Signage: System overview and implementation
FIP Manual, December 1992
The signs that identify federal real property provide assistance to users of the facilities. They also represent an important aspect of the government’s visual identity. These signs communicate essential information about the facility, and about the government and its operations.
These guidelines provide an overview of the government’s sign system and describe how signage should be planned and managed. These instructions are prepared for the use of planners and managers of facilities. All others who are involved in formulating messages or who are responsible for the design, procurement or placement of signs will find it helpful to consult these guidelines as well. (See the centre fold for a visual presentation of the sign system.)
This edition of “Signage” supersedes the January 1988 version. This edition clarifies responsibilities for implementation, reflects Public Service reform and establishes links with Treasury Board policies on real property management.
A review of government signs in the early seventies revealed major shortcomings with respect to quality, design and overall effectiveness. Moreover, it was found that many federal facilities lacked clear identification. To rectify this situation and to improve communications, the Treasury Board Secretariat was charged with developing a comprehensive sign system as part of the Federal Identity Program. The principal goals were: to improve the presentation of the official languages; to achieve uniformity consistent with the corporate identity; and to effect standardization. In developing the designs, emphasis was placed on functional demands, user needs, specific government wide requirements, and standardization, both to achieve cost savings and to conform to national and international standards.
Objectives and scope
Signage represents a significant aspect of the federal identity and is linked to the following policy objectives:
to enable the public to clearly recognize federal activities by means of consistent identification;
to improve service to the public by facilitating access to programs and services;
to project the equality of status of the two official languages;
to ensure effective management of the federal iden­tity, consistent with government wide priorities; and
to promote good management practices in the fields of corporate identity and information design.
The following goals pertain to the sign system. The system is intended to:
improve communications through consistent appearance and clear, readily understood messages;
achieve visual consistency throughout the government and compatibility with national and international standards; and
effect cost savings through standardization of the system’s components.
In summary, the system is intended to meet the opera­tional requirements of departments, to help implement government policy and, most importantly, to assist the user public.
Scope and application
The system applies to a broad range of sign messages that identify, direct, regulate, warn or inform. The different types of signs are referred to as primary identification signs, common use signs, operational signs, and project signs. This system is to be used by all federal institutions that are subject to FIP policy.
Signs that are prescribed by a regulatory authority are not covered by these guidelines. Examples are traffic signs, which are subject to the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Canada, and emergency exit signs, which are prescribed by the National Building Code.
Related policies
The guidelines on signage are related to Treasury Board policies on communications and real property management, as well as to the policy of the Federal Identity Program. (See “Applicable policies and guidelines” in this section.)
Treasury Board policy requires that each institution that is subject to FIP name an official to manage its corporate identity. All enquiries should be routed through the designated official, who is usually referred to as the FIP Coordinator.
Enquiries about the guidelines and design standards should be directed to:
Federal Identity Program
Administrative Policy Branch
Treasury Board Secretariat
Roles and responsibilities
Because of the diversity of federal institutions, there is no one way to organize functional responsibilities for signage. Government departments and agencies are diverse in terms of their size, mandate, services, modes of service delivery and, of course, needs concerning signage. Moreover, the function of real property management is organized with varying degrees of centralization or decentralization at the headquarters, regional, and district levels. Despite these variances, there should be a common understanding of roles and responsibilities concerning signage.
Custodian department and occupant organization
Signage is a shared responsibility that involves both the custodian department and the organization that occupies federal real property. Table 1 indicates the activities and roles concerning the different types of signs and the areas of shared responsibility. This overview is intended to help assign functional responsibilities within an organization. The letter codes used in the table are defined below:
C – Custodian department, the organization that administers and manages federal real property;
O – Occupant, the federal organization that occupies the real property.
Note: To indicate that the organization has a secondary role, the code is shown in parenthesis.
Lease agreements
The custodian department is responsible for specifying and negotiating signage requirements for real property that is leased from the private sector. The lease or occupancy agreement should include a clause that permits the installation of appropriate identification and directional signs.
Project signs
The federal organization that manages a project is responsible for the sign that identifies it.
Treasury Board Secretariat
As stated in the policy, the Treasury Board Secretariat (TBS) provides functional leadership for the government’s corporate identity. It is also responsible for coordinating implementation. With respect to signage, TBS:
develops or revises design standards and guidelines in consultation with the FIP Standing Committee on Sign Development (see below);
ensures compatibility with national and international standards (e.g. graphic symbols) through liaison with the appropriate standards organizations; and
monitors implementation of the sign system by assessing compliance with the policy and conformance with standards.
