works, what doesn’t work and what benefits both the sign owner and the surrounding community. Because of this research in the US, there are two different brightness settings based on whether the EMC was in an area of high or low ambient light.  How many of us consider anything such as the brightness of the sign in conjunction with its location?

There is in fact a consensus in many areas as to what works, what doesn’t work and what benefits both the sign owner and the surrounding community

The research and the recommendations contained in this report pertain only to EMCs, not traditionally internally illuminated signs, such as these channel letter and neon signs, for which there is different research and results.

EMCs use a different lighting technology than most of these other types of signs, and as such, the scientific approach differs.

Community planners who make the policy decisions, should understand that while it is recommended that brightness measurements be taken perpendicular to the sign, those viewing the sign rarely see it at the same perpendicular approach. At any viewing point away from the forward angle, the apparent brightness will be reduced. In other words, the measurements will capture the recommended brightness levels, but, unless viewers are looking at the sign directly perpendicular, they will not perceive brightness at the full level. And I have not yet even started on the fact that daytime brightness settings of EMCs which are usually inappropriate for night-time viewing.

Signage in Vegas has a community feel, working in tandem to entertain and advertise to visitors and tourists

Wouldn’t it be great if the UK sign industry had similar correspondence and rapport with UK planners as they are doing in the US? To present such research and to try to smooth out the playing field so that everyone recognises the effect an illuminated sign has on the surroundings, business and the community. In the main, we are not trying to emulate Las Vegas but an illuminated sign is still an illuminated sign no matter what part of the world you are in.

Wouldn’t it be great if the UK sign industry had similar correspondence and rapport with UK planners as they are doing in the US?

Now comes the science bit to impress with down the pub. The candela per square metre (cd/m2) is the derived SI unit of luminance. The unit is based on the candela, the SI unit of luminous intensity, and the square metre, the SI unit of area. Nit (nt) is a non-SI name also used for this unit (1 nt = 1 cd/m2). The term nit is believed to come from the Latin word nitere, to shine. There you go, don’t say I don’t give you anything.

Public Notice:

  • Research in the US has resulted in two different brightness settings based on whether the EMC is in an area of high or low ambient light
  • This research only applies to EMCs and not traditional internally illuminated signage and neon signs EMCs use different technology

The British Sign & Graphics Association (BSGA) history dates back more than 70 years when a group of leading sign-makers formed the Master Sign Makers Association (MSMA) with the aim of promoting the sign industry and defending its interests. For more information on the issues discussed in this article visit www.bsga.co.uk or Tel: 0845 338 3016

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