FIP Standing Committee
The FIP Standing Committee on Sign Development advises the Treasury Board Secretariat on all matters concerning government signage. The Committee develops and maintains design standards and addresses new government wide requirements. Enquiries concerning the Committee should be directed to the Administrative Policy Branch, Treasury Board Secretariat.
Planning and managing
Signage has a direct influence on the operation and appearance of government facilities and, therefore, should be planned. Ideally, signs should be seen as part of an environmental information system that helps users to understand their environment and guides them to their destination. Planning signage means interpreting the needs of users and defining operational requirements.
Creating a “readable” environment
Signs should provide clear, unambiguous answers to three questions: where am I and where am I going; how will I get there; how will I know when I have arrived. Good signage helps to explain the facility and, in a sense, answers questions before they are asked. A well-planned system enables people to find their destination readily and quickly, reducing the need to search or to ask questions.
All signs within a facility tend to interact, and the effectiveness of a system depends on all its components being consistent.
Planning the sign system for a facility
The following should be considered when planning a sign system:
physical characteristics of the building or site;
direction and type of traffic flow;
means of access;
needs of the user public;
messages related to common services, health, safety and security;
sequence, priority and grouping of sign messages;
placement and installation of signs; and
illumination of signs.
Consultation and coordination
The planning and management of signage involves functional areas that include:
property management;
facilities planning;
health and safety; and
Standardization of operational signs
A department with a significant investment in signage may consider standardizing its operational signs. Standardization could improve communications, simplify procurement and reduce costs. Several departments (e.g. Public Works Canada; Transport Canada; and Revenue Canada, Customs and Excise) have taken steps to rationalize their signage requirements. These initiatives vary according to needs and may include the development of standard terminologies or messages, common sign formats and sizes, catalogues of sign products, or complete sign systems.
Maintaining a system
The dynamics of organizations will invariably affect their signage. Changes caused by reorganizations, relocations or new operations will call for additional messages, modifications or the removal of signs. Managing a system includes keeping information current and removing signs with messages that are obsolete or redundant.
The effectiveness of a system also depends on the physical appearance of signs. Periodic inspection and maintenance is needed to keep sign faces clean, and to repair or replace signs that are deteriorated or defaced.
Assessing a facility and its user public
Nature of the facility
The type of occupancy and the status of ownership of a facility normally influence decisions concerning signage. For example, several federal institutions may share a facility or it may be occupied by a mix of public and private sector organizations. Furthermore, the nature of the building or site may dictate decisions concerning the size and placement of signs.
Single or multi occupancy facility
The type of occupancy determines the signature that is used on the primary sign or directory board. The signature of the occupant organization identifies a facility that is occupied by a single organization. Those facilities shared by two or more federal organizations (multi occupancy facilities) are identified by the “Government of Canada” signature.
Crown owned or leased facility
The ownership of real property can affect decisions concerning the placement and installation of signs. This applies particularly to signs required for accommodation that is leased. (See “Roles and responsibilities” in this section). The installation of an exterior sign may be subject to restrictions (e.g. a municipal sign By law).
Signs provided by the lessor
There are cases where a lessor provides directional signs as a tenant service. Such signs would not be subject to government policy and design standards although they could, of course, refer to a federal institution.
Heritage buildings
Signs intended for a heritage building require special considerations. The dimensions of signs, their placement and the method of installation are critical factors in maintaining the visual integrity of such buildings. (See section 4.2, “Primary identification signs”, for more details on this topic.)
User public
A general knowledge of the user public is needed in order to determine sign requirements. While some signs will be required for operational reasons, others will help to direct or inform people who are unfamiliar with a site.
Facilities to which the general public has access include: federal buildings, regional and district offices, employment and immigration centres, passport offices, customs and taxation offices, land border facilities, health services facilities, schools, museums, passenger terminals, parks and waterways.
Facilities intended primarily for employees include: offices, workshops, laboratories, research stations, telecommunications facilities, construction sites, wharves and warehouses.
Service to the public
Government policy states that “Institutions must clearly identify real property occupied by organizational units that provide services directly to the public, and ensure that the signs make it easier to find these services.”
It follows that, to meet this objective, careful planning of signage for such a facility is required. The concept of “clear” identification pertains to the size and location of a sign (visibility), the relationship of the sign to the observer (legibility), and the wording of the message (clarity).
Real property accessibility
The Treasury Board policy entitled “Real property accessibility” sets out specific requirements with respect to signs. Appendix D of the policy defines the scope.
The national standard of Canada, CAN/CSA B651 M90, Barrier Free Design, includes design requirements and provides general guidance on the use of tactile characters or symbols. The Government of Canada adopted the CSA standard to help make its buildings and other facilities accessible and safely usable by persons with physical or sensory disabilities.
Graphic requirements
A comparison of the graphic requirements prescribed by the CSA standard and those of the Federal Identity Program indicates that the character proportions and the degree of colour contrast prescribed by the two standards are fully compatible.
Differences exist, however, with respect to ratios between character size and viewing distance. This means that the character size and, consequently, the size of the sign must be increased to ensure a proper degree of legibility for persons who are visually impaired. The placement of such signs is also critical and institutions should consult the CSA standard and relevant guidelines when making decisions on sign installations.
Graphic symbols
To ensure compatibility, the graphic symbols referred to by CSA have been included in the set of symbols of the Federal Identity Program. Exceptions are signs and symbols that identify parking spaces, since their design is subject to the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Canada.
Tactile signs
Design standards for tactile messages are currently being developed to meet the requirements of the Treasury Board policy and the CSA standard. The aim is to integrate tactile messages into the sign system and to establish a uniform, coherent approach to both visual and tactile messages.
The government’s sign system
This section sets out an overview of the system, which includes primary identification, common use, operational and project signs. For a visual presentation of the system refer to the centrefold.
Design standards
The system is based on design standards that evolved from a review of national and international standards and an assessment of the needs and practices of the government (see also “Background” in this guide). The research included existing systems of architectural signage that were designed for venues such as transportation terminals, office complexes and international events. In defining the design standards, an effort was made to achieve an optimum balance between flexibility to respond to a variety of needs, and standardization to ensure cost effectiveness and uniformity.
Where applicable, the system is compatible with the national standard of Canada, CAN/CSA Z321, Signs and Symbols for the Occupational Environment, and international standard ISO 7001, Public Information Symbols.
Design standards prescribe the use of the system’s components and deal with the following aspects:
corporate symbols;
signage typeface;
set of graphic symbols;
directional arrow;
sign layout; and
use of colour.
The application of these standards results in a “visual language” unique to the sign system. (See the centrefold for an overview of the graphic components.)
Types of signs
Each type of sign has a specific function, as described below.
Primary identification sign
This is the first sign that identifies a federal facility and bears the signature and the wordmark. Depending on the type and location of the facility, the sign may be an exterior or an interior sign.
The advance sign is a sub type of the primary identification sign. It may be required to indicate distance or direction to a facility that is located off the main thoroughfare or farther along the road.
Common-use sign
A common use sign bears a message related to the facility itself; this sign would be required regardless of who occupies the premises. This type of sign includes area identification signs, directory boards, and signs related to health, safety, emergencies, and common services.
Operational sign
Based on the operational needs of the occupant organization, this type of sign includes directional and location signs, name plates, regulatory signs, and informational signs related to a service, facility, procedure or condition.
Project sign
A project sign provides on site information on government programs or projects, such as employment or public works. It is intended for short term use and has a life span of up to two years.
Standard signs
To meet government wide requirements, many commonly used signs have been standardized with respect to their message, design, size and materials. This standardization has brought about cost savings and has simplified procurement. At present, there are about 150 items included in section 4.3A, “Standard signs”. For information on ordering these signs, consult the Catalogue of signs of the Canada Communication Group.
Colour of signs
The system uses a set of standard colours that distinguish the different types of signs and their messages.
These colours form an integral part of the design standards and should be applied consistently. An overview is provided below; for details, see the pertinent sections of this manual.
The system’s basic colours are FIP dark grey and FIP light grey, the colours used for all primary identification signs. Directional and location signs, and directory boards, as well as informational signs, use FIP dark grey.
Signs that convey regulatory, warning, or emergency messages use colours that conform to national standards. As appropriate, the background colours are white plus red, black, yellow, red, or green. Signs conveying general information use blue or FIP dark grey, as appropriate.
Project signs feature colour bands that may be in FIP red, blue, green, or orange.
Standard colours
A reference system is used for the purpose of identification and colour matching. Previously, colours were identified in CGSB (Canadian General Standards Board) standard 1 GP 12, Standard Paint Colours. Due to the withdrawal of Parts I and II of that standard in 1991, the following reference system now applies.
Listed below are the colours used for the sign system. The numbers refer to colours included in a U.S. government publication entitled Federal Standard No. 595B, Colors used in government procurement.
Red: 11120
Orange: 12300
Yellow: 13591
Green: 14120
Blue: 15092
Dark grey: 26008
Light grey: 26440
For information on the availability of swatches for purposes of colour matching, contact the Federal Identity Program (see “Enquiries”).
Weather-resistant product A special weather-resistant product has been approved for exterior primary identification signs where it is used for the red flag in the wordmark. This 3M product is referred to as cast-in “tomato” red vinyl No.-180-13.
Using colour to assist wayfinding
As described above, the sign system employs colour to distinguish different types of messages. However, there may be cases where colour coding is used to identify specific areas and to assist wayfinding. When used for such purposes, it is recommended that no more than six colours be employed and that colour codes be applied in conjunction with other means, e.g. by reinforcing information through alpha or numeric codes. Because certain people will have difficulty in distinguishing colours, a total reliance on colour coding is considered impractical. When adopting colour codes, care should be taken to avoid possible conflict with the meaning established by the standard sign colours (e.g. a red sign normally indicates a message related to danger).
Perception of signs
The perception of a sign is governed by factors such as the viewing distance and angle, clarity of the message, reading time and speed of movement. All of these aspects influence an observer’s ability to perceive a specific sign, to read its message and to act upon it. This means that decisions about message length, and sign size and placement are interrelated.
Sign message
Much of the effectiveness of a sign depends on the formulation of the message. This calls for a good understanding of sign communications and for emphasis on the use of plain language. Section 1.2, entitled “Message”, describes the functional identification of government services under the heading “Sign communications”.
Most signs interact with others since few signs are seen in isolation. This raises the question of the relative importance of one message as opposed to another, or which sign should have priority. For example, signs related to health, safety or security should normally appear in prominence. Ideally, an environmental information system should indicate a structure or hierarchy that distinguishes important information from other messages. In other words, the content of the sign message may be the overriding factor when determining viewing distance and character size.
Viewing conditions
Important decisions such as the size of a sign and its location are influenced by the viewing conditions at the site, namely:
the angle from which a sign would normally be viewed;
the quality and intensity of the light available;
possible obstructions of the sight lines between viewer and sign; and
the visual environment behind or around the sign (e.g. other, competing signs or similar distractions).
Some of these factors may be beyond the direct control of the person planning the size and location of the sign, but two questions need to be answered:
will the sign be conspicuous enough; and
will the sign message be legible.
Viewing angle
Ideally, a sign should be placed at a right angle to the observer’s central line of vision; that is, the viewing angle should be nearly 90 degrees. The legibility of a sign message deteriorates when the viewing angle is less than 45 degrees.
Viewing distance and displacement
The placement of a sign should be determined in relation to the observer’s normal line of vision. Displacement is the distance between the centre of a sign and an observer’s central line of vision (measured at a right angle to the central line of vision). Ideally, the angle of displacement should be between 5 and 15 degrees (e.g., 0.25 m of displacement per 1.00 m of viewing distance provides an angle of approximately 15 degrees at the eye of an observer).
Viewing distance and character size
The decision concerning viewing distance and character size is important because it affects the sign’s legibility and ultimate size. Although the distance character size ratio is the major factor when determining character size, there are other factors that may call for a character size that is either smaller or larger. (See “Siting of signs”.)
The viewing distances referred to here are pedestrian related, which means that they are based on an observer who is standing or walking towards a sign. When determining the character size for a sign intended for vehicular traffic, the normal speed of traffic passing the sign becomes an additional factor.
Distance character size ratio
Table 2 shows the viewing distance and corresponding character size, which is intended for general guidance. It represents values applicable to normal viewing conditions and reading distances. The values are based on the signage typeface (see section 4.5).
When more than one character size is used on a sign, the viewing distance character size data should be applied to the main message, the largest size.
Traffic speed
When designing a sign intended for vehicular traffic, the 50 or 60 mm size should be considered for traffic speeds of up to 30 km/h; the 80 or 100 mm size for speeds of up to 50 km/h; and the 120, 150 or 200 mm size for speeds of up to 100km/h.
Ease of perception of a sign depends to a large degree on the quality, intensity and colour of ambient light that falls on it. Generally, available ambient light should suffice, but operational or site conditions may call for special measures to be taken to ensure there are acceptable levels of illumination. The following aspects should be evaluated when determining siting and illumination.
Exterior signs
Nighttime visibility of a sign may be needed to facilitate access to services provided directly to the public (especially those located in northern regions). This may also apply in cases where a sign must be legible outside a facility’s regular hours of operation. A decision on the most appropriate lighting or illumination method (front illuminated, trans illuminated or use of retro reflective sign materials) should take into account both energy and cost efficiency.
Interior signs
Available ambient light is normally sufficient to illuminate interior signs. To minimize costs and to avoid additional lighting requirements, the placement of illumination should be coordinated with the siting of signs.
Special (battery operated) lighting may be needed for signs that must be visible during emergency conditions (such as a power failure). It is also important to provide proper illumination for signs bearing regulatory, warning or emergency messages, and to ensure effective recognition of safety colours. Certain illuminants, such as low and high-pressure sodium lamps and clear mercury vapour lamps, may distort colours under some circumstances. To avoid misinterpretation, supplementary illumination (e.g. by incandescent lamps) may have to be provided.
Siting of signs
Choosing a proper site is key to a sign’s effectiveness; the following points should be observed when determining the size and placement of a sign.
Sign dimensions
The ultimate size of a sign can be a critical factor and should be assessed during the planning process. This applies to exterior signs in particular, where environmental or aesthetic concerns should be part of the criteria that are considered in determining the size and location of a sign.
Both the character size and the length of the message determine the overall size of a sign. It follows that the size of a sign can be reduced by rephrasing the message or by selecting a different character size. There is a growing concern that oversized signs cause visual clutter.
Primary identification signs
The size of a primary identification sign should be based on two principles: the need to identify and the need to integrate. This means that a sign should communicate clearly but should also be of a size appropriate to the architecture or site that it is to identify. This is particularly important when a sign for a heritage building is being planned; the ultimate size and location of the sign should not lead to visual detraction.
The kind of facility to be identified will also influence decisions on the size of a primary identification sign. Clearly, the degree of prominence desired will vary from one kind of facility to another. For example, the sign for an office that provides services directly to the public should be made more prominent than one that identifies a facility that is not permanently staffed. A small sign (commonly referred to as a plaque) may be sufficient in the latter case.
Placement and installation
The placement of signs within a building or on a site involves these considerations: where signs should be located; how they should be installed; and, in the case of directional signs, how many should be provided.
Installation of signs: where and how?
Signs can be installed by various means. The methods of installation include the following: mounted on exterior or interior surfaces; erected on posts to be freestanding; suspended from ceilings or screens; mounted on wall brackets; or designed to be movable, such as a desk or counter sign. The nature of the facility or site, the message and type of sign, and the needs of the user public will suggest the most appropriate method of installation.
All signs should be displayed in a manner that is consistent throughout a facility. For example, directional signs should appear at the same height and, thus, become reference points that are readily noticeable. Uniformity of sign placement should be part of the planning process.
The need to convey several messages in a particular location may call for grouping the messages. This should be part of the planning process; it means combining these messages into one display or incorporating them into one sign layout. The objective is to avoid confusing clusters of different signs, all in one location.
Signs tend to modify their surroundings; their placement should be planned to integrate them into their environment. As applicable, factors such as landscape (terrain, vegetation) or architecture (surface, texture, colour, modules) should be fully considered when determining the installation of a sign.
Directional signs: how many?
Several factors influence decisions on how many signs will be needed to provide direction on a particular route. These include the nature of the environment (complexity), the distance between the starting point and the destination, and the number of decision points (intersections) on a route. Research has shown that signs should be located just before each decision point. When there are long distances between decision points, a message may need to be repeated, confirming the direction towards the destination.
The need to help the user public by providing information and direction should not be interpreted as a call for many signs. One problem of providing too many signs is that it creates too many reference points and, thus, diminishes essential information. Generally, the number of signs included in a well thought out sign plan will be fewer than in a plan that has not been carefully prepared.
Procuring services or sign products
Signage was previously a mandatory common service, provided by Supply and Services Canada. In April 1992, it became an optional common service. Federal institutions should ensure conformance with all applicable FIP design standards and specifications when they procure services or sign products either from a government service organization or directly from the private sector.
Procurement process
Except for those stock items available through catalogue orders, signs have to be designed and fabricated to meet specific requirements. This means that all information about the message, site and viewing conditions should be available before a sign layout and specifications can be prepared. The tasks of defining requirements and obtaining approvals should normally be supported by internal procedures and guidelines that complement the technical information provided in the FIP Manua


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